Countless Black people have fought tirelessly for our liberation, and because of this, many of them have been lost in the tides of history. At this time, it’s necessary to give a nod to one of those under-the-radar historical figures of the past.
Had she remained in the Deep South, Mary Ellen Pleasant could have possibly received as much–if not more–recognition for her contributions as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Rosa Parks…to name a few. Ms. Pleasant’s story was unique in comparison with many Blacks who were enslaved in the Antebellum South: Born in Augusta, GA in the early 1800s, she was born as the illegitimate daughter of the son of then-Virginia governor and a Haitian voodoo priestess, who was enslaved as well.
As a child, Pleasant was taken out of slavery by an unknown family. As a young woman, Pleasant married a wealthy Mulatto abolitionist by James Smith sometime in the 1840’s. After her husband’s untimely death, Pleasant inherited his substantial fortune.
Moving to New Orleans shortly after this turn of events, she connected with a woman named Queen Marie Laveau–also known as one of the greatest voodoo priestesses to reside in the “Crescent City”. It was said that Pleasant studied under Laveau to learn the science of voodoo as a means of empowering her people. In spite of her selfless acts of service to her fellow Melanoid people in New Orleans, it was a short matter of time before she would be on the move again — this time to San Francisco.
In April of 1852, Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in the Bay Area’s largest city. Once she got there, she had to take on two identities, due to California’s Fugitive Slave Act of 1852 –in order to avoid being captured by slave hunters. Under her two identities, she lived a double life — One as “Mrs. Ellen Smith” (her married name), and the other as “Mrs. Pleasants”, who operated as a businesswoman and abolitionist. Under the “Ellen Smith” moniker, she worked as a white boardinghouse steward and cook. With a job in the service sector, she was often in the midst of a sizable number of wealthy white businessmen in ‘Frisco, who she served as she worked. She was well-liked by many of the men, but she used their admiration for her as leverage to have them hire Black people, and give them benefits they were previously denied access to. It was because of her personal brand of power brokering that many people in her circle nicknamed her “The Black City Hall”.
With a secret business partner, Pleasant eventually amassed a fortune worth over $30 million. She used much of that fortune to challenge the white supremacist status quo that’s always plagued this country, with her most notable deed being that she financially backed the storied abolitionist, John Brown.
For more on the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, follow this link.