“You tell those newspaper people that they may be smart, but I’m smarter. They deal with words. Some folks say that words were made to reveal thoughts. That ain’t so. Words were made to conceal thought.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born into slavery, but against all odds, was able to become a Gold-Rush era millionaire and a powerful abolitionist. Mary’s exact origins are unclear, but it is known that from a young age she was separated from her family. She was sent to Nantucket, Massachusetts to live with a family and work as a domestic servant. During this time, she discovered that being invisible to those around her could be beneficial. During her time in Nantucket, Mary learned to read, write and to develop other skills.
According to historical accounts, Mary’s family was involved in the abolitionist movement, which could explain her passion towards the cause. According to her own autobiography, she was married twice. Her first husband was James Smith, a wealthy contractor and merchant. Together with Smith, they worked on the Underground Railroad – the couple would help slaves flee away from their slaveholders by hiding them in safehouses, later transferring them to northern states in the U.S. Unfortunately, Smith passed away unexpectedly, but Mary was left with instructions on how to help slaves to freedom throughout her life and continued to be a strong advocate of equal rights.
In the 1850s, the California Gold Rush movement started to gain momentum. The state of California had joined the union as a free non-slavery state. With this new opportunity, Mary left New Orleans for San Francisco. Due to the fact that Mary was a light-skinned Black woman, she was able to pass as white and made the choice to take on her first husband’s last name to reduce potential discrimination. In California, Mary began working with wealthy individuals as a domestic servant. Using her invisible status, she was able to pick up investment advice and she began investing. According to her autobiography, Mary’s investments succeeded and with that she was able to start her own laundry business. Her wealth began to expand, and her portfolio grew to include shares in dairies, banks, restaurants and boardinghouses. Continuing her work as an abolitionist, Mary brought many freed slaves into her service and gave them employment opportunities. Years later, some of those who she aided would then become important Black leaders in history.
One of Mary’s most notable actions was when she aided abolitionist John Brown and gave him financial support to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in hopes of starting a revolutionary movement against slavery. In 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Mary went to the San Francisco’s city directory and publicly changed her racial designation from “white to black” in order to stand up against racial tensions that existed. With a bold attitude, she spoke out against racial discrimination happening in San Francisco and continued her plea for civil rights throughout her life. Mary was able to successfully sue the San Francisco Cable Car Company for discrimination and won the right for all Blacks and all women to ride with equal rights. She became known as the “Mother of Human Rights in California,” and her contributions would later lead to the City of San Francisco naming a day after her, and a park was also built in her honor.
Chambers, Veronica. “Mary Ellen Pleasant.” The New York Times. 31 Jan. 2019. Web. Retrieved 17 Feb., 2021. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/mary-ellen-pleasant-overlooked.html
Susheel Bibbs. “Mary Ellen Pleasant: Mother of Civil Rights in California.” M.E.P. Productions /Publications. 27 Sept. 2002. Web. Retrieved 17 Feb., 2021. http://geocities.ws/mepleasant.geo/mep.html