Mary Ellen Pleasant
by Marian Halley
Almost 100 years before Rosa Parks, San Francisco resident Mary Ellen Pleasant sued a local transportation company for not letting her and other African Americans ride. She won.
Undated photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant and Thomas Bell’s mansion at 1661 Octavia Street.
Many details of Ms. Pleasant’s life are open to question, but what is certain, and recorded in a plaque at the corner of Octavia and Bush streets, is that she was a tireless worker for civil rights and a great entrepreneur.
The Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park, the smallest park in San Francisco, consists of six enormous eucalyptus blue gum trees marching down Octavia Street, remaining from the twenty she planted. The trees are landmarked by the City of San Francisco. The site was chosen because Ms. Pleasant’s Octavia Street property once ran from Bush to Sutter, including a 30-room mansion and separate stables.
Her house burned down in 1925 and was replaced in 1927 by Green’s Eye Hospital.
A photo of the mansion just before it was destroyed.
Ms. Pleasant was probably born in 1814 in Georgia in slavery, was bought and freed, and later worked as an indentured servant in Rhode Island. In 1852 she came to San Francisco, fleeing prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act for her work leading people from slavery to freedom. She continued such work in California, sheltering people who escaped slavery and finding employment for them. She met with abolitionist John Brown, and gave him money to help with the cause. Her tombstone, in Napa, states: “She was a Friend of John Brown.”
Ms. Pleasant arrived in San Francisco with a considerable sum of money left to her by her first husband. She invested it wisely: Her businesses here included laundries, dairies, and exclusive restaurants—all of which were very lucrative in a city filled with miners and single businessmen. In the 1890 census she listed her occupation as “capitalist.”
She was a capitalist from the day of her arrival in the City. According to an article in the May 7, 1899, San Francisco Call, on the day she landed many wealthy bachelors came to the waterfront to engage her as a cook, her reputation for fine cooking having preceded her. After the bidding
went high, Ms. Pleasant added conditions, such as no dishwashing. When the highest bidder accepted her conditions, she changed her mind. The next day she announced that she would open her own restaurant.
Her restaurants attracted prominent men such as Darius Mills, William Ralston, and William Sharon. The young women who worked in the restaurants were told to listen to the dinner conversation and report back the financial gossip of the businessmen. Ms. Pleasant put such information to use in her own financial investments.
She married James Plaisance, with whom she had a daughter. Her family relations were not good: she changed her name and had little contact with her daughter. The great love of her life was Thomas Bell, a Caucasian whom she met on the ship to San Francisco and who became her business partner and almost certainly her lover. Since her sex and race precluded her operating in financial affairs, she made her investments through Mr. Bell. It is generally reported that their joint fortune reached $30 million.
Her 30-room Octavia Street Italianate mansion, which she designed, built, and furnished, became known as the Thomas Bell mansion. When she moved in Mr. Bell did too, along with a wife Ms. Pleasant apparently found for him. Because of this living arrangement, and because of rumors about events and underground passages at the house, it also became known as the “house of mystery.”
Probably out of envy and anger at the enormous success of a black woman, rumors abounded about Ms. Pleasant’s manner of making money. For the same reasons, she was referred to as “Mammy” Pleasant, a name that persists in accounts to this day. She detested the insulting nickname, and returned unopened envelopes so addressed. And when Thomas Bell died after falling down a flight of stairs, rumors suggested that she was responsible, even after the coroner’s jury found that the death was entirely accidental.
When Ms. Pleasant left her house in 1899 following a loud argument with Thomas Bell’s widow, the event was the subject of a long article in the Call reviewing her life. According to this article, “her connection with the ‘underground railway’ was an established fact and planters whose slaves she had helped cross the border to the free North demanded her life as a recompense.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant died in 1904, apparently penniless. She is a known figure in San Francisco history, but any two accounts of her life contain contradictory data, and most include racist statements.
- Free Enterprise: A Novel of Mary Ellen Pleasant, Michelle Cliff
- The Legacies of Mary Ellen Pleasant, Susheel Bibb
Mammy Pleasant, Helen Holdredge
A longer version of this article first appeared in The New Fillmore, a neighborhood monthly publication.
Photos, courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
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