Mary Ellen Pleasant (August 19,1814 – 1817 - January 4, 1904) was a 19th-century African American entrepreneur, who used her fortune to further the abolitionist movement.
Pleasant married James Smith, a wealthy flour contractor and plantation owner who had freed his slaves and was also able to pass as white. She worked with Smith as a “slave stealer” on the Underground Railroad until his death about four years later. They transported slaves to northern states such as Ohio and even as far as Canada. After Smith’s death four years later, Mary Ellen continued her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Mary Ellen married John James Pleasant around 1848. To avoid trouble with slavers for their abolitionist work, the couple moved to San Francisco in April 1852.
She worked on the Underground Railroad across many states and then helped bring it to California during the Gold Rush Era. She was a friend and financial supporter of John Brown, and was well known in abolitionist circles. Mrs. Pleasant established several restaurants for California miners, the first named the Case and Heiser. With the help of clerk Thomas Bell, Mrs. Pleasant amassed a fortune by 1875 through her investments and various businesses by 1875. She also helped to establish the Bank of California.
After the Civil War, she took her battles to the courts in the 1860s and won several civil rights victories, one of which was cited and upheld in the 1980s and resulted in her being called “The Mother of Human Rights in California”.
Pleasant successfully attacked racial discrimination in San Francisco public conveyances after she and two other black women were ejected from a city streetcar in 1866. She filed two lawsuits. The first, against the Omnibus Railroad Company, was withdrawn after the company promised to allow African-Americans to board their streetcars. The second case, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, went to the California Supreme Court and took two years to complete. In the city, the case outlawed segregation in the city's public conveyances. However, at the State Supreme Court, the damages awarded against her at the trial court were reversed and found excessive.
Later in life, a series of court battles with Sarah Althea Hill, Senator William Sharon, and Thomas Bell's widow damaged Pleasant's reputation and cost her resources and wealth. During the 1880s, a smear campaign by the widow of Thomas Bell damaged Mrs. Pleasant’s reputation. Local newspapers began to taunt her with the pejorative title “mammy,” which she reportedly hated. She never recovered her prestige from this campaign. Pleasant died in San Francisco, California on January 4, 1904 in poverty.
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