Mary Ellen Pleasant
DJ Name: MC Mary Plez
Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. For this week’s shuffle(r), we have an important, controversial and historic shero whose ghost, apparently, still frightens dogs and throws nuts from tops of the eucalyptus trees she planted along the street where her former home in San Francisco, CA was located. In honor of this szn of hocus, pocus and spook which has dawned upon us, we have the real tale to tell you of Mary Ellen Pleasant, who originally sang “I put a spell on you” before the Sanderson sisters actually. You should believe that as a #fact because we here at Historic Shuffle only share the #facts.
Ok so, MC Mary didn’t actually sing “I put a spell on you.” You should know by now that we have the tendency to get dramatic, throw some curveballs to keep ya on your toes (read: stay awake during a history lesson) and bring a little laugh to your educational journey. Mary Ellen wasn’t casting spells or reading magic (or was she?). Ah. Sorry. There we go again. But really: let’s talk all about Mary. Mary Ellen Pleasant is remembered as the Mother of the California Civil Rights Movement, as a self-made (a milli) millionaire and as a leading abolitionist who freed countless enslaved people through the Underground Railroad system.
As we all know, American history heroes aren’t perfect, and most of the ones we learn about in school are far from it — like, ya know, all of the Founding Fathers being slaveholders, or, like, the whole empire-building, nation-annihilation the U.S. has engaged in since its founding. But (!) a lot of American history figures are completely overlooked because of the shady, potentially controversial activities in which they were involved. Mary Ellen Pleasant is an example of this.
Mary Ellen is an overlooked, under-recognized morally questionable figure who mostly disappears betwixt the pages of history textbooks because she was Black and because her life story doesn’t exactly fit with the whole Good Christian Values thing on which America was founded (shocker!!). Too cool for school textbooks anyways, Mary Ellen Pleasant made huge strides for boss ladies and formerly enslaved people throughout her life, and that shouldn’t be ignored just because some parts of her past are unsavory. Being flawed is to be human.
And so, as you learn about her life of twists and turns, the ghost of Mary took a break from freaking out the pups of San Fran and curated this perfect playlist to pump her (and you) up before a long day’s work. She asks that you shuffle it up or she’ll put a spell on you — again, not really. Or…really? Press play to find out:
Like Jean-Jacques Dessalines, mystery shrouds Mary Ellen’s early upbringing. Some say she was born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia, while others claim she was the daughter of a successful Virginia planter who was wooed by a Carribean voodoo priestess. And in her published writings, she claimed to have been born in Philadelphia to a Hawaiian father and a Black Louisiana woman. To be honest, the voodoo priestess story is pretty dope so we’re hoping it’s that version of events. And, Mary later in life came to be known as a “voodoo queen” by some so the apple mustn’t have fallen far from that tree. More on voodoo and it’s actually non-spookiness later. Literally, it’s a religion, LOL. However, the spook and myths behind it are dope therefore that shan’t be overlooked as we enjoy a little skele-fun. Ha.
Anyways, whatever the method, Mary Ellen entered the world on some day in 1814 and, as a kid, her father sent her to work for the Hussey family, who were Quakers and lived in Nantucket. She started out working as a domestic servant, and later as a clerk in the family store. Workin’ and clerkin’, Mary Ellen learned she was full of wit and charisma and could entice many a patron to purchase some wares. Plus, she got to learn the ins and outs of running a business without having to shell out money for an MBA. “I was a girl full of smartness,” she said, realizing that she had a knack for studying and learning from people’s behavior. She also tuned in daily to hear what those around her were chit-chatting about. Some call it eavesdropping, others call it listening. Tomato, tomahto. Potato, potahto. Call it what you want, Mary Ellen’s nontraditional education lasted a lifetime.
Mary Ellen and the Hussey fam grew to love each other over the years, as their own separate letters and journal entries show. Like the good, God-fearin’ Quakers they were, the Husseys were ardent abolitionists and supported Mary Ellen’s aspirations. In the 1840s, they helped her become a tailor’s assistant in Boston, and away Mary Ellen flew to begin a new chapter of her life. In Beantown, Mary Ellen met James Smith, a wealthy mulatto (if you’re a devoted Historic Shuffle reader, which you should be, then you’ll remember that Rosa Campuzano Cornejo also comes from a mulatto heritage) contractor and merchant from Cuba, who said “I’ve Bean waiting for a girl like you to come into my life.” *swoon* And so they married, and Mary Ellen settled into her new Boston life and she and her hubby became active members of the city’s abolitionist movement. A gosh darn power couple.
Her husband, James, passed as white, which gave him a certain advantage as he helped rescue people along the Underground Railroad. He and Mary Ellen helped sneak enslaved people in and out of homes and send them into the safety of Canada and Mexico. But the power couple’s mission came to an abrupt end in 1848 when James passed away, leaving Mary Ellen without her partner-in-abolitioning, but with a tidy inheritance sum of $45,000. James intended for her to put the cash money toward helping lead more enslaved people to freedom, which she did, but she also kept a lil’ as pocket money for herself. And who can blame her? There was gold in them thar hills, off in the Golden State, and gossip spread like wildfire in northeastern cities like Boston that Black miners were striking it rich out there. Most miners were met, and Mary Ellen could smell a business opportunity.
Before heading out to the wild, wild west of California, Mary Ellen apparently married a man named John James Pleasants, a former slave with whom she continued her abolitionist work for many more years. However, their success in helping many enslaved people navigate the Underground Railroad en route to freedom caught the eyes and ears of many slave owners. So, the two had to fly under the radar for a bit and unfortunately slow their operation. They hit the road (or river?) for New Orleans (where y’at?) to hide out. John James, AKA JJ, had family in the Big Easy, and one of his relatives happened to be the husband of Marie Laveau, AKA the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
Mary Ellen and Marie apparently had a “pleasant” time together and dabbled in the not-so-dark arts of Voodoo. To the public eye, Voodoo has a negative and frightening connotation when in all actuality it’s a combination of Afro-Caribbean religions formed by West and Central African groups who came to the U.S. as enslaved people through the Atlantic Trade. Voodoo’s main hub was New Orleans. Those who practice Voodoo are servants of the spirit and like many other religions, it consists of proverbs, stories, songs, beliefs and folklore passed through generations of people. No spells involved. No dolls necessary.
The coast eventually became clear for Mary Ellen to head to the west coast. It’s unknown if JJ joined her as there are no more accounts of him in her life after New Orleans. Yet another mystery. So off she went to San Francisco with the dream in her heart of running a boarding house and money in her pocket to set her off on her path. She first found work as a cook, making 10 times the amount she would’ve made back home in Boston. While slicin’, dicin’ and fryin’, Mary Ellen listened in on the conversations of the wealthy miners and financiers who came to have a bite to eat. She absorbed all the hot tips and how-to’s on subjects like investing and stock marketing (ya know, usual business tingz) faster than the men’s butter melted on their bread.
By the 1850s, Mary Ellen’s dream of running boardinghouses had taken off. According to Jessica B. Harris’ account of her in “High on the Hog,” she oversaw the running of the boardinghouse for merchants’ employees. That meant she was cooking for the — mostly white — elite families and prominent bachelors of San Fran. Some say she served the men particularly potent dranks to get them to drop trade secrets (*side-eye emoji*), and that she employed women to sleep with the male tenants (but that was commonplace during this era, tbh). And over time, she picked up a tip to two about where to invest her accumulating wealth.
A savvy business babe with newfound knowledge, Mary Ellen invested her inheritance in various elements of California’s ballooning economy, such as Wells Fargo banks, laundries and anything else she deemed investment-worthy. As her investments grew in value, she grew in social stature. True to her roots, she continued her work as an abolitionist by investing in safe houses and facilities for enslaved people fleeing the South and helped them settle in their new West Coast safe haven. Her fight for equality and freedom even spanned nationally as, apparently, she sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to abolitionist John Brown in Harpers Ferry, Va., who was preparing to lead a slave revolt.
While living a successful yet overlooked life in San Fran and investing like it was nobody’s business, Mary Ellen eventually met a bank clerk by the name of Thomas Bell. The two hit it off with a few successful investventures, and thus marked the beginning of their business partnership *cha ching!* Together, the two purchased even more laundries, restaurants and banks to add to their lists. Historic rumor has it that their combined fortune was about $30 million aka $868 million today.
Mary Ellen continued to lay low and didn’t show off her wealth, likely because she was a Black woman. Most of their investments and projects were actually made in Thomas’ name because of that. Business dealings couldn’t possibly be for a woman, especially a Black woman, could they? *ugh* However, MC Mary took her wealth and used those dolla dolla billz to build a 30-room mansion. No big deal. Mary Ellen lived in the mansion with Bell and his family, and continued to support the growing Black community in San Francisco as newly emancipated individuals arrived. While her popularity and support for the growing Black community evolved, so too did racism against them. Mary Ellen began to lose her San Fran insider status as Black people became the scapegoat for any economic woes faced locally and nationally.
Many news outlets began to publish false stories about Mary Ellen and also began to refer to her as the derogatory slur of “Mammy Pleasant,” which she hated, and “conjures an image of a smiling, happy slave with a handkerchief on her head as if she’s happy as a slave.” Other outlets published prints that made her look like a witch and some went so far as to spread rumors that she stole money, babies and was a mistress. Things got twisty in 1883 when Mary Ellen was unpleasantly wrapped up in the happenings of a trial between Nevada Senator William Sharon and a young woman named Sarah Hill, who was her pal. Basically Sen. Sharon’s oh-so well-educated lawyers blamed Sarah’s instability on the magic of dark arts that Mary Ellen cast upon her. Therefore, Sarah’s accusation against Senator Sharon that he was married to her for three years then abandoned her is not true because she was under a spell. Makes sense. Right?
Eventually, Mary Ellen’s lifelong business partner Thomas Bell passed away, and his widow sued Mary Ellen for his estate. She won control of what was Mary Ellen’s and his shared multimillion dollar fortune. A major reason why she lost the legal battle was because her finances were so tied to his that it was difficult to prove that any of it was actually hers alone since it was all in his name…even though her whole life was a capitalistic venture. In the 1890 U.S. Census, Mary Ellen even put down that her profession was a “Capitalist.” Mary Ellen lost all of her money and her home.
Regardless of the negative press and discrimination that Mary Ellen faced, she still publicly pursued Civil Rights for the Black community. In the late 1880s, she and two other women were ejected from a city streetcar (sound familiar to another shuffler? May we remind you of Elizabeth Jennings Graham?). Mary Ellen filed two lawsuits in response, one of which went all the way to the California Supreme Court and took two years to complete. The city outlawed segregation on the streetcar system. Go, MC Mary go!
A few years later in 1904, Mary Ellen Pleasant passed away at the age of 90. Though her life is rattled with mystery, folklore, fact, fiction and basically fact intertwined with fiction, Mary Ellen Pleasant made money moves throughout her life and saved many enslaved people along the way with her wily determination and savvy business lady skills.