An illustration of what Mary Ellen Pleasant may have looked like, a black woman wearing a sort of stern expression in a dark blue ruffled gown, hands folded in her lap. In the background of the image behind the illustration is a faded photo of Bell Mansion, Pleasant's former house

At night, in the smallest park in San Francisco, you can sit on a bench and listen to the swaying and creaking of eucalyptus trees. Fog may creep in, but it’s not quiet:  the traffic of Bush Street roars by and there are probably some weirdos walking along Octavia. Onsite is a lovely Romanesque Revival building with tiny Zen gardens and well kept flowers in its courtyard. A large, old fashioned orange street lamp marks the spot. Sitting there, you can almost conjure up the beautiful mansion that was once located here, the one they called Hoodoo House or House of Mystery. Be chill about it, though  – you don’t want to piss off the park’s ghost. She’ll throw a eucalyptus nut at your head.

This is Mary Ellen Pleasant Park, named for the Mother of Civil Rights in California. Her mansion once stood on these grounds, but all that’s left is a historic marker and the six eucalyptus trees she planted. Pleasant is one of the most famous, maligned, and misunderstood pioneers of San Francisco – no wonder she haunts the spot. Mary Ellen Pleasant was a master of her own image, she was a public relations genius who used racist attitudes about Black Californians to her own favor. She was an activist who supported John Brown’s rebellion and the Underground Railroad. She used the courts to win civil rights for Black folks in San Francisco and California, and her resources to find jobs and opportunities for them. They called her Black City Hall, and at one point she was worth almost $30M. Those are the fucking FACTS.

There’s a lot of speculation about her, too. Like most Black folks who achieved success under white supremacy, Pleasant was demonized by pop culture and the press. They called her a Madam, a Mammy, and a Voodoo Queen – the full trifecta of misogynoir. Ghost stories and tours will tell you she cast spells, murdered her lovers, used blackmail and deceit and black magic to get ahead. That’s the tackiest, most exploitative version of what this incredible woman did. But they’re able to do that because Mary Ellen Pleasant kept her personal story fluid and unknowable. She kept people guessing and hid her tracks to amass a fortune that she used to free her people. She was a total badass who deserves a better legacy than a cheap story about voodoo in a tour book. 

Photo of a round plaque embedded in a sidewalk - the plaque reads “Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park 1814 - 1904” around the outside rim. The inside of the circle reads: Mother of civil rights in Californai. She supported the western terminus of the underground railway for the fugitive slaves 1850-1865. This legendary pioneer once lived on this site and planted these six trees. Placed by the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park Plaque – Corner of Bush and Octavia streets, San Francisco, CA

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life was an adventure. It tells us the story of Black Americans who came West looking for new opportunities, the challenges they faced here, and how the Reconstruction era press sought to tear them down. Pleasant’s life story touches on the Gold Rush, the Underground Railroad, The Comstock Lode, Segregation, Jim Crow, the Civil War, John Brown’s Rebellion, and the perils of interracial love affairs. Her social orbit included John Brown, Marie Laveaux, a California Governor, a Nevada Senator, The Secret Six, and our old nemesis DAVID TERRY!

So – who was Mary Ellen Pleasant? Follow along with HLAS in this series to learn about the many lives of this remarkable woman, and how she became one of San Francisco’s most famous ghosts.