“I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Story
Mary Ellen Pleasant was a prominent abolitionist in the lead up to the Civil War, in California and beyond. Some of the details about her work are up for debate, but there is no doubt that this is her most important legacy. She worked the Western terminus of the Underground Railroad, providing cover and legal assistance to people fleeing slavery. She was deeply involved in the strategy and organization of the American abolition movement. She funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. She also helped to desegregate public transit in San Francisco, and used her fortune to increase Black social mobility.
During its early statehood, prior to the Civil War, California was a complicated place for Black emigrants. It was “free” on paper, but in practice it was dangerous. Slavery was banned by the state constituion, but the Fugitive Slave Act was codified under California law. The state government was full of racist, pro-slavery Southerners who were eager to preserve the institution back home. Courts argued over whether enslaved Black people brought to California could remain enslaved or be captured and sent back to the South as chattel. Black people were prohibited from testifying in court, which made it easier to traffic them back to bondage (remember 12 Years a Slave? That shit).
Pleasant used her powerful connections, many of them abolitionists, to help work the Underground Railroad here in San Francisco. She used her own boarding houses to hide people fleeing from slavery. Together with George Dennis, she helped secret fugitive slave George Mitchell out of the area while lawyers argued the case. She also helped in the famous case of Archy Lee, an enslaved man brought to California who fought for his freedom all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that he was merely “in transit” in California, and his enslaver was entitled to bring him back to Mississippi. (Guess who concurred in that opinion? The baddie from the Broderick duel, DAVID S TERRY! BOOOOOOOOOO). Pleasant raised money for Lee’s defense, hid him in her home, and helped smuggle him to Canada.
Mary Ellen and John Pleasant were involved with American and international efforts to end slavery. They traveled to Chatham, Ontario, to work with the Black abolitionist community there, the Chatham Vigilance Committee. They helped with the rescue of a free black man named Sylvanus Demerest, raised money for lawyers, and bought property there. It was in Chatham that they became a part of John Brown’s raid to free enslaved people in the South.
The story of Pleasant’s involvement in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is part legend, part fact, but all amazing. John Brown is the most famous white abolitionist in American history. He was an antislavery guerilla who led raids against slave owners and authorities in Kansas before planning a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Backed by donated money, arms, and expertise, he hoped to seize the arsenal and free the enslaved people in the area. Long story short – it didn’t work out. He was hung for treason. But guess who was among those secret donors?!
A coterie of wealthy abolitionists known as “The Secret Six” funded the raid. According to Pleasant’s biography, she was one of them – she gave $30,000 to the effort. Historical sources support this – she was definitely in Chatham, she is listed on the Vigilance Committee roster, she bought land there to use as a refuge for escaping Americans, and contemporary sources confirm that she gave money. The only contested detail is whether the money came from her accounts, or was raised from Black people in San Francisco. It’s probably both.
In her biography, she tells a much more exciting account of her involvement, however. According to Pleasant, she was on the ground at the time of the raid – dressed as a jockey, and riding among the plantations of Virginia to warn enslaved people and encourage them to revolt. This was part of Brown’s plan – to recruit soldiers and encourage revolt on the plantations of the area – and it didn’t work. There’s no documentary evidence to support her claim but then, why would there be? This isn’t the kind of shit you write down. No one was punching time cards and filling out W2s during an insurrection against slaveholders.
Pleasant’s biography cites the note found on Brown’s person as further evidence of her role – she says she wrote it. The note read “The axe is laid at the root of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money and more help.” It’s signed “W.E.P.,” but Pleasant insists that it actually says “M.E.P.” – and that her terrible handwriting saved her from being found out. Was it really her? Who knows! If she was in Virginia preparing people to rise up, the note makes sense – she’s laying the groundwork and letting him know. The first blow would be the signal to start the fight. Whether she did the actual fighting or not, Pleasant was a key player in Brown’s raid, which itself helped advance the cause of abolition.
Back in San Francisco, Pleasant was a key leader in the movement for equal rights for Black Californians. She supported the Black newspaper, The Pacific Appeal, and belonged to Daughters and Sons of Zion Benevolent Association. In 1865, the Fourth Convention of Colored Citizens was held in Sacramento, focused on suffrage, education, and abolition. While the Convention was dominated by men, they were in Pleasant’s social and activist circles, and she was probably involved in one way or another. Knowing what we do, she was pulling levers in the background and supporting financially. She also worked with the Franchise League, which sought to overturn discriminatory laws like the ban on Black testimony.
Repeal of the Testimony Laws was key to her next battle for civil rights: a lawsuit to end segregation on public transit in the city and state. In the 1860’s, people of San Francisco moved about on horse-drawn streetcars. The cars were operated by private companies, and these companies often refused service to Black passengers. Black women led the fight to get access to transit: they needed to get back and forth across the city to work. Three Black women successfully sued the streetcar companies to require them to serve Black passengers: Charlotte Brown, Emma Jane Turner, and Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Pleasant brought her considerable public relations skills to bear in the lawsuit. She sued the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company in 1866, when she tried to hail the streetcar and the conductor refused her admission. She hired a good lawyer and claimed emotional and physical damages. She also brought along a respectable White woman as her witness, knowing full well that the woman would be believed over her. It helped that the White woman was a former employer, and Pleasant was able to play the role of a domestic worker. That made her less threatening and strengthened the testimony of her white boss, as perverse as that sounds. Pleasant knew how to present her case in the most appealing way to the White judge, jury, and public. The Black community knew that this was Mary Ellen Pleasant – aka Black Wall Street – who owned her own carriage and would never need to use public transit if she didn’t want to.