San Francisco's finest, Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary E. Pleasant
Fri, 1814-08-19

*On this date in 1814, Mary Ellen Pleasant was born. She was an African American abolitionist, businesswoman, and entrepreneur for over fifty years in the San Francisco Gold Rush heyday.

Histories of the west describe her as a madam, voodoo queen, and prostitute. Pleasant herself requested that the words “she was a friend of John Brown” be printed on her grave. From Philadelphia, she was educated in Nantucket and while in Boston began associations with William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist including Alexander Smith whom she married. After his death and the willing of money, she moved west, spending time in Canada Westin working with abolitionist and fugitive slaves near Chatham in the late 1850s. At this time see met John Brown where the raid on Harper’s ferry was planned.

By the 1860s she moved to San Francisco where she became a restaurateur and investor. Her best-known establishment, at 920 Washington Street (in the heart of today’s Chinatown) was the meeting place of some of the city’s most prominent politicians. Mary Pleasant challenged Jim Crow laws in her case against the North Beach Railroad Co. in 1868, and she testified in a highly publicized trial Sharon v. Sharon of 1884.

She was well aware of the distortions of her character in the press, contending that though they (the press) were smart; she was smarter. Mary Ellen Pleasant died in 1904.

Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

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Pleasant, Mary Ellen