Lessons in Black History – Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant—Much has been written about the woman known to many as Mammy Pleasant, but so much of it is tall tales and legends, it is difficult to know what is true and what is not. What is known is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a famous abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator who was born in the early 1800s (reports vary on her birth, placing it somewhere between 1814 and 1817). In her memoirs, she claimed to be the daughter of a voodoo priestess and the son of the governor of Virginia. In the 1820s she worked as a bonded servant in Massachusets, eventually earning her freedom, and becoming friends with several white families involved in the abolitionist movement. Pleasant managed to successfully pass for white while establishing herself as a successful businesswoman and becoming increasingly involved with the Underground Railroad. She relocated to San Francisco in the late 1840s, and may or may not have owned and operated a bordello. Likewise, there are rumors that she may have helped fund John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, but no one knows for sure (her gravestone reads “She Was a Friend of John Brown”). Pleasant’s time in San Francisco was marked with political activism and championing human rights. But her work earned her enemies who went out of their way to smear her name, often claiming she practiced voodoo and had actually killed people. Despite the controversy surrounding her, Mammy Pleasant was referred to a “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”

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