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Biographical information about Mary Ellen Pleasant | Detailed view | Closer view (1200 pixels wide)


Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant

In her autobiography, published in 1902, Mary Ellen Pleasant states: "Some people have reported that I was born in slavery, but as a matter of fact, I was born in Philadelphia." A literate and quick-witted woman of color whose parentage and early childhood have never been reliably documented, she rose from being an indentured servant on Nantucket to become a successful businesswoman and the so-called "Mother of Civil Rights in California." Under auspices that also remain uncertain, she was sent to Nantucket as a girl in the 1820s to live and work with Quaker shopkeeper "Grandma" Mary Hussey, who ran a store "under the hill" on Union Street. Here she learned the rudiments of running a prosperous business. She also witnessed the models of entrepreneurship and institution-building in Nantucket's black community of New Guinea. Through Mary Hussey's granddaughter, Phebe Gardner, and her husband, Captain Edward Gardner, she was later initiated into the circle of the island's Anti-Slavery Society, making the acquaintance of Anna Gardner - teacher of black children and an ardent abolitionist. After a sojourn in Boston, Mary Ellen moved to San Francisco around 1852, and launched a series of businesses catering to the Gold Rush boom - beginning with laundries and diversifying to boarding houses, property investments, match-making, and mining enterprises. She was active in the abolitionist network that spanned the country, hiring escaped slaves for her own businesses and finding them places of safe harbor. She was a close friend and supporter of John Brown, and it is suggested that "Mammy" helped to finance the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. In the era of Reconstruction, she sued a San Francisco streetcar company for denying service to African-Americans - a case she won in the California Supreme Court. A tough capitalist with abolitionist zeal, an entrepreneur and a revolutionary, Mary Ellen Pleasant defied the mores of her time to become a leading figure in the national struggle for the abolition of slavery, equal rights, and the respect of citizenship.

The embroidered narrative shows the thirty-room mansion Mary Ellen Pleasant built on Octavia Street in San Francisco; the raid on Harpers Ferry; a San Francisco streetcar refusing her service; and the Little and Big Dippers, used by escaped slaves to find the North Star on their route to freedom, as depicted in the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd."