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
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."