Pioneer Women: Mary Ellen Pleasant

Welcome ScanNot content to simply speak out for civil rights, Mary Ellen Pleasant personally advanced the cause in California, following the Civil War.  “I am a whole theater to myself,” she reportedly said in her later years, boasting of her many successes. When a San Francisco bus driver denied her a seat in 1866, she went to the police court and won concession from the Omnibus Railroad Company to allow persons of color to ride their cars.  She used her own money to bring freedmen and fugitive slaves to California, and to help them get on their feet once they arrived.  Described by many as a formidable woman, Mary Ellen migrated to California with her second husband John James Pleasant during the Gold Rush years, but before this marriage she was the widow of a wealthy Philadelphia black man with whom she was deeply involved in the abolition movement. Settling in San Francisco with James, she earned a living as a housekeeper in the homes of wealthy white merchants, all the while investing, and increasing, her first husband’s fortune. By 1855 she was the owner of several laundries. Little is known of her parentage, or growing up years. Known later as Mammy Pleasant, she was a shrewd businesswoman and a powerful force in an era when it was unheard of for a woman, especially a black woman, to successfully challenge social norms. March is National Women’s History Month.

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