Is Mary Ellen Pleasant, “the Mother of Civil Rights in California”?


Yes, she is, but that is not the whole story and I don’t know how the other half of the story has been neglected for 130 years. The other half of the story is John James Pleasant, Mary Ellen’s Spouse of approximately 25-30 years. Her partner and companion on the UGRR.

It is true that MEP’s friend was kicked off the trolley for being black and MEP dared the conductor to kick her off, too. But, she and her husband JJ filed all the suits and followed up on them. They should share the honor as, “Parents of Civil Rights in California”


Did Mary Ellen Pleasant have any background in African Religion?


There is a story in the Mary Ellen Pleasant lexicon put out there by Helen Holdredge, that Mary Ellen Pleasant had been acquainted with Voodoo(sic) since her childhood. Apparently, according to Holdredge, MEP was born a slave in GA and at a tender age, her mother was taken away for practicing African Religion. Later that day, Holdredge (HH) reports, MEP at about the age of 6-10, held a Voodoo(sic) ceremony in the field, with adult slaves watching . The overseer who had taken her mother died that night clutching his throat, according to HH.

This story is very improbable, to say the least. Children do not perform Voodoo curses and that story is really a fantasy that gives MEP evil,  magical powers at an early age. This is fiction, or myth, maybe, but it is not the truth. It reflects a profound dishonesty in HH’s approach to MEP. But HH was not finished with that recitation; she has Americus Price of Price Landing MO, no less,  show up and buy her, and take her to New Orleans to be educated at the Ursuline academy for one year, then returns and travels with her up the Mississippi river when he dies (Mammy Pleasant, pp 8-13). Somehow she gets to the home of a man with the same name as her father in the Pandex version of her birth in Cincinnati Ohio, where she is a servant to his wife until, disturbed by her evilness, he takes her to Nantucket.

According to HH, MEP isn’t able to finish her Voodoo training until many years later when she is trained by Marie LaVeaux before she goes to SF.

There is not one iota of truth to this story. While it is possible that MEP’s second husband had a distant blood relationship with Marie La Veaux’ boyfriend, there is no indication MEP ever went to New Orleans either as a child or an adult. She certainly never mentioned it in her later life, though she was known to talk about John Brown, Nantucket, and her trips to Canada.

Except for Helen Holdredge’s story, there is not one indication that MEP ever practiced Voodoo. There is no indication there was any organized Haitian religion going on in SF, only a fortune teller or two that claimed to do “Voodoo”. There was never a big drum party in the Octavia street house.

Mary Ellen Pleasant didn’t know Voodoo; she was a member of the SF AME church and that IS thoroughly documented.

Was Mary Ellen Pleasant born a slave in Georgia? The evidence.


Actually, there is no documentation of the sort. The earliest reference to this version of MEP’s birth was in a 1919 book by Delilah Beasley. She did not reference her source directly, but it appears it was from a San Francisco newspaper interview, as many of her other sources were, so maybe it can be found.

If a newspaper article saying MEP was born in Georgia is found, that still does not qualify as documentation. If it is a from an interview she may have participated in, and it directly contradicts the story she gave the Pandex in 1904, in which she said she was born free in Philadelphia; it becomes apparent there was a reason for her to lie about her birth.

Until someone finds the origin of the Born in Georgia story, the words of her own mouth in an easily accessed interview should take precedent. Of course, there is still no documentation, but at least we know she actually gave the born in Philadelphia story out of her own mouth and we do not even have that for the born in Ga. story.

So the logical conclusion is that until MEP is caught lying, she was not born a slave in Georgia, but was born free.

In the Pandex interview, she named a street that did not exist in Philadelphia when she was born, according to Hudson’s research. (Hudson could not find evidence of her father, either) The particular street really doesn’t mean much, as it may have been a faded memory. In this version she claimed to be half black and half Hawaiian. No proof one way or the other on that, but she was mistaken for Queen Emma of Hawaii and some ‘MEP scholars’ still use Queen Emma Pix to portray MEP. Hawaiian scholars are agreed that the younger photos of MEP are actually wearing Queen Emma’s jewelry, so can’t be portraits of MEP at all. I have another article on that. Read it and judge for yourself.

In any case, even in the authentic portrait of her at 86, she doesn’t look particularly black – it is easy to see she could pass for white and apparently did . Or pass for Hawaiian or even Cuban.

The main piece of evidence for Holdredge’s claim she was born in GA came from a recreation of a lost memoir that Charlotte Dennis Downs had possession of for the last 50 years, supposedly dictated to her by MEP in the Octavia St house. Anyway, it was supposedly lost, so Holdredge with the supposed help of Downs “recreated” the memoir, complete with the born in GA version of the story in far more detail than Beasley’s version.  In any case,  Charlotte Dennis Downs was the niece of the guy who wrote the “Queen of the Voodoos” article who, in turn, was in the employ of the woman who kicked MEP out of the Bell house. This is not documentation of the Born in GA story, it is hearsay.

There is no proof that MEP was born in GA and there is good reason to doubt the story, including direct, published quotes from MEP, herself.


Odd Footnote:

There were a lot of Hawaiian Kanakas coming and going from Nantucket on whaling ships MEP’s entire childhood. Moby Dick is a story based from Nantucket and its multi-cultural sailors from all over the world. Moby Dick is a good anthropological survey of a Nantucket whaling boat. MEP probably saw Kanakas whenever a whaling ship came in. Maybe her Kanaka father was part of that scene- or had left it for a career elsewhere -then brought MEP back to Nantucket when her mother died. That is actually a better guess than born in Georgia. It is more probable anyway. Her paper trail begins in Nantucket. Why not trace it backwards from there instead of looking in Georgia because some undocumented news article said so?.


Undocumented Incidents in the Life of Mary Ellen Pleasant.


These are the issues in MEP’s history that have no documentation:

If you can find documentation for any of the following, I would be VERY surprised.

.There simply is no documentation about her birth. There are three birth stories with no documentation. Nothing is known until she shows up on Nantucket at about age 6. She once said she had no real memories before Nantucket and that could be true.

.There is no documentation that she ever went to New Orleans or met Marie LaVeau. Bibb’s story about Liga is extremely far fetched and has no evidentiary value.

.There no evidence she ever practiced any kind of “Voodoo” or was a practitioner of Vodoun, the ancient diasporal African Religion. There is evidence she was a member of the local AME church and attended regularly and was actively involved.

.There is no evidence she was a Madam or adopted children out. Or handled abortions.

.There is no evidence she owned 49 plots in a graveyard in SF and filled them all.

.There is no evidence she had parties for men out in the country and had female “entertainment”.

.There is no evidence she was ever involved in any murder plot or any other scandal she was later accused of by her enemy, William Sharon.

.There is no evidence that she was promiscuous and had affairs outside of marriage.

.There is no evidence she had any kind of formal business partnership with Thomas Bell, that netted her millions. (though she may have given him good financial tips she learned from the movers and shakers she served lunch to) He may have invested for her, but it is not yet proven and there was no proof she owned anything of Bell’s, when Bell died.

There is no evidence she built the House of Mystery. It was never in her name.

I expect and hope that future research will distinguish between fact and things unproven.

The provable, documented, historically correct facts, about MEP are:


.She shows up in Nantucket at the age of 6 in 1820. historically

.She lived with Grandma Hussey until she married in about 1840.

.She helped her first husband on the UGRR taking slaves to Canada.

.When he died, She and her second husband continued the work.

.She moved to SF in 1852-3 where she and her second husband continued the UGRR work until after the war.

.This work included a highly documented contact with John Brown in Canada where she seems to have given him money and bought property for slaves in Canada.

.After the war, she and her husband initiated a series of civil rights cases in SF- until his death ca. 1875-7.

.After husband’s death she helped Thomas Bell move into his new mansion.

( There is proof in City Hall who was the architect and who owned it. The citation is in one of my comments sections from a reader who is also doing research on MEP. It is in the article on the house of mystery -in the comments.)

.She got involved with The Allie Hill case and Williams Sharon did his best to discredit her as a witness.

.She became the subject of the tabloid journalism of the 1880’s, to great detriment of her reputation.

.She lived in the Bell mansion until Thomas Bell died and Teresa used the courts to kick her out.

.MEP did get the Beltane ranch, but apparently the strangers who cared for her until her death got everything that was left when she died.