I have known about Mary Ellen Pleasant since a book about her came out in 1953*. It was on every coffee table in San Francisco Christmas of 1953 and very much a shocking tale of the bad old days. Anything from the bad old days was always eaten up whole with no critical examination of the nature of the evidence. My aunt, a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford, denounced it as, “A racist and true-crime book; sheer yellow journalism”, so I heard about it it but was not allowed to read it at the time.
In 1972, my husband inherited his grandmother’s book collection, which included this book. I read it with shock and dismay, then set it aside. In 1985, I took it off the shelf where it had resided untouched, for about 13 years and reread it with politically correct eyes- at least compared to the prejudices of the 1950’s- and I was far more dismayed at the tone, the language, the outright racism of the author.
Believe me, at the time, NO ONE had taken an unbiased look at Mary Ellen Pleasant for 100 years. All repeat stories had relied on this book since it was printed. There was no internet. Only the library at the University of Arizona. That was not helpful, except I found a second book by the same author as my now despised tome. Of course I checked it out and photocopied it. (There was no Amazon, either.)
All I had was what THAT WOMAN had written! Well, I read it carefully and began to get defensive about everything, to look for a defense for every accusation. I scoured the first 35 pages until I knew them by heart. This is all that was available on MEP’S background. the rest was about the scandals, the murders, the this, the that.
I wrote a really crude booklet about her in the Spring of 1987. I did not even have a spell check on my computer and all editing was done with code. But the more I got into writing it, the more passionate I felt that the wrongs that were done to her reputation were unconscionable. I printed up 50 copies of this pathetic manifesto and distributed them in Tucson, in San Carlos Park on Juneteeth, 1987. I also gave a copy to Taj Mahal after a concert and sent one to Luisah Teish via her publisher. I heard about a couple of others that went to really special places.
One day, several years later, I was at the Uof A researching Esteban (of Cabeza de Vaca fame), and got into a conversation with the librarian at the front desk, about the special collections, so she asked my name and wrote it down. Then she said she just got a call asking for me that morning. She had kept the information and passed it onto me.
It was Susheel Bibbs asking about my booklet. She is a friend of Luisah Teish. She wanted a copy, so I sent her one. She very kindly included it in the MEP collection of the SF library because, I was really the first, who, however crudely, took a positive view of MEP for over 100 years!!!
Well, that is probably the highlight of my career following MEP, but now, with the internet and blogs and suchlike, I have once again renewed my curiosity re MEP.
This time, I am interested in the milieu in which she spent her youth on Nantucket island. Nantucket was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and basically, being there gave MEP a total education in every aspect of the anti-slavery movement.
It is the purpose of this blog to gather information about this time and place in the background of MEP as well as to ask questions about her or tell me things I don’t know or am wrong about, or give me links I should read.
* “Mammy Pleasant”, Helen Holdridge, Putnam, 1953