The New John James and Mary Ellen Pleasant Blog


John James Pleasant was Mary Ellen’s second husband, married to her for approximately thirty years.

“The Father of Civil Rights in California!”

When I research MEP, I find she signed court documents  with her husband John James (known as JJ) Pleasant. He cosigned law suits and property deeds showing he was with her in Canada on her John Brown adventure. Their John Brown adventure. They were married after all. And, if you pay any attention to the first 37 pages of HH’s epic yellow rag, you will see that he was in the employ of her first husband, James Smith, with whom he did various UGRR activities before MEP joined them. My guess is that JJ drove while they concealed people in the body of the carriage and other such useful things.

Where HH got the description of him she uses in her book, I have not been able to ascertain, but I found no other source, so I will use HH’s description, though heaven only knows how accurate it is. She describes JJ as having auburn hair and blue eyes. He was quite attractive. He did not look black, but proudly claimed he was the former slave son of slave owner, who was in turn, the son of a Virginia Governor named Pleasant. The father probably freed him and somehow he had found James Smith (Mary’s first husband) and worked the UGRR with him He was passionate about abolition as were Mary and her first husband. This was a lifelong passion for all of them, but Mr. Smith was a couple of decades older than Mary. He died after some years with Mary, and left her cash with instructions to continue the fight for abolition.

She and JJ did just that until word of the gold rush arrived. It seems that JJ may have gone out there right away followed by Mary, but this point in Mary’s life has been obscured by HH’s “scholarship”, which dictated that MEP arrived in Yerba Buena in 1852 or 53-  IF she took the same boat as Thomas Bell and IF she used the name “Madame Christophe”. I would argue that any or all of that idea was unlikely. First MEP herself always claimed she was out there in 1849. Second, there is no reliable testimony she was ever in New Orleans or used the name Madame Christophe. Third, her brother in law John Gardner had a whaling boat. He and his wife Phebe (Mary’s “sister” by upbringing) did participate in UGRR activities, especially taking people up and down the East Coast and bringing people out to the west coast. Fourth, it has been put out there, though no paper exists to prove it, that JJ and Mary were married on his ship, by Gardner. Fifth, Cap’n Gardner was the guardian of Mary’s money from Smith. In order to give some to John Brown, she had to get it from the Captain. All that is in HH’s book, though glossed over. Mary was not the freewheeling independent scoundrel that HH portrays. She had a family that acted like a family and the head of that family was Captain Garner after Granma Mary Hussey died. The Captain was in charge of Mary’s money, and well-being, while Mary had to answer to him for her activities and expenses when it was as big a thing as moving to the West Coast or giving John Brown the remainder of the inheritance.

Let’s take a little detour. I doubt Thomas Bell met MEP on the boat to SF when he got on it in Lima or thereabouts. According to HH, in the book, “M…. Pleasants Partner”, in the early months after that boat arrived in SF, Tom Bell did take up with La Negrissa, a traveling performer. That is why, speculated HH that he and MEP didn’t meet again for a couple of years after that boat arrived. Tom was in love with La Negrissa. La Negrissa, in my opinion, is much more likely to have been the “Madame Christophe” and she and Tom probably met on that boat, then hung out until she had to move on. It is much more likely that Captain Gardner brought JJ and Mary out on his boat as he had already made that Pacific journey a number of times, while whaling. He was Mary’s Guardian and he also traveled full time with his wife, Phebe. Now Mary she was going to a wild woolly place where there was barely any civilization. I am pretty sure he oversaw that move to the West Coast. And since JJ and Mary did everything together, they probably took the same boat. And, it would not have been a  passenger vessel, it would have been with someone from Nantucket, a family member with a whaling ship. MEP and the Gardners stayed in close contact until the Gardners were lost at sea together in the 1870-80s ( remind me to check the exact date).

Since HH was speculating and manipulating evidence to suit her purposes most of the time. There is no reason to assume she was correct about when MEP arrived in SF. She was invested in the New Orleans version and bent all evidence to give Mary the “Voodoo” background, not knowing a thing about Vodoun, the diasporal religion of Haiti.

So, in the preceding paragraph, I put together what I knew to be facts about Mary’s family and came to an Occam’s razor solution of how she and JJ arrived in SF. I can’t think of a single reason that this is not the best explanation.  Since MEP and JJP did everything else together, why not this, the biggest move of their lives? They set up a terminus of the UGRR together and together homed and helped start businesses for former slaves -and former freedmen. Mary had an inheritance that was dedicated to abolitionist activities, but they both worked well-paid jobs for their day to day living expenses.

So, the fact that JJ and MEP did everything together is the reason I am completely revamping the POV of this Blog. From now on, I include them both.

JJ signed every lawsuit paper for the trolley car discrimination cases, though Mary’s inheritance may have paid the fees. They won the right for blacks to ride, together. Whoever later started calling MEP the “Mother” of Civil Rights in CA should have said the John James and Mary Ellen Pleasant are the Parents of Civil Rights in CA, and it is a crying shame that JJ is denied his part in the history.

In my next post, I will revamp the timeline of MEP’s life to exclude all undocumented claims. Doing that gives her  a much simpler, quite straightforward life history with lots of documentation.