Courtesy Holdredge Collection, San Francisco Library History Center, San Francisco Public Library


The Early Years

San Francisco


Meet Mary Ellen Pleasant

ME Pleasant in 1865Called "the Mother of Civil Rights in California" from work begun in the 1860s, her achievements went unsurpassed until the 1960s. Pleasant was once the most talked-about woman in San Francisco. When other African Americans were rarely mentioned, she claimed full-page articles in the press. Her dramatic life was part of the story of slavery, abolition, the gold rush, and the Civil War; she helped shape early San Francisco, and covertly amassed a joint fortune once assessed at $30,000,000! Americans today deserve to know her because she could love across boundaries of race and class without losing sight of her goal -- equality for herself and her people.

However, Pleasant's life has been distorted and obscured by mis-information. Thus, although this daring woman won battles and faced life, success, power, desertion, betrayal, and death head on, she lost the battle for her own good name. At the end of her life, her covert schemes began to go awry, and her enemies "scandalized her name". By the end of the century, via the popular press, Pleasant had been labeled "Mammy Pleasant," angel and arch fiend, and madam and murderess -- her story indiscriminately plunged into myth, misinformation, gossip, and half truths. The tabloid accounts of that day became the basis for the 20th-century social histories that writers still quote. Thus, before Susheel Bibbs' recent recovery of lost writings and accounts by Pleasant and her contemporaries, it was difficult to unravel fact from the fiction of Pleasant's colorful life. However, now it can be done, and Pleasant's inspiring story, so needed today, can be told.

Whether coming to California during the gold rush or fighting for civil rights once there, Pleasant invested both risk and ambition for her own advancement and that of her people. The real questions are, "Where did she get her courage, and how did she learn to love amidst her struggles?" This newly researched, brief version of her life answers those questions and should solve some of the mysteries of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Bibbs' forthcoming biography will supply the rest.


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