because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mary Ellen Pleasant

There are a lot of stories told about Mary Ellen Pleasant, most of them started by Pleasant herself. Insofar as she was apparently born sometime in the early 1800's, however, it's hard to know exactly which are true and which are not.

She claimed to be the daughter of a Virginia governor's son and a vodou priestess slave, for example. In any case, she appeared as a servant in a household on Nantucket in the 1820's, a wealthy household that was not only a stop on the Underground Railroad, but a place where well-known abolitionists showed up on a regular basis, as well.

Supported by her employers, Pleasant, passing for White, was soon deeply involved in Underground Railroad activities, which she carried out for many years in the North, in New Orleans (where she spent much time with the famous vodou practitioner Marie LaVeau) and in San Francisco, where she lived for the last decades of her life.

Pleasant married money on two occasions and learned how to make plenty of it herself, as well, by running exclusive restaurants where bankers and stockbrokers lunched and openly discussed their business matters. Consequently, by 1875, she shared a thirty million dollar fortune with her lover du jour, which she used to bankroll abolitionist endeavors. In fact, when John Brown was arrested while trying to rob the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, he had a note in his pocket from Pleasant and it was only because the authorities failed to read the initials on the signature correctly that she escaped arrest and execution herself.

Pleasant's successful forays into anti-discrimination legal battles got her named the "mother of the civil rights movement" in California and her home designated in certain circles as the "Black City Hall." Nevertheless,  while she never made any bones about being Black in the Black community, she shocked more than a few White folks when she modified her listing in the San Francisco City Directory to read "Black" instead of "White" after the Civil War. In-your-face women play by their own rules and don't care much how other people feel about that.

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