Mary E. Pleasant: Reshaping the Landscape of Segregation in California

Cable Car in San Francisco (Shutterstock)

Between the 1830s and 1890s, the Colored Conventions Movement transformed Black political organizing across the US. Of the thirty states that assembled state-level conventions, two-thirds of these conventions developed conferences exclusively for “colored men.” The Convention of Colored Men assembled “to consider [their] political condition, and to devise measures for [their] elevation and advancement.” Declaring they spoke for their “colored fellow-citizens,” these conference meetings largely excluded the voices of Black women. At an 1855 convention in Troy, New York, male delegates admonished the presence of Black women. The meeting minutes detail how “[t]he name of Miss Barbary Anna Stewart was stricken out from the roll [by] several gentlemen objecting to it on the ground that this is not a Woman’s Rights Convention.”  This reality catapulted Black women’s need to organize. Mary Ellen Pleasant became an organizer and an example of Black women’s continuous battle at the intersections of racism and sexism during this period, demonstrating that Black women forced their issues to be legally recognized (when possible) and challenged their exclusion through actions that contested their marginalization.

Although there are some indeterminacies to Mary E. (Williams) Pleasant’s life story, it is believed that she was born enslaved in Georgia circa 1814. After her mother “disappeared” a white abolitionist Quaker family, the Hussey-Gardners, took Pleasant to Massachusetts to work for their family. Exposed to another social world while working as an apprentice for a tailor and bootmaker in Boston, Pleasant married her first husband, James Smith (believed to be “passing” as white), who owned a plantation and participated in the Underground Railroad. Smith’s premature death led to Pleasant inheriting a large financial sum. Functioning as a “free” woman, she dedicated her efforts, money, and time to continue the abolitionist work within underground networks that assisted enslaved people in escaping the South. By participating in the “stealing away” of enslaved people from plantations, Pleasant exposed herself to the risk of re-enslavement under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Now remarried to John James Pleasant, the Pleasants fled Georgia due to their anti-slavery efforts. Mary’s resistance to social marginalization would now go on to alter the landscape of Black civil rights in California.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1852, she would reinvent herself “as a kind of double agent,” according to reporter Liza Veale. While most of San Francisco knew her as white, the black community knew that she was black — and fighting for abolition.” The Pleasants came to California two years after it entered the union as a “free-holding” state, but at a time when Black Californians still faced challenges in exercising rights.  Building coalitions to combat the issues highlighted at the state-level Colored Conventions Movement in California, African-descended people in California—less than 6,000 across the state—strategized ways to fight for their equality and inclusion as citizens. Currently no evidentiary sources confirm Pleasant’s involvement in the Colored Conventions Movement, however, she worked with associations similarly focused on Black rights, such as the Franchise League formed in San Francisco in 1852 by David W. Ruggles. Pleasant and other Black activists in the Franchise League petitioned the California state legislature to repeal the Black Testimony Exclusion Law to allow Black Californians to testify in cases involving white men. It would take revising the California State Constitution in 1879 before Black people in California could exercise civil rights.

An ardent businesswoman, inheritance money from her late husband’s estate allowed Mary Pleasant to invest in expanding the underground networking system to escape enslavement to the West Coast. Having financial means and initially interpreted as racially ambiguous by white people, Pleasant had doors opened for her that may have otherwise been closed if she was socially interpreted solely as a Black woman. Ever the entrepreneur, as described in William Loren Katz’s The Black West (1987), Pleasant and other Black Californians amassed a wealth of over two million dollars in assets during the Gold Rush era through services and business. They used their assets and financial resources to their advantage to make the argument that they were “ordinary” functioning citizens that should have equal access to the rights and privileges afforded to everyone else.

When she first arrived in California, Mary Pleasant worked as a cook catering to California Gold Rush-era entrepreneurs. Catering dinners for the wealthy, she covertly listened in on dinner conversations and used the information gleaned from these wealthy businessmen to her advantage. After forming a business relationship with Thomas Bell (who was white) and investing in business enterprises (stocks, gold mining, banking), Pleasant and Bell “collaboratively” amassed wealth that allowed Pleasant to provide financial assistance to the Black community. This support catalyzed Black activism to defy racial segregation on transportation.

In 1866, Pleasant fought legal systems of oppression, strategically instigating incidences to challenge segregation practices on streetcars. In California Black women were attempting to dismantle the inequality of racial segregation by legally confronting unjust laws and demanding equal treatment. Racially discriminated against and fighting “Jim Crow” in the West, Black women such as Charlotte Brown filed racial segregation discrimination lawsuits against public transit companies as early as 1863. It was in 1864 that district court Judge Orville C. Pratt abolished segregated streetcars in San Francisco. “In his ruling,” wrote historian and Pleasant biographer Lynn Hudson, “Pratt admitted that railroad companies had a right to manage their affairs but had no right to manage the affairs of the general public.” In a strategy to test whether or not authorities would enforce this ruling, and more broadly, the 1866 Civil Rights Act, Mary Pleasant and two other Black women boarded an Omnibus streetcar and were removed.

Pleasant, having financial means, sued the Omnibus Railroad and Cable Company. She soon withdrew her complaint “after she extracted a promise from its officials to allow ‘people of color’ on their streetcars,” wrote journalist Nilda Rego. On a separate occasion, she enlisted the help of Lisette Woodworth, a well-known white female San Francisco socialite. Writer Kate Kelly noted that Pleasant and Woodworth had “Lisette [board] the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company car. One stop later, Mary Ellen hailed the driver to pick her up. The driver looked at her but kept going. Lisette leaned forward in the car to point out that someone needed to be picked up.” Once the conductor noticed Mary’s “race,” he refused to stop, denying her transport. Arguments detailed that the conductor stated, “We don’t take colored people in the cars.”

Outraged at the denial of her civil rights, Mary and John appear as complainants in Pleasants v. North Beach & Mission Railroad, 34 Cal.  586 (1868). Adept at navigating the hierarchical racial status quo, Hudson remarked that Pleasant understood the “tenuous position” of Black people in post-Civil War San Francisco, which is why Lisette Woodworth served as her witness. After hiring attorney George W. Tyler, it would take two years for the case to be heard. Mary initially won her lawsuit and was awarded damages totaling five hundred dollars. However, the California State Supreme Court would appeal and overturn the verdict, stating that Pleasant did not prove that the conductor’s actions were racially motivated. Nonetheless this case set a precedent in California that forced the state to concede that no laws allowed public transport to exclude anyone based on “race.”

Through Pleasant’s determination, efforts to enforce Black civil rights in California were in motion. To Black San Franciscans, Mary E. Pleasant was a civil rights hero who earned their ultimate respect. Referring to her home as the “Black City Hall” and bestowing upon her the title of “Mother of Civil Rights in California,” we see through Mary E. Pleasant and other Black women’s organizational efforts in California that the legal system was one mechanism through which Black people maneuvered their equality and made attempts to function as complete, equal American citizens.

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E. Nicole Vines

Dr. E. Nicole Vines is an Assistant Professor of Black Studies at California State University, Channel Islands. Receiving her Ph.D. and M.A. in Ethnic Studies, and B.A. in African American Studies from the University of California, Riverside, from an interdisciplinary perspective, Dr. Vines’ research broadly examines the ways in which racialized oppression has shaped the experiences of African Americans in the United States and questions how free/d African descendant peoples in the U.S. advocated for citizenship rights and inclusion through Black-led liberation movements. Dr. Vines’ research and teaching areas center on Black American Identity Formation, Black Women’s Liberation Organizing, and the Usurpation of Black Racial Politics.

Comments on “Mary E. Pleasant: Reshaping the Landscape of Segregation in California

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    Great read and very informative. Thank you for highlighting Mary E. Pleasant and the experience of Black people in the Western United States.

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    Insightful piece on Mary Ellen Pleasant and the Black experience in California.

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