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Mary Ellen Pleasant, Entrepreneur and Abolitionist

Abolitionist and profitable Gold Rush entrepreneur Mary Ellen Nice was a free lady of mixed-race who dedicated her life to equality for African People. From helping with the Underground Railroad to suing for the proper to journey on segregated streetcars in San Francisco, Nice seldom rested.

Among her intently guarded secrets revealed close to the top of her life was that she offered major funding to John Brown as he planned the Harper’s Ferry rebel. Her request for the inscription on her headstone? “Friend of John Brown.”

Observe: Writing about Mary Ellen Nice is problematic as there are lots of variations to her story. After in depth reading, I discovered reference to a well-respected Nevada reporter who wrote about her. His last story happened when Mary Ellen summoned him to her house, feeling dying was close to. He agreed to write down her story, but he made a stipulation: He would not write down anything he couldn’t confirm. His story is the supply I’ve chosen to comply with.

Delivery of Mary Ellen Nice

Mary Ellen Nice was born in Philadelphia to a father from the Sandwich Islands (later referred to as Hawaii) and a mom was who a free black. Her father needed her to have an schooling, but there were no faculties for black women in Philadelphia. As an importer, he had a community of connections and knew there was a faculty in Nantucket, Massachusetts, that Mary Ellen might attend. He positioned his seven-year-old daughter with the Hussey household who ran a mercantile retailer on Nantucket.

Mary Ellen worked alongside the family in the retailer, and though her father sent cash to the Hussey family annually for her schooling, the family did not enroll her in class. Mary Ellen might or might not have realized this, but she devoted herself to learning enterprise classes from the shop. Along with selling and making deals, she “became a student of people.”

Boston Marriage

The Hussey household was fond of Mary Ellen however knew she needed to move to a world the place she might meet extra individuals. When Mary Ellen was 26 (1842), the Husseys arranged for her to apprentice with a bootmaker in Boston. Among the many shop’s clients was James W. Smith, a wealthy Cuban. Smith was an ardent abolitionist who attended the church Mary Ellen attended. They ultimately married and united in the cause to get rid of slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison

Amongst Smith’s buddies have been well-known abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. They regularly met on the Smith house to debate their ongoing effort to maneuver slaves from the South to Canada or to a protected place in the Northeast. Smith additionally used his wealth to buy slaves and set them free. However Smith’s well being took a nasty flip. On his deathbed, he informed Mary Ellen that he would go away her his property with the request that she continue their work for abolition.

For assist in settling the estate, she relied on two individuals for recommendation: One was a good friend from Nantucket, Captain Edward Gardner. The opposite was the foreman of Smith’s property, a fellow named John J. Nice. Over time, he and Mary Ellen selected to marry.

Gold Rush Beckons

In 1848 when gold was found in California, everyone needed to strike it wealthy. Husband JJ Pleasant found work as a shipboard prepare dinner and left for San Francisco shortly after the news broke. Mary Ellen adopted in 1852, having been intrigued by tales of girls successfully operating eating places and boarding homes.

When she arrived in San Francisco, she nonetheless had inheritance money to take a position. Her retailer experience in Nantucket should have given her a very good sense of the business world, and she entered into several forms of enterprise ventures. She loaned cash at ten % interest, and she traded in gold and silver. Seeing that San Francisco was a real growth city, she also invested in property–the whole lot from a dairy to laundry companies.

Some tales of Mary Ellen notice that because she was light-skinned some of her business dealings might have been made easier by individuals assuming she was white. But any lady conducting business would nonetheless have encountered numerous obstacles in that day.

But her objectives and aspirations remained the same. She never wavered from her effort to help former slaves. Those that made it to San Francisco might turn to her for job placement. Her kitchen turned generally known as the “Black City Hall.”

Japanese Ties

John BrownJohn Brown (Might 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859)

Regardless of never having attended faculty, Mary Ellen should have taught herself to read and write. She was a subscriber to William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, and she stayed in contact with different abolitionists.

In the course of the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown turned a national determine for his a part of the anti-slavery battle in Kansas Territory. By 1858, he was planning an rebel in Harper’s Ferry, intending to make use of drive to liberate the slaves and create a free territory in western Virginia. When Mary Ellen heard the news by means of the abolitionist network, she needed to be part of it. She and JJ planned a visit East. She carried together with her a $30,000 financial institution draft. When Mary Ellen and JJ docked in Boston, her previous good friend Captain Gardner met the couple to fill them in. He knew that Brown was in Canada (Chatham, Ontario). Gardner organized for Mary Ellen  to travel there for a gathering.

Assembly with John Brown

Brown and one among his sons welcomed Mary Ellen Pleasant. They mentioned his plans and his have to amass cash and supporters. Mary Ellen Pleasant offered him with the $30,000 she introduced together with her, and additionally provided to journey to Virginia to spread the word among the slaves.

Harper's FerryEngraving of the Burning of the USA Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, VA

She and JJ left Canada getting ready to help. Mary Ellen dressed as a jockey and JJ accompanied her as her horse trainer, as if they have been simply touring from racetrack to racetrack. Nevertheless, the 2 stopped at each plantation alongside the best way, explaining to the slaves the plot that was underway. But Brown did not remain with the schedule he shared together with her. The Pleasants soon heard the rebellion was underway. Earlier than lengthy, John Brown’s effort was halted, and he was captured.

Alarmed for Self

As she learn particulars of the Harper’s Ferry incident, she was apprehensive. A valise of papers belonging to Brown was seized, and the authorities have been on the lookout for an confederate who wrote a observe that was found in Brown’s pocket: “The axe is laid at the roof of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money and help.” The observe was signed WEP.

Though the news frightened her, she later stated: “I had a quiet laugh when I saw that my poor handwriting had given them a false trail.” (The WEP signature was truly a shortly signed “MEP.”)

She knew if Brown’s papers have been being sorted via, she needed to go away the East Coast. JJ used the first-class return ticket they bought earlier than the journey, however Mary Ellen scrapped her ticket and purchased one for steering. She informed other passengers she was making her first journey to California.

Upon her arrival in San Francisco, she found a letter from John Brown awaiting her. She destroyed it immediately, later saying: “Brown was an earnest, sincere man and as brave a man as ever lived, but he lacked judgment and was sometimes foolhardy and cranky. He wrote too much and talked too much.”

She advised others she regretted the failure of the mission however never regretted the money she gave   him. She believed that Harper’s Ferry paved the best way for the struggle.

Wanted Money

Gold miners in California

The expense of the journey and her donation to Brown drew closely on her assets. To construct up her financial institution stability, she took a job as a household supervisor for industrialist Selim Woodworth. Good household managers have been in excessive demand, and the job paid properly. She and Selim’s spouse, Lisette, turned good pals, so it was a cheerful state of affairs. When Woodworth went off to be part of the Union Navy, Mary Ellen and JJ remained part of the family.

After the conflict, she and JJ moved out of the Woodworth residence. Among her few extravagances was an enormous wedding ceremony for her daughter Lizzie. It was extensively coated in the black newspapers.

She also went again to investing, buying a boarding house where she served well-to-do businessmen in San Francisco.

Segregated Streetcars

San Francisco had horse-pulled streetcars for white passengers only. Blacks have been expected to stroll. Mary Ellen hated the injustice of this, and when the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed, she vowed to check the system. In early 1866, Mary Ellen and two other black ladies boarded a streetcar and have been shortly eliminated. Pleasant sued.

San Francisco, 19th century

San Francisco’s Omnibus Railroad Firm traversed the poorer part of city, and this was firm from which Pleasant had been ejected. Before the case acquired to courtroom, the corporate made a suggestion. They might allow blacks to experience the streetcars if Mara Ellen Pleasant would drop the lawsuit.

Mary Ellen agreed but there was another streetcar company on the town. To challenge them, she wanted a white accomplice. She and Lisette Woodworth remained buddies and Lisette was well-liked and extensively revered. If she have been part of the plan, it might help Mary Ellen’s cause.

One other Segregation Battle

On September 27, 1866, the women enacted their plan. Lisette boarded the North Seashore and Mission Railroad Firm automotive. One cease later, Mary Ellen hailed the driving force to select her up. The driving force looked at her however stored going. Lisette leaned ahead within the automotive to level out that somebody needed to be picked up. The driving force continued to ignore Mary Ellen, who again sued for discrimination. Lisette was her main witness.

The decide finally agreed that Mary Ellen had encountered unlawful discrimination, and he awarded her damages. This was the excellent news… Sadly, an innocent offhand comment by Lisette haunted Mary Ellen the rest of her life. Lisette testified that she and Mary Ellen knew each other nicely; that typically Lisette referred to as Mary Ellen Mama. The press used that as a cudgel. Reporters referred to Mammy Nice most of the time as a solution to put Mary Ellen “in her place.” Mary Ellen hated the term, and regardless of all the great she completed, that lack of respect for her really bothered her.

When the streetcar company appealed the choice, the higher courtroom again sided with Mary Ellen but they maintained that no damages wanted to be paid.

Later Life

Mary Ellen PleasantMary Ellen Nice’s San Francisco mansion, Bush and Octavia Streets

Within the mid-1870s, JJ Nice died of diabetes, and Mary Ellen Nice started investing with one of many men at her boarding home, a Thomas Bell,  a banker and a director of two railroad corporations. There were rumors that the connection was more than business, but Mary Ellen either had no interest or needed cowl and launched Thomas to a lady named Theresa whom he soon married.

Bell and his new spouse lived within the boarding house and Bell and Pleasant continued to take a position collectively. Mary Ellen clearly had a very good head for business, but a partnership with Bell should have been useful for purchasing and promoting property. A white lady would have struggled to be accepted in handling transactions, and after the conflict, Mary Ellen’s struggle for civil rights clarified that she was black. This should have difficult her enterprise dealings.

In 1892, she purchased a ranch in Sonoma Valley. The property had a stunning residence, vineyards, a lake, and a horse-racing monitor. As she and Bell and Theresa made plans, the choice was made for Theresa to move to the ranch together with her son, whereas Thomas Bell and Mary Ellen remained on the boarding house in the metropolis to continue to handle their mutual businesses. Sadly, Bell was in sick health, and shortly after Theresa moved to the ranch, Bell took a nasty fall down the stairs and never recovered.

Regardless of her good relationship with Theresa while Bell was alive, Mary Ellen’s life turned extra difficult as she tried to untangle the Bell and Pleasant financial dealings. Theresa’s son was convinced that Pleasant was benefiting from his family, and he turned his mother towards her.

Mary Ellen emerged from the authorized case with a settlement, however the quantity was a fraction of what was probably legally hers out of the intermingled money.

Verifying Her Story

Mary Ellen PleasantMemorial Marker

Mary Ellen Pleasant lived an extended life with many various chapters. She also never felt much have to doc her whereabouts or experience. When the Bell and Nice property was being settled there have been destructive press stories, so there was lots written about her which will or might not have been true.

Within the early 1900s, Nice was contemplating her legacy. Despite the dangerous press after the Bell struggle, she needed to set matters straight.. She had been friendly with a Nevada reporter and editor named Sam Davis, and she summoned him to return to her residence and take down her story.

Davis agreed, however he informed her that if he have been to put in writing about her, he would wish to have time to confirm the story she advised.  Nice agreed and informed him her story, notably emphasizing what had been a long-held secret: The truth that she was the one that offered a lot of the funding for John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid.

This was the type of thing that Davis knew he needed to monitor down. He acquired names from Mary Ellen of these around Brown who may keep in mind her.

Tracing Her Previous

Jason Brown, the son who had been with John when he met with Mary Ellen in Canada, was about 80 and unwell. He informed Davis about meeting a black lady who got here to Chatham, Ontario, to satisfy together with his father and depart a examine behind. Nevertheless, he couldn’t recall her identify.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Tombstone, Napa, California

When Davis re-approached Nice for extra info, she advised him: search for deeds to the land I purchased while I was there. As Davis labored by way of data for the Canadian municipality, he found land bought by Mary Ellen and JJ Pleasant during the identical period when John Brown was visiting Canada.  The deeds have been witnessed and notarized.

Considered one of John Brown’s daughters was additionally capable of confirm Mary Ellen’s story.

Sam Davis left a document of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story from 1904 that may now be found online. For the above causes, I’ve chosen to let Davis’s account be my information when Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story needed verification.

Mary Ellen completed a fantastic deal during her life. She helped many former slaves, lent and gave cash to San Francisco residents in want—each white and black, and she stood up for civil rights for all individuals.

Her tombstone request—“Friend of John Brown” was not fulfilled until 1965, however those who learn sufficient about her life and her efforts for oppressed individuals know that Mary Ellen Pleasant had an extended listing of accomplishments of which she might be equally proud.


For an additional story a few self-made lady, read about Marjorie Stewart Joyner.

View sources »

There are a superb variety of photographs on-line which are identified as being Mary Ellen Pleasant. They don’t seem to be. The one photograph used t the top of this article is the one one that may be verified as being of her.

Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African People who Escaped Slavery and Turned Millionaires by Shomari Wills, Amistad Harper Collins, 2018.

“How a Colored Woman Aided John Brown,” by Sam P. Davis, The Individuals’s Press, January 5, 1904.

“Mary ELlen Pleasant, Businesswoman and Civil Rights Activist,”, August 18, 2017.

Mary Ellen Nice, Wikipedia.

Mary Ellen Nice, Oakland Wiki.

San Francisco’s Best, Mary Ellen Nice, African American

Mary Ellen Pleasant, Black Previous

Mary Ellen Pleasant by Marian Halley, San Francisco History Tips Publication.

Mary Ellen Pleasant, Historical Essay, by Chris Carlsson,

“Don’t Call Her Mammy,” by Marian Halley, The New Fillmore.

“Pleasant’s Story,” …

“The Many Chapters of Mary Ellen Pleasant,” by Veronica Chambers, The New York Occasions obituary, February 2019

“Bell Home Deeded Away,” San Francisco Chronicle,” April 12, 1901.

Mary Ellen Nice, San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 1902.

“Aged Colored Woman Who Died Yesterday After a Remarkable Career,” San Francisco Call, January 12, 1904

“The Lives of Others,” by Edward White, The Paris Evaluate.