Mary Ellen Pleasant spent her life actively fighting to end slavery and empower African Americans. Mary Ellen was celebrated as the “Mother of Human Rights in Ca,” but also demonized as a murderous “Voodoo Queen.” After working her way out of servitude to a family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Pleasant helped others escape before arriving in California. In 1852 she arrived in San Francisco to gather the funds to fight the ultimate fight- the abolition of slavery in America. Creating a small empire with her new business partner, a young white banker name Thomas Bell. Every powerful businessman in the city knew her and her establishments. Pleasant was working a schedule that would lead to a revolution. In 1857 she helped famed abolitionist John Brown lead an uprising against slavery that would become known as the dress rehearsal for the Civil War- The Harper’s Ferry Revolt. The attempted uprising in Virginia, in which Colonel Robert E. Lee would defeat the 22 abolitionists in sergeants, ended with Brown happening hanged for treason.
Back in San Francisco, accumulating $30 million, Pleasant and Bell had built a mansion on the corner of Octavia and Bush. As word spread of Pleasant’s activism with John Brown, alongside the rumor that she may be black herself and the gossip going around San Francisco was about how the mansion was a brothel. The city newspaper wrote olstories about witchcraft and orgies happening behind the doors in Pacific Heights. A century before Rosa Parks sparking the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, Pleasant was removed from a San Francisco cable car because of her skin color. When she took the case to the state Supreme Court, she won, resulting in the outlawing of segregation on San Francisco’s public conveyances. Pleasant, in later life, attempted further litigation against racial practices but was continuously unsuccessful. Newspapers continued to criticize her character, and the San Francisco Chronicle continued to spread outlandish rumors, including allegations that she stole babies and sold them on the black market.
After funding many battles for equality and losing multiple court cases, Pleasant had passed in San Francisco in 1904 and hurried in Napa, where a statue adorns her grave. In 1928, her mansions and grounds on Octavia Street were torn down except the eucalyptus trees she planted. The city of San Francisco, in 1974, designated the trees that Pleasant had planted as a Structure of Merit. The trees and a plaque are now known as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park, the smallest park in San Francisco.
This tiny park is now the starting point for San Francisco’s ghost tours. It has been said that Pleasant’s spirit frightens dogs, throws nuts from the trees, and will even give you chills as you walk by. As the tours still spread, the rumors of how Pleasant was a voodoo sorcerer who was once seen eating a man’s brains and the disappearance of four people are not true. Some people will even say if you stand on her plaque, you can make a wish. If she finds you pure, she will grant you your wish: If not, she will haunt you. Honestly, I think that Marry Ellen Pleasant was a very driven and strong woman who knew she wanted to make the world better.