Mary Pleasant, A Biography
Mary Pleasant, also widely referred to as “Mammy Pleasant”, is the considered Mother of Civil Rights in California due to her work with the Civil Rights movement during the 1860s. She was an icon during the Gold Rush and Gilded Age San Francisco because of her political power, mainly due to her large fortune and as well as her influence, in the cause and in her fellow citizens. Her achievements as an abolitionist went unmatched until the late 1960s, during which other laws regarding slavery were passed; although her achievements were surpassed, it was her work that helped set off the chain reaction of events that led to the greater triumphs of the Civil Rights movement. Following the Civil War, Pleasant brought her battles to the courts in the 1860s, and claimed a handful of human rights victories. One of those victories, Pleasant vs. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, was heavily cited and advocated in the 1980s, which is the main reason behind why Pleasant is known today as “The Mother of Human Rights in California”. Pleasant was a woman of half African descent. She helped shape early San Francisco and furthered the Civil Rights movements. Her ability to “love across boundaries of race and class without losing sight of her goal –the equality for herself and her people” is what makes Pleasant the person that she was, and is what makes of her what people see her for today, as The Mother of Human Rights in California. (Pleasant’s Story)
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born on August 19th, 1814-1817. The exact year of her birth is not known due to Pleasant’s contradictory claims in her memoirs, but her gravestone located at the Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California expresses that she was born in 1812. (Find A Grave) The location pertaining to where Pleasant was born is unclear as well, but there are many presumptions as to where she was born, but it is definitive that she was born a slave, somewhere near or in Georgia. Although in her autobiography she states that: “some people have reported that I was born in slavery, but as a matter of fact, I was born in Philadelphia”. But according to her memoirs, she was born illegitimately to John H. Pleasants, the son of the Governor of Virginia, and a Haitian voodoo priestess, a slave. It is believed that Pleasant changed her background stories as she went on in her life to protect herself and the people that she was helping. Pleasant released many variations of her life story, but none were verified. At birth, Pleasant was not given a last name, so she created names for herself. (Pleasant Biography) As a young child, Pleasant witnessed the death of her mother inflicted by a plantation overseer and as a result, she made a living for herself on her own. After the death of her mother in an account by a Nevada writer Sam Davis, one of Pleasant’s biographers, it was inferred that in childhood she was taken out of slavery by a sympathetic planter who remains unknown, and was went to work at a linen factory in New Orleans as a free servant for his friend, Louis Alexander Williams, a merchant from Cincinnati. As a result, Pleasant was a survivor and had to alter and embellish the recollections in her memoirs to counterweigh the criticisms imposed against her, explaining why her memoirs contradicted each other. Although Pleasant was sent to the factory to work as a free slave, Williams, supposedly the friend, originally promised that if she worked for some time without pay, she would be freed. Subsequently, Williams, in debt at the time and jealous of the affection that his wife, Ellen displayed to Mary, placed Mary into “nine years of indenture with an aging Quaker merchant in Nantucket, Massachusetts”. (Pleasant Biography) It was there during that time of work that Mary learned her abolitionist beliefs and studied the ways of the business trade. During her time in Nantucket, Mary adopted and used the name Ellen Williams, and became Ms. Mary Ellen Williams. She...
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