Mary Ellen Pleasant, born into slavery in Georgia in circa 1817, came to Nantucket in 1827 as a young bonded servant to “Grandma Hussey.” She worked her way out of bondage, crediting her time spent working in Mrs. Hussey’s shop for when she recognized her personal magnetism and business skills, writing in her memoir, “I could make change and talk to a dozen people all at once and never make a mistake.”
She later became a family member and lifelong friend to Hussey’s granddaughter Phebe Hussey Gardner, who married Edward Gardner. Both were Quakers and abolitionists.
Once leaving the island around 1840, Pleasant met many prominent abolitionists and worked on the Underground Railroad, transporting escapees to Ohio and as far as Canada. She eventually headed west to California during the Gold Rush in 1852.
In San Francisco, she ran exclusive men’s dining establishments and identified herself as a capitalist by profession. She built a considerable fortune, at one point becoming one of the richest women in the city. She continued to increase her business knowledge and power, many of her acquaintances found her to be skillfully persuasive, although at times brutally direct. She was a fighter and did not hesitate to challenge the most powerful individuals when she believed her cause was right. She was often quoted saying, “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
She worked as an organizer and protested in the streets against California secessionists. In 1866, Pleasant successfully attacked racial discrimination in San Francisco public transportation after she and two other women were ejected from a city streetcar. She was known as the “mother of civil rights in California.” At the time of her death in 1904, her life enemies worked to scandalize her name, but her work in the area of human rights should establish clearly who Pleasant was and why she deserves to be remembered.
Learn more about Mary Ellen Pleasant in the Spring 1995 issue of Historic Nantucket, Westward the Women