“I’d Rather Be a Corpse Than a Coward”: The Triumph and Travails of Mary Ellen Pleasant
The larger than life story of a 19th century Black freedom fighter who challenged both racial and gender norms on her way to building a vast fortune during the California Gold Rush.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was a 19th century capitalist, Black freedom fighter, and philanthropist. Her eventual wealth and high social status, as well as her penchant for shattering racial taboos, offers an interesting contrast to the prevailing narrative of what that era was like for Black women.
Pleasant’s early life is a matter of some debate. One account has her born into slavery to a Black or mixed‐race mother and a white plantation owner in Georgia. Another suggests that she was the daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter who had an affair with a Caribbean voodoo priestess.
In her later writings and memoirs, Pleasant herself asserted that she was born in Philadelphia in 1812 to a Hawaiian father who imported silks and a “full blooded Louisiana” negress. While it is not possible to know which—if any—of these stories are the “real” story, there is a common thread among them, an ethnic ambiguity and the ability to transverse racial boundaries, attributes which would mark her entire life. 1
By all accounts, though, she was ushered off at an early age to live with a Quaker family in Nantucket, Massachusetts where she was employed as a domestic servant for someone known as “Grandma Hussey.” As time went by, she became a de facto family member, establishing a lifelong friendship with Hussey’s granddaughter Phebe Hussey Gardner. The elder Hussey’s deep involvement with abolitionism provided Pleasant an intimate exposure to the movement.
In the 1840s, she wed James W. Smith, a former plantation owner and committed abolitionist. In the years following their marriage, the duo worked tirelessly for the Underground Railroad. Smith died sometime between 1844 and 1848 due to unknown causes. He left a young Pleasant with a significant inheritance worth ten of thousands of dollars.
Around 1848 she remarried a man by the name of John James Pleasance. (The name was later anglicized to “Pleasant.”) In April of 1852, to escape persecution for their abolitionist work against the Fugitive Slave Act, the two moved to San Francisco, California.
In California, Black Americans like Pleasant could engage in business and enterprise with relative freedom. California was in the middle of the Gold Rush, but the real fortunes to be made were not from discovering gold but in supplying the miners. Pleasant’s natural enterprising instincts led her into a major business opportunity: operating boarding houses for itinerant miners.
Following the example of a woman by the name of Mary Ball, who had made a sizable sum running a boarding house in San Francisco, Pleasant launched her own. Over time it became one of the most exclusive boarding houses in San Francisco, a feat that allowed her special access to many of the city’s elite circles. The boom town nature of San Francisco provided a Black woman like Pleasant opportunities for advancement that would have been denied in other parts of the country.
Later, in collaboration with her secret financial partner—a white banker by the name of Thomas Bell—she became a highly regarded capitalist and philanthropist, including having a role in the establishment of the Bank of California. She was later coined the “Mother” of California’s early civil rights movement for helping to establish a branch of the Underground Railroad in the Golden State.
Expanding from her boarding house operations, Pleasant started several popular restaurants for California miners. Having amassed a million dollar fortune by 1865—making her one of the wealthiest Black women in the country before the 20th century and entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker—she directed much of her fortune towards providing aid for runaway slaves. This included financial support for the highly acclaimed abolitionist John Brown to the tune of $30,000 (which is almost a half‐million in today’s dollars).
In the 1860s and 1870s, Mrs. Pleasant pursued a number of civil rights lawsuits in California; her most famous case came when she sued a streetcar company that had refused to let her ride because she was Black. After an arduous two‐year court battle, she emerged victorious due in part to the testimony of a white woman whom Pleasant had once done work for as a domestic servant.
In the 1880s, the widow of Pleasant’s former partner, Thomas Bell, attempted to damage her reputation through a smear campaign. The plaintiff, Teresa Bell, accused Pleasant of manipulating her husband and absconding with tens of thousands of dollars. During the court proceedings, there were allegations that she had manipulated the family for her own gain, abused the children, and illegally redirected funds to undeserving Black women. 2
Once Bell ultimately won control of the estate, Pleasant struggled financially. Pleasant spent her remaining years with friends, dying in 1904 nearly destitute. But her legacy lived on after her.
In his 1924 bookThe Gift of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois opined that Pleasant was:
… “quite a different kind of woman and yet strangely effective and influential….Here was a colored woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State. She anticipated the development in oil. She was the trusted confidante of many of the California pioneers such as Ralston, Mills and Booth, and for years was a power in San Francisco affairs.”
Continuing, DuBois noted: “Throughout a life that was perhaps more than unconventional, she treasured a bitter hatred for slavery and a certain contempt for white people.” 3
In Pleasant’s own unpublished memoir, she summed up her legacy:
“You know my cause well. My cause was the cause of freedom and equality for myself and for my people and I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.” 4