Floor plaque memorializing the spot where Mary Ellen Pleasant lived, on Octavia near Sutter. Heritage photo.
#LandmarkTuesdays: While the corner of Bush and Octavia Streets in San Francisco is home to the city’s smallest park, it is dedicated to a larger-than-life figure: Mary Ellen Pleasant (1817-1904). Many details of Pleasant’s legendary life are open to question (including her date of birth), but what is certain is that she was a tireless worker for civil rights and a great entrepreneur. Known today as the “Mother of Civil Rights in California,” she funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, assisted escaped slave Archy Lee, and helped desegregate street cars in San Francisco. The latter fight and victory against the Omnibus Railway Company made her the first to win equal rights for African Americans to ride public transportation, almost 100 years before Rosa Parks.
Mary Ellen Pleasant at 87 years of age. San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library
Born into slavery, she became a Gold Rush-era millionaire and a powerful abolitionist. Pleasant’s 30-room Italianate mansion, which she designed, built and furnished, stood on the spot where the park is today. In 1974, the city of San Francisco designated the six eucalyptus trees that she had planted here before her death in 1904, as a Structure of Merit. This designation recognizes and encourages the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of resources that are not officially designated as landmarks and are not situated in designated historic districts. Pleasant’s home no longer stands, but the trees remain, along with a round floor plaque in the park placed by the San Francisco African American Historical & Cultural Society. It reads:
“Mother of Civil Rights in California. She supported the western terminus of the underground railway for fugitive slaves 1850-1865. This legendary pioneer once lived on this site and planted these six trees.”
The Eucalyptus trees planted by Pleasant right before her death in 1904. The trees were designated a Structure of Merit by the City of San Francisco in 1974. Heritage photo.
Octavia near Sutter in the 1870s, showing Pleasant’s mansion (the “Bell Mansion,” where she lived with Thomas Bell) (OpenSFHistory / wnp71.1598.jpg)
In the following clip, Chris Carlsson of Shaping San Francisco contextualizes the harsh legal environment faced by African Americans in California, in which Pleasant carried out her role as a successful “conductor” of the western terminus of the Underground Railroad:
A virtual exhibit of the book 62 Heroes of the Western Addition, created by the African American Historical & Cultural Society and undergraduates at the University of San Francisco, communicates Pleasant’s legacy: “Mary Ellen Pleasant shaped Black entrepreneurship through her ability to establish a variety of businesses ranging from restaurants to investments all of which she used to financially support people of color; she forever changed the narratives of Black women by highlighting that Black women can be in positions of power and possess financial success.”
Here is bonus Drunk History segment on Mary Ellen Pleasant (starring Lisa Bonet):
Read an introduction to Pleasant’s extraordinary life in the New Fillmore, and visit the site yourself dedicated to Pleasant and her achievements: https://bit.ly/30l1Dzd