Entrepreneur, Civil Rights Activist
By her account; Mary Ellen "Mammy" Williams Smith Pleasant was born on August 19, 1814 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her first husband, wealthy Black Cuban tobacco planter Alexander Smith, died and left her with a $45,000 legacy. She later married James Pleasant and moved to California in 1849. There she opened a successful boardinghouse for the gold miners, as well as California's most influential and prominent businessmen. She also 'banked' - loaning money at 10% interest. Some accounts report that she helped Thomas Bell to a fortune of $30,000,000. As a civil rights activist, she helped runaway slaves by hiding, clothing, and feeding them. She also helped Blacks win the right to have their testimonies accepted in California courts in 1863. In 1868, in Pleasants v. North Beach and Mission Railroad, she successfully sued two San Francisco railway companies for refusing to allow her to ride on the city's streetcars because of her color. Mary believed her most celebrated cause in support of Black equality was the financial help she gave John Brown in his raid on Harper's Ferry. Mary Pleasant died on January 11th, 1904.