Mary Ellen Pleasant

Part 1 of how the San Francisco Birth Center birthing suites got their names

Introductory note: At San Francisco Birth Center, we love the city’s long history of strong women doing amazing things. That’s why, when we were naming our birthing suites, we chose to honor two powerful women: Mary Ellen Pleasant and Juana Briones. In this first post of a two-part series, we’ll delve into Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story.

About six blocks from San Francisco Birth Center, several eucalyptus trees stand at the southwest corner of Octavia and Bush streets. If you have walked or driven by this location, you might have noticed a marker designating the area as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park.

While it is on of the smallest parks in San Francisco, the name it bears is large in our minds. In fact, our birth center also honors her with the Mary Ellen Pleasant Birthing Suite. Why is Mary Ellen Pleasant’s name worthy of such a distinction? To really understand, you have to know her story.

A brief history of Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant was an African-American abolitionist, a civil rights advocate, and an entrepreneur. She even listed “capitalist” as her profession during the 1890 census. Mary Ellen helped shape early San Francisco and was known for her courage, passion for equality, and ability to cross boundaries of race and class.

Much of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life is shrouded in mystery, so it’s not terribly surprising that her birth year is unclear. However, most historians believe it to be 1814. Some say she was born into slavery in Georgia, but in her autobiography, Mary Ellen insisted her birthplace was Philadelphia. She was the daughter of a black Louisiana woman and a Hawaiian man.

Mary Ellen eventually went to work with “Grandma Hussey,” a Quaker storekeeper in Massachusetts, as a clerk. Despite being illiterate, Mary Ellen proved to be an overcomer, learning about business and precisely recalling the accounts for the entire day. She grew close to the Hussey family members, who were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement, and Mary Ellen met many famous abolitionists.

Mary Ellen became more entrenched in the abolitionist movement when she married James Henry Smith, a wealthy contractor and merchant who had connections to the Underground Railroad. Together, they helped slaves escape to freedom by various routes. When he died, he left his fortune to Mary Ellen. She later remarried a man named John J. Pleasant and, in 1852, she came to California to avoid persecution for her slave rescue work.

At the time of Mary Ellen’s arrival during the Gold Rush Era, San Francisco had a population of nearly 40,000, with six men to every woman. There were five murders every six days; it was not a safe place.

Mary Ellen had two identities — one black and one white. Using her white persona, she worked in exclusive men’s eating establishments where she gleaned information on political secrets, financial gossip, and deals. She took that knowledge and helped former slaves gain jobs and other privileges. They sought Mary Ellen’s help in her kitchen, which was known as the “Black City Hall.”

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Mary Ellen publicly declared her race. She engaged in legal battles, fighting for the rights of blacks to ride the San Francisco streetcars without fear of discrimination. In 1868, her cases set precedent in the California Supreme Court and were used to win legal battles for others more than a century later.

Thanks to her savvy business sense, Mary Ellen amassed a $30 million joint fortune over her lifetime. Much of it was in partnership with Thomas Bell, a banker and director of two railroad companies. She lost most of her wealth after he died, and her reputation suffered in the fallout from a high-profile court case. Mary Ellen died in poverty in San Francisco in 1904.

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s impact on San Francisco and our birth center

A biological mother to one child named Elizabeth, or “Lizzie,” Mary Ellen Pleasant is sometimes called the “Mother of Civil Rights in California.” Isn’t that the type of mother we should all aspire to be?

Racism and sexism still pervade our culture, but Mary Ellen had the ability to find her power in a white male world, all those years ago. She overcame her troubled early life and settled in a city that was overwhelmingly white and male — always helping others along the way.

In 1974, the City of San Francisco designated Mary Ellen’s former property as a Structure of Merit. And in 2016, just a short distance from where Mary Ellen once lived, we opened our doors to serve powerful San Francisco women.

The Mary Ellen Pleasant Birthing Suite is spacious with lots of natural light. There’s plenty of room for a laboring mama to move freely and for her support team to assist her. With a bed, birth tub, and private bathroom, the Mary Ellen Pleasant Birthing Suite has everything a woman needs as she brings forth a new life.

We know how powerful women are. We see it every time we have a birth here. By honoring Mary Ellen Pleasant and Juana Briones, we honor the power in all women. Be sure to come back next week to read Juana’s story.

In the meantime, take our virtual tour or register for a free Meet the Midwives Information Session to get an in-person tour.