The Southern States are the usual focus of discussions about African American freedom struggles before the Civil War. But California had its own prewar struggle against racism and slavery.
Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman, Californian Mary Ellen Pleasant’s name is rarely discussed. But Pleasant has been hailed as the mother of the abolitionist movement in California during the Gold-Rush era, according to Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California, a web-based series created by the ACLU of Northern California.
Pleasant was a self-made millionaire and civil rights leader. Like many others, Pleasant and her husband moved to San Francisco seeking to make a fortune during the Gold Rush.
Pleasant began working as a cook and she would reportedly eavesdrop on wealthy customers’ conversations in the hopes of over- hearing valuable bits of information about financial transactions.
What she learned helped her make a substantial fortune. She built a strong, diverse portfolio that included real estate, railroads, restaurants, and boarding houses. She was known as a wise investor and became one of the richest women in the city, according to the ACLU report.
Abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia might have been partly financed by her, according to some historians. The unsuccessful 1859 raid was led by both Black slaves and White abolitionists.
Pleasant also supported and gave shelter to fugitive slave Archy Lee, who was on the run from his slave owner.
Lee, a young Black man, brought to California from Mississippi by slave owner Charles Stovall, became a legal celebrity of his day. Lee escaped his slave master and waged a successful legal battle for his freedom that went all the way to the federal courts.
In the fall of 1857, Stovall, the slave master, arrived in Sacramento with Archy Lee and opened a school. Stovall hired Lee out as a laborer and pocketed his wages. California was technically a “free” state, but the law allowed visiting slaveholders to enter with slaves so long as they did not settle permanently.
“Lee fled when he learned Stovall was planning to return to the South,” reported the article. Lee hid at the Hackett House, a Sacramento hotel owned by two African American men who were local abolitionist leaders.
Lee was hunted down and Stovall had him arrested. The African American community rallied and held church fundraisers and collected thousands of dollars to pay for Leeʼs legal defense.
Edwin Crocker, the prominent civil rights lawyer, argued that Stovall had violated California’s law because he had established residency and was not just passing through.
Stovall claimed Lee was “property,” worth $1,500, and insisted California authorities had to obey the federal fugitive slave law and return Lee to him. The judge ruled against the slave master and in favor of Leeʼs freedom
But the pro-slavery California Supreme Court over- ruled the decision. Lee was immediately re-arrested. Peter Burnett, one of the justices at the time, went on to became California’s governor. The article said Burnett had on at least one occasion tried to ban Blacks from the state.
The court ruling said that although Stovall had broken the law, the Supreme Court justices were making an exception for him due to his inexperience and poor health. Lee was ordered sent back to Mississippi.
The court decision sparked widespread outrage. The Black community and their white anti-slavery allies went on high alert, because they expected slave master Stovall would try to smuggle Lee out of town by boat before an appeal could be filed. The anti-slavery group began patrolling the San Francisco harbor.
Stovall was in the process of sneaking Lee aboard a ship when the police arrested them both, according to the report. One of Lee’s supporters had managed to get a court order from a sympathetic judge and stopped the kidnapping, just in time.
Lee was eventually set free when a federal judge overturned the California Supreme Court ruling to keep him enslaved. Lee went on to join an expedition of African Americans leaving California to resettle in British Columbia.
Pleasant’s own wealth could not shield her from racism. In 1866, a conductor barred Pleasant from boarding a streetcar in San Francisco because she was Black. She sued and the case went all the way to the California Supreme Court.
The court ruled that segregation on streetcars in California was illegal. However, the damages awarded Pleas- ant in a lower court were re- versed by the Supreme Court.
Pleasant dedicated her entire life to fighting racism and supporting the advancement of Black people. Even as a young adult she had worked on the Underground Rail- road, assisting enslaved people to escape the South.