When she arrived in San Francisco in 1852, there were six men to every woman. It was not a safe place, but Mary was up to the challenge. Once here, she was forced to use two identities to keep from being captured under California's Fugitive Slave Act. Under this law in California anyone without freedom papers could be captured and sent into slavery. Mary had no papers. She befriended some of the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco, trusting her the shared their secrets, she leveraged their secrets for favors, which made it possible for her to get jobs and privileges for "colored" people in San Francisco. It is said that for this they nicknamed her "The Black City Hall”.
In the "colored" community, in her true identity as Mrs. Pleasant, she used her money to help ex-slaves fight unfair laws and to get lawyers or businesses in California. She became an expert capitalist, owning every kind of business imaginable, and she prospered. However, her people suffered as European immigrations took the menial jobs once held for them and as anti-black sentiment and national depression mounted. So, in 1858 Mary decided to return East -- to help her former brother in law gain release from slavery and to help abolitionist John Brown end slavery forever.
Mary narrowly escaped with her life. On her return, however (hunted for treason), she continued to fight, and after the Emancipation Proclamation and the California Right-of-Testimony of 1863 law, she declared her race openly. She orchestrated court battles to test the right of testimony, and in 1868 her battle for the right of blacks to ride the San Francisco trolleys without fear of discrimination set precedent in the California Supreme Court.
Summary researched and prepared by Deundra Hundon
Sources: SFChronicle & TheNewFillmore.com
For a short documentary on her, check out: “The Legacy of Mary Ellen Pleasant”