Almost a century before Rosa Parks forced public acknowledgement of segregation on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Mary Ellen Pleasant sued and won the right for African-Americans to ride the trolleys of San Francisco in 1868. This strong-minded woman, who established Beltane Ranch in the Valley of the Moon, is an important but often misunderstood figure on American History.
She was derisively called “Mammy” Pleasant, and thought by many to be the proprietor of houses of ill repute. In fact, she was a staunch abolitionist and feminist who actively protected runaway slaves and abused women. The houses of ill repute she was thought to have managed were in fact safe houses, modeled after the underground railway she took part in after she herself was freed from slavery.
After Pleasant came west she paid close attention to the chaotically fluctuating economic scene after the Gold Rush, and amassed a great fortune. In 1858 she returned east to rescue a relative from slavery, and to join John Brown’s campaign to free the slaves near Harper’s Ferry. It is said that she funded his mission, and narrowly escaped when he was captured and hung.