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California history After the Gold Rush: Chapter 17 - Mary Ellen Pleasant, The Executive Committee
Athenaeum Saloon, San Francisco, May 1860
Mary Ellen Pleasant
The Executive Committee: J.J. Moore, Peter Anderson, James Madison Bell
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To the Lathams and Woodworths and Ralstons of the world I was Mrs. Ellen Smith.
But on my own time I was Mary Ellen Pleasant. I was Black. And the money I made from white people went to my people.
There weren’t a lot of us in California. And far fewer than there had been two years ago.
In 1858 the California Legislature, led by that slaver Senator William Gwin, the same charmer who so many believed was behind the shooting of Senator Broderick, passed a slew of laws intended to keep us out of the state. Stripped us of the right to own property, the right to testify against a white person in court.
One early Black pioneer and entrepreneur, Mifflin Gibbs, declared that there was no point in remaining. He gathered seven hundred Black San Franciscans and took them out to Canada, where there is an established free Black community in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. As I knew very well. My husband Jean and I had gone ourselves, for a time. Until once again, we had to leave, fast. Jean went back to sea, and me, to San Francisco, for better or worse.
Those of us who chose San Francisco had a whole interconnection, a small, politically active community of about a thousand of us. Free Blacks from the North who migrated to California during the Gold Rush. Escaped slaves and others like me—without papers, who came and lived under false identities
We had three churches, two joint stock companies, building and loans, restaurants, barber shops, shoe stores, furniture stores, liveries, mechanics, a literary society and a Masonic lodge. There were Black-owned saloons and night clubs and gambling resorts. We had our own paper, the Mirror of the Times—founded by Gibbs and editor Jonas H. Townsend, now run by Peter Anderson.
And we had the Executive Committee: educated Black elite from across the state who’d come together and consolidated power through the California Colored Convention back in 1855. Since then they’d worked to establish and implement programs and policies that would benefit our people throughout California.
Along with Peter Anderson, there was:
Reverend John J. “J.J.” Moore, who founded the AME Zion church, as well as being the City’s first Black teacher, and a frequent contributor to Black newspapers all over the country.
The peripatetic Reverend T.M.D. Ward, nephew of abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward, first pastor of the first Black church that also housed the first Black school in the city, and who preached on the road all across the state and nation.
Reverend Jeremiah B. Sanderson, who had charge of the colored school from 1859.
William H. Hall, an activist and entrepreneur who owned and ran a popular billiard saloon on Mason near Vallejo. A fine-looking man— and I’ve known a few.
And as you may have noticed, the Committee was all men.
Women in our community had their women’s clubs and charities. The Ladies Union Beneficial Society of San Francisco, the Elliott Literary Society, the Daughters and Sons of the Zion Benevolent Association. They organized church bazaars and fundraisers for various causes, and volunteered at the Colored School.
That wasn’t me. I wasn’t about to throw myself into planning church socials. I couldn’t afford to have my name on what we did, anyway. I was no how in the same position as a man who had been born free, or who had his free papers. I was a criminal fugitive, at continual risk of arrest. And I wasn’t much of a Christian. I had no interest in the great white father god. Not when there were so many more interesting gods and goddesses of my own ancestry. Naturally, with all these respectable preachermen about, I kept quiet about that.
But the church was the political center of our universe. Our meeting house, our lecture hall, our concert hall. School for the children in the day and for adults at night. So on Sundays even I went to church: Reverend J.J. Moore’s AME Zion, African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, on the west side of Stockton Street between Sacramento and Clay.
And from church we walked ourselves over to the Athenaeum Saloon, on Washington above Stockton.
The Athenaeum was a two-story building, meeting rooms on the bottom, and a library upstairs: a haven of books, newspaper archives, papers, poetry, art, photographs, that our community had carefully collected, catalogued, curated. We built it from scratch. Bought the building, bought the books, built the community. The library subscribed to all the leading Black newspapers and anti-slavery journals of the country.
I’d got educated myself while working off my bondage for the Quakers in Philadelphia. Or in the convent in New Orleans, if that was the story I was telling that day. To be honest I had always found studying people much more advantageous that any book learning. But it still took my breath away, to step through the doorway into a whole world of books that were ours for the taking, any volume we should care to withdraw. Legally ours.
I never took it for granted.
We had our missions: protesting the denial of the franchise and the ban on Black testimony in court cases involving whites. We were actively searching for a new editor to replace Mifflin Gibbs and assist Peter Anderson at our Mirror of the Times.
And we organized the rescues. Despite California being a free state, Southern slavers knew California politicians were overwhelmingly Southern. Senator Gwin—hailing from Mississippi, of course—had packed the courts and the police force with pro-slavery men who weren’t in any hurry to enforce the laws. So outside of the city there were hundreds of enslaved people who’d been brought by slaveholders to work in the fields and the mines.
We staged rescues, got the freed people new identities and jobs, hid them in plain sight—or sent ’em on to the community in Canada.
But we’d gathered today for another reason entirely. The Republican national convention had taken place in Chicago ten days ago and the first ship from the East was due in today.
Today we’d finally learn who the party had nominated for President.
The Democrats had already convened in Charleston April 23 to May 3 and had failed to nominate a candidate. Their front runner Senator Stephen Douglas, a moderate, disagreed with the Dred Scott Decision, the atrocity of a Supreme Court ruling that stated it was illegal for Congress to outlaw slavery in the territories.
In a staged protest, fifty Southern delegates walked out of the convention to form their own convention, leaving Douglas short of enough votes to clinch the nomination. A typical slaveholder tantrum to get their way. It looked on the surface like shooting themselves in the foot—or in the head—but it was pretty clear they were trying to force secession.
The remaining conventioneers took votes a whopping fifty-seven times, but couldn’t agree. The convention had to adjourn.
Now it was the Republicans’ turn.
Many in our gathering thought that the whole thing was already done—that William H. Seward was a shoo-in. So did most Southerners and Sesesh. There had been increasing rumblings from that quarter about “the Black Republican Party.”
I wasn’t so confident. Seward was a dream candidate from our point of view, as abolitionist as we were going to get, given that the more radical John C. Frémont was no longer an option. Seward was too good to be true, and I’d lived too long in this world to fool myself that I was an optimist.
I circulated through the crowd, making the rounds, meeting and greeting, to try to quell my nervousness.
And then I saw him. And I froze.
A newcomer to our gathering, but not to me.
James Madison Bell. A celebrated poet, one of the best of our time. But that’s not how I knew him, or why.
He saw me too, but didn’t let on that he knew me. He was speaking with Peter Anderson, and when Anderson spotted me standing there, he guided Bell over to me. “Mrs. Pleasant, I have the great honor of introducing James Madison Bell.”
We shook hands as though for the first time, and I managed to keep my voice steady. “Mr. Bell. I’m an admirer of your work.”
Of course Anderson thought I was speaking of Bell’s poetry. And I was. But Bell knew I meant much more.
The three of us said things I can’t recall about the nomination, and then Anderson left us. James and I did not speak for a charged moment. There was no need. We both knew what we’d done, and what the penalty would be, should we ever be discovered.
He finally spoke. “Mrs. Pleasant. You look well.”
I corrected him. “It’s Mrs. Smith. Out there.”
He inclined his head. “As you wish.”
“As I must.”
“Still married, then?”
I gave him a sharp look. “Why wouldn’t I be?” And then I added sweetly, “How is Louisiana?” Meaning his wife. You best believe I could play that game, too.
I knew him from Canada.
Our community here knew of my Underground Railroad work. But not even they knew of the extent of my involvement with John Brown.
My work with the Railroad had brought me frequently to Chatham, a terminus for escaped slaves and home to several communities of the liberated. James Bell had been part of the abolitionist circle there. In May of 1858 a group of thirty-five of us met with John Brown and twelve white supporters, abolitionists all, in a secret convention. John Brown presented his Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, and we pledged our support to his plan to raid the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and steal the weapons to arm and liberate the enslaved.
For my part, I contributed thirty thousand of my own money.
But our plans were knocked all to pieces by Brown himself. He started the raid on Harpers Ferry before the time was right. I was astounded when I heard that he had started in and was already beaten and captured, and that the affair upon which I had staked my money and built so much hope, was a fiasco. The detectives found among Brown’s papers a letter from me. It contained these words: The axe is laid at the root of the tree. When the first blow is struck there will be more money and help. The papers stated that such a letter was found, signed “WEP.”
I’d gone to New York as fast as I could. When I read in the papers that the detectives were on the track of “WEP” who wrote the letter, I had a quiet laugh when I saw that my poor handwriting had given them a false trail.
I could see James was thinking of it all, too. “It is a great pleasure to see you—well,” he said softly.
He meant alive. He meant free. None of us had known whether we’d survive the night when we heard Brown had been taken. The authorities had come to arrest Frederick Douglass the day after he’d fled for England. Just after Jean and I had disappeared ourselves.
“And you,” I answered.
We were silent again, thinking of what might have been.
“We did what we could,” he said, suddenly.
“We did.” My voice was sharp. I was angry all over again, that Brown had turned our plan into a suicide mission.
James spoke, his voice low, intense.
“For he who battles for the right,
When in the thickest of the fight,
Doth feel a God-approving glow,
Which bids defiance to the foe;
And though he falls beside his shield,
He sleeps a victor on the field.
And Freedom is that sacred cause,
Where he that doth his lancet poise,
Shall, living, reap the world's applause,
Or, dying, win unclouded joys.”
I wondered if he had made it up as we stood there. He’d always had that habit, of making verse up as if he were simply speaking it.
He continued, “Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake. Perhaps he thought he would do the most good as a martyr. And perhaps he has.”
I could feel my anger rise. I couldn’t help myself. “Poetry always makes things so pretty. You know what I say? Enough. Enough martyrs. Enough death.”
I knew I had to calm myself. We were drawing eyes from the crowd.
“What answer, then?” he asked softly.
I had my answer. And it was money. Money was power. Money was freedom.
But we were interrupted as a ripple went through the room. Someone had entered and people were calling out, “It’s Lincoln. The nomination went to Lincoln!”
James and I exchanged a stunned glance. It was the last thing I’d expected to hear.
We crowded in with the others as a messenger handed a newspaper to J.J. Moore and he raised his voice to read aloud. “‘By the last overland mail we have a confirmation of the report brought by a passenger of the previous trip, that Abram Lincoln—’”
“Abraham!” someone shouted in correction.
“They spell it Abram, here,” Reverend Moore said. It showed how much of a shock it was—the papers didn’t even know Lincoln’s proper name.
J.J. continued, “‘Abram Lincoln of Illinois has been nominated by the Black Republicans at Chicago, for president; and that he has associated with him, for vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, at present U.S. senator. This nomination was so wholly unexpected that the Republicans of the state appear to have had their breath knocked clean out of them for several days after its reception. Heretofore California Republicans, in speculating as to the probable nominee of the Chicago convention, never took Abe Lincoln into the calculation at all.
The Democrats are in the highest spirits, and augur an easy victory with whomsoever may be nominated at Baltimore.”
Murmurs rippled through the hall. It was hard to know what to think of it. Lincoln wasn’t exactly an unknown. A one-term Congressman who had cannily made a name for himself by going up against Stephen Douglas in a series of debates on “The Negro Question.”
But he was young and unsophisticated, raised in a log cabin, self-educated.
To us, Lincoln was a moderate. But as J.J. and others continued to read the snippets of reaction from the papers it was clear that Southern Democrats seemed to think he was the end of the world. J.J spoke the vile words with no expression.
“If you want to vote cheek by jowl with a large buck nigger
If you support a party that says ‘a nigger is better than an Irishman’
If you are ‘ready to divide your patrimony with the negro’
- Vote for Lincoln.”
“Free love and free niggers will certainly elect old Abe.”
“Hundreds of thousands of fugitive slaves will emigrate to their friends—the Republicans—North, and be placed by them side by side in competition with white men…African amalgamation with the fair daughters of the Anglo Saxon, Celtic, and Teutonic races will soon be their portion under the millennium of Republican rule.”
J.J. read on for hours, paper after paper, as we all tried to absorb the implications.
Southern politicians were already threatening secession if Lincoln was elected. Like they’d threatened to secede in ’56 when Frémont was nominated.
There was no question that we, the assembled community, were going to support the Republican party. For us, there was no other choice. But the question would consume us from that moment until well after the election:
Who was this creature, Lincoln? And what did he really think?
What would he mean—to us?
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