Mary Ellen Pleasant
I have frequently been asked to give the public a history of my life in order to vindicate myself and set at rest the many stories that have been published about me.
- Mary Ellen Pleasant
I was born a slave, to a slave, on a plantation near Augusta, Georgia, and never knew my father. I was born to free parents in Philadelphia. My father was Hawaiian, my mother a free woman from Louisiana. My father was a slaveowner in Virginia, my mother was a voodoo queen from a long line in Santa Domingo.
When I was six, or nine, I was sent to Nantucket as a bonded servant to a Quaker woman and had no education. A white man bought me off the plantation at age twelve and sent me to New Orleans to be educated by the nuns at St. Ursuline’s convent.
I was a lacemaker, I was a shop clerk. I was a girl full of smartness and quick at coming back at people when they tried to have a little fun talking to me.
I am light-skinned— or coal black. Tall, slender, with sharp features. I have one blue eye and one brown, so I can see into both worlds.
I told all these stories about myself and more. Others told other stories about me. But this much is true. My first husband James and I, we ran a station on the Underground Railroad on his plantation in Virginia, “stealing” the enslaved, helping them travel to safe haven in Ohio and Canada. When James died, he left me a considerable sum to continue the work, which my second husband Jean Pleasants and I did until slavers caught on to us. We fled to New Orleans and got back to work, here, in this beautiful, musical, resonant place.
Which is how I came to be in Congo Square on the day they came for me.
The plaza was alive, pulsing with the ancient drums. Dancers writhed underneath the twisted oaks veiled in Spanish moss. The air was so moist you could lean back into it like a bed, and be fanned by an occasional saving breeze from the river.
In New Orleans, the enslaved were given Sundays off work. Way back in 1817 the mayor of New Orleans had decreed this: Place Public, Place Congo, as the one place where les Negres were allowed to congregate.
Here in the “back” of town, the border of the Vieux Carre, the French Quarter, hundreds of free people of color and unsupervised slaves gathered under the live oaks, magnolias and palms. Men and women of all shades set up stalls and sold goods to earn money to purchase their freedom. From men dressed in little more than a sash, to quadroon women in the finest muslin fashions—all danced the Calinda, the Congo, the Flat-Footed Shuffle, the Carabine and Juba. Some Sundays Marie Laveau, the Voudou Queen herself, might lead the dance.
As always, whites gathered at the edges of the square, mesmerized by the beat of the rum-barrel drums, entranced by the rippling of glistening dark flesh.
I stood on the edges, too. Today, I was white. I can be as white as I need to be.
Most times when I came it was to meet runaways. The Square was where someone dark as night could go and not be seen. It was a place where slavers would have trouble picking you out among the crowd. It was a place where everyone of color understood that you were to be protected.
I would meet the runners, guide them to safe houses, then onto wagons, boats—any transport going away from the auction block.
Jean has warned me over and over to stay away from Congo Square unless I have Railroad business. I am too white, he says. I draw eyes. I draw questions.
But Jean was on a ship to San Francisco. And I couldn’t stay away. It was the music. It was the dancing. The rhythm throbbed through my body, entering my very soul.
I could pass. I did pass. My passing helped others to be free. But this, this square, this music, this dance… this was who I am. Like my brothers and sisters, I needed one day where I could be free in our way.
The Bamboula began, the Spirit of Ancestors. A chorus of women, clapping in rhythm, a male dancer commanding the circle. He pulled a woman in. Other dancers joined.
I felt my own body coming alive with the rhythm, my back tingling from the base of my spine all the way up to the crown of my head, ancient energies rising.
The music turned frantic, the dancers leaping and circling, the spectators chanting. One man fell to his knees in exhaustion and was pulled out, as another and another dancer joined.
And now I saw not just our people. Our gods were here, too.
The Loa come to ride the dancers, to take possession, to revel in the pleasures of the flesh. I spotted several of them. There was Mistress Erzulie, goddess of love, who had taught me much about shifting appearances, flirting with a circle of smitten men—and women. And there, bawdy old Papa Legba, god of the crossroads, in rags and wide-brimmed straw hat, hobbling on his crutch. I glimpsed Baron Samedi, Lord of Death, cool and deadly in top hat and dark spectacle, with beautiful, implacable Maman Brigitte by his side.
Suddenly the white faces reflected unease. They don’t know that in the frenzy of the Bamboula, the gods mount the dancers, and the dancers become the gods. But they sense something here, something more than they can see. Something secret and Other.
It is power.
I am moving with it, swaying and chanting.
And I wonder, as I do so often now, what it is like, to be ridden by a god.
One of the dancers spots me, dances to me, for me, her body writhing, sinuous as a snake. And then it is not a female face before me but the impenetrable dark spectacles of Samedi, Baron Cimitiere, barking a command: “Go.”
Then I saw them, shouldering their way through the undulating crowd. Toward me.
They’d found me.
I turned and plunged into the thickest part of the crowd of dancers, trusting them to know, to part for me and close behind me, giving me a head start. I pushed my way through sweating, glistening flesh, and broke through at the mouth of an alley.
I knew the Quarter, knew its secret passageways, its allies and its conductors. I ran into the alley and immediately darted down another, on feet made silent by a lifetime of running.
But this alley ended at a crossroads and in my terror I froze. Right? Left? Which way?
An old drunk lay passed out on a back stoop. Suddenly he lifted his head and looked at me with Legba’s bright eyes. He jerked his head left. I came back to life and ran.
Halfway down the alley I slipped through a garden gate, pulled it shut behind me.
The small courtyard was lined with the back doors of several shops. I darted toward the one I knew to be friendly.
I ducked in through the door, into a work area separate from the front room of the store. Leather pieces lay scattered over a work table strewn with tools; the air was pungent with the scent.
The shop door opened and I twisted around—to see a woman in an apron in the doorway. Her eyes widened as she saw me, but when I blurted out the password, she grabbed my hand and pulled me toward a wardrobe against the wall, between two rows of shelves. The woman opened the door and shoved aside hanging garments. She pressed a board on the side wall and a narrow door opened in the false back of the wardrobe.
I stepped into the coffin-like space and she closed the panel on me, shutting out the light. I pressed back against the inside wall and fumbled my hands along the false wall until I found the catch, checking the panel was back in place.
My heart pounded against my ribs. I forced myself to take long, shallow breaths. The smell of leather was strong, and I was glad. It covered the stench of my own panicked sweat.
Almost instantly, I could hear them in the shop front. The voices of the slavers. The plaintive whine of the clerk, feigning ignorance.
“Nossir, I ain’t seen no white lady.”
My mind was racing with recrimination.
I should have gone to San Francisco with Jean. Now I might never make it. Because they won’t take me alive.
I groped for the knife I always carried under my skirt, in a sheath strapped to the outside of my thigh… closed my fingers tight around the handle. I listened to the men striding around the shop, opening doors, chests, turning over furniture and scattering toolsas they searched, first the front of shop, then the back.
The footsteps stopped in front of the cupboard and I heard and felt the outer door wrench open. I stared though the dark at the panel of the false back and held my breath, afraid to move…
If I do get out, I’ll take the money and go. Tomorrow. Tonight.
I swear it…
The panel remained closed.
After an eternity, the men’s footsteps retreated. Their voices faded.
It was a good long time after that that the cupboard door opened and the panel slid aside.
As the air of the shop hit me, I realized I was drenched in sweat. The clerk had to help me out, to hold me up.
I did not want to leave New Orleans so soon. There was something here that drew me, something about myself.
But California was free.