A New Video on the Life of Mary Ellen Pleasant

I am pleased to introduce a new video created by a YouTube videographer, Cato Jones. It’s carefully researched, strikes a balanced tone, and captures all the salient points in this remarkable figure’s life. That is not an easy accomplishment, as Pleasant is in many ways a ‘difficult’ historical subject, having lived her life by her own rules.

The Sensational Life of America’s First Black Woman Millionaire – Mary Ellen Pleasant

Watch on YouTube here.

Having done some research on Pleasant, I was happy to contribute some images and background to support Jones’ work.

Here is my own piece about Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Ingleside ranch, Geneva Cottage, which revealed some previously undocumented aspects of Pleasant’s life in the city. In another piece I touch on Pleasant’s tumultuous relationship with Teresa Bell, owner of the Poole-Bell House, a local landmark.

The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House on Laidley Street in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

By Amy O’Hair

On the first day of October 1906, Annie Poole, widow of a disgraced public official, and Teresa Bell, widow of the city’s once-richest financier, met to discuss the sale of the small mansion that now bears both their names, the Poole-Bell House.

Bell was moving out to this remote enclave, the sparsely settled Fairmount district, where the house sat perched on a hill with a fine view of the city in the distance. She wanted to put a bit of space between her and the nattering classes of society. It was a prickly conference; Bell wanted to move in a day earlier than the transfer of the funds between the two women, a presumptuous request that Poole resisted. Bell recorded their conversation, with commentary, in her diary.

“Mrs Poole said she could not personally let me move in until Wednesday. I said I only cared because of the family, her and their discomfort. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘tell them I am an old cross crank.’ I said, ‘No. I told them the facts that you had no right to let me in your house until you had your money, and that you would not let me in.’

“She stopped laughing quickly and her eyes popped out with surprise. She saw she was not fooling me. With all the lies she had told about ‘the people not removing their things yet,’ her stare of astonishment showed I was right in my surmise as to her not letting me in.

“Of course I do not blame her a bit, but she could have accommodated me one day, considering my paying her in cash down for her furniture, and I paid enough for it too. But it’s all right, she knows nothing about me nor I of her, and she didn’t do business on trust evidently. She is one breed and I another, that is evident.”[1]

Bell thought herself a cut above, as if more money granted greater nobility. The irony is that the Bell family scandals far outpaced the minor frisson of shame that the Poole family endured. The Bells provided sensational fodder for newspapers for decades, whereas Poole’s husband had made a mistake and in the way of the times taken the ‘honorable’ way out through suicide.

Continue reading “The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name”

Mary Ellen Pleasant in Ingleside: Stories of Geneva Cottage

By Amy O’Hair

As an innovative entrepreneur whose heart was set on righteous social justice, Mary Ellen Pleasant belongs to San Francisco; now Ingleside can lay a claim to her remarkable legacy as well. Pleasant had far grander properties than her modest ranch on San Jose Avenue, set among the expansive vegetable fields of the nineteenth century. But this was where she built a business important to her early career, and the place she retreated to at the end of her life when her empire was crumbling. In between, she used the land and the house there she named Geneva Cottage for many different purposes—from a brief stint as a sex-party venue, to a ranch for hogs and cattle, to a home she extended to her Black friends and family members in times of need. In 1900, she sold the whole block, under duress, to the engineer and architect who built the Geneva Car Barn, Office Building, and Powerhouse.[1] It was one of the last of her many properties that she sold as her fortunes dwindled before her death in January 1904.

Outpost on the Old San Jose Road

The property Pleasant held at San Jose and Geneva Avenues has not before this had the documentation it is due. The large cottage there was located where the landmarked Geneva Office Building now sits, which is currently being developed as a community arts center. The area is a major transit hub, with Balboa Park Station across the street, as well as Balboa Park Upper Yard, an eight-story affordable housing building to begin construction soon. Like the long agricultural history for this area, Pleasant’s presence here has been erased.

Modest as it may have been, the land was important to her, both personally and to the course of her career. In the late 1880s, this ranch was listed among her major assets in a newspaper feature about the wealthiest Black people in the US.[2] It was probably at the bottom of her portfolio in terms of value, certainly in her wealthiest years. But her attachment to it is evidenced by the roles it played in her work and life. More than once she had to go to court to defend her ownership; once she sued her own daughter to get control of it.[3]

Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the veranda of Geneva Cottage, SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899.
Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the veranda of Geneva Cottage, SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899.

Continue reading “Mary Ellen Pleasant in Ingleside: Stories of Geneva Cottage”