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Mary Ellen Pleasant was a free black woman entrepreneur in California and a pioneer of black philanthropy. During her ninety years of life, she worked on the Underground Railroad and helped to usher in California’s Gold Rush. She is perhaps most famous for using her enormous financial resources to assist John Brown in his raid on Harpers Ferry. Her continued efforts of racial equality in the West led her to be known as “The Mother of Human Rights in California.” When Pleasant and two African American women were kicked off a street car in San Francisco, she filed suits. Her case, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, went to the California Supreme Court. After two years of litigation, the city outlawed segregation in San Francisco’s public transportation. This paper places her efforts squarely in the center of America’s greatest turning points. Time and time again we see how black women, and in particular, Mary Ellen Pleasant, cannot be separated from the endorsement of American entrepreneurship, abolitionism, and human rights.
Paula de Eguiluz, the daughter of African slaves in Puerto Rico in the 1590s, achieved her freedom from slavery by age thirty. However, from the 1620s to the end of the 1630s, she fought a contentious, ongoing battle with the inquisitors working out of the Cartagena de Indias tribunal of the Spanish Holy Office. Eguiluz gave numerous testimonies to the inquisitors, which hostile and friendly witnesses filled in from their own experiences with her. This extensive documentation offers a biographical narrative overflowing with details that have intrigued historians since the nineteenth century including: her infamous powers of seduction, her bold and elegant appearance, her healing skills, her ability to fly, and her frightening arsenal of incantations and potions. Eguiluz’s fortunes rose and fell in the first half of the seventeenth century, but what is most noteworthy is her dedication to the struggle for freedom. Through analysis of her detailed autobiography presented to the inquisitors and the supporting biographic details provided by her acquaintances and rivals, Eguiluz emerges as a complicated heroine with documented emotional subjectivity and moral ambiguity.
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