With singing and speeches, a new marker was dedicated Saturday at the Napa grave of a former slave who is now celebrated as a 19th century civil rights leader.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born a slave in Georgia in 1817. Because of her abolitionist activities with the Underground Railroad and her championing of the rights of blacks in the West, she is one of a handful of people buried at Tulocay whose life had national importance.
She has been called “The Mother of Civil Rights in California” and her grave has been recognized as a Network to Freedom site by the National Park Service.
In 1851, Mary Ellen Pleasant came to Gold Rush-era San Francisco, and successfully operated boarding houses and laundries.
In 1858, she returned to the East and helped finance John Brown, the fiery abolitionist who led the attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859. The attack was an important event leading up to the Civil War.
By the 1860s, she had returned to San Francisco and was known for her support of the 1863 California Right of Testimony Bill, which gave blacks the right to testify in court. She also twice sued the San Francisco street car company for the right to ride on public transportation.
Pleasant died in poverty in San Francisco in 1904. In her last illness, she was befriended by Olive Sherwood and buried in the Sherwood/Higbie plot at Tulocay.
Sherwood was the niece of Alfred Higbie, who was both a Methodist minister and superintendent of Napa County Schools in the 1860s. There are still descendants of this family living in the Bay Area.
Pleasant's original marker was wooden. It was replaced with a marble monument in 1965 by what is now the San Francisco African-American Historical and Cultural Society. Their marble grave stone came from above the doorway of one of Pleasant's homes in San Francisco.
A metal sculpture by R. Alan Williams, a prize-winning black artist, was also commissioned. In Williams’ words, the sculpture depicted “a forceful stand, holding a body of purpose.”
The inscriptions on the stone were carved by the late Myron Simich, whose sons, Steve and Dave Simich, still run the historic Napa Marble and Granite Works.
In 1965, the women of the Historical and Cultural Society labeled Pleasant “Mother of Civil Rights in California,” and had the phrase Pleasant had requested — “She was a friend of John Brown” — carved on her marker.
Over the years, this stone, which was fragile, began to deteriorate. So a group of historians headed by Dr. Susheel Bibbs, an expert on Pleasant’s life, and Lauren Coodley, a Napa Valley College history professor, began a campaign to raise money to replace it.
A fundraising reception was held at the Napa Valley Museum. The board at Tulocay Cemetery pledged half the cost.
The replacement stone was ordered in January. To economize, the stone, quarried in the Sierras, was shipped to China to be finished before being returned to Napa for engraving.
No one imagined that the return of the stone would be delayed by rough water after the tsunami hit the coast of Japan, or that it would arrive cracked in mid-May.
The cemetery board and interested citizens chipped in extra money and the Simiches covered the rush fee to prepare a replacement stone of white Sierra granite.
A ceremony was held at Pleasant’s grave site Saturday as the culmination of a Napa County Landmarks walking tour of Tulocay.
The dedication began with a traditional Nigerian rite performed by Dr. Halifu Osumare, associate professor of African and African-American Studies at UC Davis.
Dr. Bibbs, a historian, author and performer who recently retired from teaching at UC Berkeley, spoke about Pleasant's life, and then introduced Coodley and Roxie DeLaca, a descendent of Alfred Higbie and Olive Sherwood.
Guy Washington, a manager with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom for the National Park Service, spoke of Pleasant's importance in the history of our country.
To end the ceremony, Bibbs led the group in singing Rock of Ages, one of Pleasant's favorite hymns.
Brennan is a local historian who has specialized in the history of Tulocay Cemetery. She led Saturday’s Napa County Landmarks tour of the cemetery, which culminated with the ceremony at Mary Ellen Pleasant’s grave.