My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting
Celebrating Beltane May 1
Mary Ellen Pleasant, the mother of California civil rights, is associated with the pagan holiday Beltane because she once owned and lived at Beltane Ranch, here in Sonoma County. It is now recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service. Once the richest Black woman in America, her wealth was stolen and she died a pauper in 1904. She is buried in the Tulocay cemetery in Napa.
I wrote about Pleasant last year on Beltane, but I wasn’t finished thinking about her. She is a supremely important person in California history, but one who has been largely forgotten. I’m all about resurrecting her memory.
I refer to her as MEP because that is how she signed the note found in the pocket of John Brown before he was hanged for treason and inciting a slave rebellion in 1859. The note read, “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” MEP had financed Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry with a donation of what today would be a million dollars. Because her initials were read as WEP, she was never caught by Virginia authorities.
MEP was born in the East where she worked to bring slaves up north on the underground railroad until slavers threatened her. Along with a number of fellow abolitionists, she migrated to California in 1850. She sailed first to New Orleans where she continued to help people to flee slavery. During her short time there she connected with the legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau. She left the city just as she was about to be captured for helping runaway slaves.
The party landed in San Francisco where abolitionists found plenty of work to do. In California of the 1850s the law allowed any Black person who did not have proper papers to be sold into slavery. Slave catchers and slave owners came west looking for runaways. Slave owners who arrived in California before September, 1850 were allowed to keep their slaves as indentured servants.
My wife’s family traces their ancestry to Peter Burnett, the first elected governor of California, but of this they are not proud. Burnett, a Missouri immigrant, slave owner and white supremacist, promoted some of California’s most racist laws including enabling the enslavement and genocide of American Indians, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a push for the total exclusion of Blacks from the state. Earlier, as a judge in Oregon territory, he signed the first exclusion laws which required all Blacks to leave the territory or be flogged.
Burnett and MEP were destined to tangle. At the time Blacks were not allowed to testify in court. MEP helped get this law changed, but in the meantime she defended and hid Blacks unfairly captured. She paid the legal bills of young Archy Lee, brought as a slave from Mississippi, a slave state, to California, a free state, in 1857.
In the first case, Lee was declared free, as California allowed only “transient” slave owners to retain their slaves. Then, in an appeal to the state supreme court, Peter Burnett (by this time he was a member of the court) authored and signed the court’s decision to allow the slaveholder to leave the state with Lee as his slave.
From the court ruling: “It must be concluded that, where slavery exists, the right of property of the master in the slave must follow as a necessary incident. This right of property is recognized by the Constitution of the United States.”
Californians were outraged, and abolitionists boarded the ship to rescue Lee as it was leaving the state. A federal court overturned the Burnett decision, but then the slaveholder charged that Lee was in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A final trial declared Lee to be a free man. Archy Lee joined an expedition of African Americans who resettled in Canada.
Burnett was only governor for a year, then on the supreme court for less than a year, but he and other Southern whites impressed racist ideology on California in that short time. Reading the history, I’m truly amazed that a failed shop owner who had fled Missouri in debt could leave such a smear on the new state. California citizens have since learned the history and taken Burnett’s name off public buildings.
I wanted to see MEP’s grave so my friend Joan and I made the pilgrimage to Napa this spring. When we visited, the cherry trees surrounding it were in full bloom. Tucolay is a beautiful big cemetery and MEP’s grave is situated in a lovely corner.
When my friend Bill had visited last year, the gravestone was covered with voodoo icons like skulls with a vase of black roses. Icons had been glued right onto the stone, obscuring the inscription. Was it the work of a modern voodoo cult that surrounds her because of her association with Madame Leveau? At my visit the skulls had been removed, but traces of glue remained.
MEP said, “Before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested.”
She said it was the most important and significant act of her life, a life spent working to end human slavery.
On Beltane we celebrate the life and work of MEP and we also devise our own rituals to acknowledge the changing of the seasons. Our winter was cold and wet—about twice as rainy as normal. There was no spring; we graduated into summer on easter weekend. The sun came out with a vengeance and all the buds and flowers that had been patiently waiting for it burst forth in profusion. Grass of every variety grew tall. Lawn mowers revved. Fence lizards emerged. Ants vacated the kitchen. Bees and pollinators are waking up.
On Easter, instead of hunting for eggs, we concocted a ritual with friends who periodically drink Prosecco with us. It’s Linda’s job to pop the corks, and they can travel far into the garden. We hunted for corks instead of eggs. This, we expect, will become an annual custom.
I’ve just picked the last of the oranges and am about to start harvesting artichokes. We planted flowers and vegetables. I put away my warm slippers and took out my flip flops. I kissed the gloves I’d worn all winter, thanked them for warming my hands on many chilly hikes and tucked them into a drawer.
Goodbye winter. Hello summer!
Here is the link to last year’s story about MEP: https://mollymartin.blog/2022/05/01/beltane-and-a-black-heroine/