Black History Month in San Francisco: Historical and Present Day Figures

Black History Month in San Francisco: Historical and Present Day Figures

In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to shine a light on historical Bay Area figures whose efforts cleared a path for a brighter, more equitable future, as well as those who are continuing to carry the torch and making history in their own right. 

Here we take a look at the impact San Francisco residents Mary Ellen Pleasant and Nadine Burke Harris have made. Learn more about their contributions to history below.

Feature image: Street mural on Fulton Street in San Francisco/Cmichel67 Wikimedia Commons

May Ellen Pleasant San Francisco Black history

Mary Ellen Pleasant

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Mary Ellen Pleasant if: 

a. You live in San Francisco, or … 
b. Watch Comedy Central. 

Pleasant’s story was covered — albeit sloppily — in a popular episode of Drunk History. But her contributions to society go beyond a brief comedy special. 

Pleasant came to San Francisco from New England at the height of the Gold Rush, passing herself off as a white woman for years to evade scrutiny. She amassed a fortune through smart investment and business sense, investing in properties in Oakland and San Francisco and opening laundries and boardinghouses that were mostly staffed by Black people. She put her money to good use, working to free enslaved African Americans and shelter them in the West. 

While working as a housekeeper for powerful San Francisco families, Pleasant honed her business savvy and chose investments based on the conversations she overhead between influential men. Pleasant is also noted for having sued a streetcar company for denying service to Black citizens after a driver refused to stop for her. The case went to the California Supreme Court, which declared segregation on streetcars to be unconstitutional. A wealthy woman, in 1890 she listed her profession as “capitalist” in the census.

Bell home San Francisco history
Photo: Old Bell home / Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

But her money and connections did not shield her from trouble. Pleasant’s final years were spent dealing with fallout over her relationship with Thomas Bell — a well-to-do business partner with whom she resided on the corner of Bush and Octavia. She financed and developed plans for large mansion that she shared with the Bell family, making the mansion outwardly seem like it was the Bell’s estate. After Thomas Bell died in 1892, she had lost most of her estate and was deemed insolvent.

Her former mansion was eventually demolished and is now the Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park. Six old eucalyptus trees that once stood within her gardens can still be seen next to the historical marker erected in her memory on the corner.

Nadine Burke Harris San Francisco Black History

Nadine Burke Harris

Nadine Burke Harris made history when she was appointed as California’s first surgeon general in January 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom. However, the pediatrician’s career started in San Francisco a decade and a half prior to her taking on this preeminent role. 

Burke Harris joined the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) in 2005, working to develop programs to end health disparities in San Francisco. Two years later, and with CPMC’s help, Burke Harris became the founding physician of Bayview Child Health Center in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, where she paid attention to how social circumstances and poverty can impact a person’s health

She continued this holistic approach to individual and community health care, co-founding the project Adverse Childhood Experiences in 2010 with community leaders like then-District Attorney Kamala Harris. Burke Harris’ approach emphasized mental health and social support in primary health care, and eventually this work culminated in the creation of the Center for Youth Wellness in 2012. 

Burke Harris continued speaking and writing about her innovative approach to health care, hosting her own TED Talk and publishing the 2018 book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. On top of all of this, Burke Harris went on to become an advisory council member for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail campaign before becoming California’s first-ever surgeon general. She retired from her role February 1, 2022, and continues her work through advocacy and public speaking.

Celebrate Black History Month in the Bay Area

Looking for ways to honor the occasion? Check out these listings for events taking place this month.

San Francisco Chronicle Datebook

The Oaklandside

ABC 10

Warriors Celebrations


Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top