A Tiny Park With a Big Story

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You can easily walk by it and never notice. But if you look up into the six eucalyptus trees planted more than a century ago by namesake Mary Ellen Pleasant, you might want to look down at the plaque that marks San Francisco’s smallest park. Worth a walk-by if you’re ever in the city.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Park (at 1501–1699 Octavia Street) comprises, in total, six giant eucalyptus trees and a concrete plaque adjacent to the sidewalk — all of which measures less than an acre. Nevertheless, the small green space still offers the best of park qualities: quiet shade, vistas (if you look up,) and a unique piece of San Francisco history. The park is a small stretch along Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter.

Its namesake, though, has an outsized story.

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Ms. Pleasant’s mansion no longer graces the property, but her spirit remains. It’s a spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship, enduring questions — her story is a mixture of legend and fact — and the remarkable effect of one woman on her time.

Born in Georgia in 1814 — most likely into slavery — Mary Ellen Pleasant had her way to Boston and/or Rhode Island before her adulthood. Over several decades there she married an abolitionist and several subsequent others.

She worked tirelessly with the underground railroad. And by the time the hazards of that activity prompted her to come to San Francisco, sometime around 1850, Pleasant was an accomplished cook and housekeeper, and those were for many years either official or unofficial employments. But her first husband had left her a substantial sum of money and she was, meanwhile, investing shrewdly and increasing her wealth through businesses — laundries, restaurants, brothels, boarding houses — and reinvestments.

Pleasant established black schools, fought for rights for blacks as well as Chinese, brought the underground railroad westward, became a behind-the-scenes political powerhouse and a friend of John Brown, established the 1,000-acre Beltrane Ranch in Sonoma County, co-founded (possibly) the Bank of California and earned the title of California’s first Self-Made Black Woman Millionaire. She left the mansion (replaced later by what is now the Healing Arts Building) for a six-room apartment on Webster Street which would be her home until she died in 1904.

A large legacy for a tiny piece of San Francisco.