Mary Ellen Pleasant was an entrepreneur, real estate magnate, banker, and abolitionist who lived a life unlike any other in history. She was a part of the Underground Railroad, a significant operation in North America that brought together a group of people to help slaves flee their oppressors. Pleasant was also noted for her court victories in civil rights issues, earning her the moniker “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”
She became one of the first African-American female self-made millionaires in the United States after employing inventive methods to build her riches. However, because she was Black and a self-made millionaire in the 1800s, she had problems with society. She was accused by the white press of being a brothel owner and a “Voodoo Queen” who would do anything to keep her fortune.
She died penniless at the end of the day when her business partner’s wife snatched her fortune. Here’s how Pleasant amassed her wealth and then lost it all.
Her birth year is unknown, although historians believe she was born in 1814. She was born in Georgia, according to some stories, and Virginia, according to others. Her mother was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana” and her father was Hawaiian, according to her autobiography, which was published in San Francisco’s Pandex of the Press in January 1902. She was born in Philadelphia.
She worked as a domestic helper for a White household in Nantucket when she was six years old. She learned to read and write while she was there, but she never had a formal education. Pleasant wrote in her memoirs, “I frequently wonder what I might have been if I had had an education.” “I’ve put books aside and spent a lot of time studying men and women… When I have something to say, I’ve always seen that people pay attention. They don’t ever sleep on me.”
Pleasant initially married James Henry Smith, who was either white or mixed race, according to reports. Pleasant acquired a $45,000 inheritance after her father died in the 1840s.
She married a second time, to a Black man called John Pleasant, whom historians believe she met while working on the Underground Railroad in New Bedford.
Pleasant traveled to San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1852, where she worked as a domestic helper and chef for affluent people. She learned great investing advice while working for these wealthy individuals by listening in on their talks. The New York Times quoted Lynn Hudson, author of the 2003 biography “The Making of “Mammy Pleasant,” as saying, “It’s quite plausible that the jobs she had as a domestic were a cover that she was employing since she definitely made her money through investments.”
Pleasant was working as a cook in San Francisco at the time, making around $500 per month. She used a large portion of her salary and savings to invest in real estate and other business opportunities that she learned about from her clients. She would go on to become the proprietor of a laundry and boarding house chain.
It was around this time that she met Thomas Bell, a bank clerk. They became partners in business. Bell, who is White, assisted Pleasant in obtaining investments in his name in order for her to avoid the challenges she would encounter obtaining similar investments on her own as a Black woman. Pleasant and Bell purchased stock in laundries, dairies, restaurants, and the Wells Fargo Bank, which was founded in 1852 in San Francisco.
They amassed a large wealth, with a combined fortune of more than $30 million (about $864 million today).
Pleasant built a 30-room home in San Francisco for about $100,000 (about $2.4 million today). She and Bell and his family lived in the home, and she also acquired a 985-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley, as well as other assets. Before becoming a civil rights activist, Pleasant used her riches to assist abolitionist campaigns around the country. She filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against two streetcar firms, laying the path for the desegregation of San Francisco’s streetcars.
She also alleged to have funded John Brown’s infamous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. She said she paid the abolitionist $30,000 (about $850,000 today) for the raid. Despite having made a fortune on her own, rumors portrayed her as Bell’s mistress and referred to her boardinghouses as “brothels.” She was also accused of obtaining her fortune through voodoo, and she was dubbed “Mammy Pleasant,” a moniker she despised because of its racial connotations.
Then, in 1892, when Pleasant’s business partner Bell died after falling down the stairs, many people accused her of murder. According to CNBC, after Bell’s death, his widow sued Pleasant for possession of their multimillion-dollar estate. It was difficult to prove what was Pleasant’s alone because her money were “closely related” to Bell’s. The White press had also tarnished her image at the time. As a result, she lost her legal case. According to The Paris Review, she also lost much of her income and was evicted from her San Francisco mansion despite having paperwork proving she designed and paid for its construction. Pleasant had to live with friends in her final days. She died in 1904 at the age of nearly 90. Lawyers and creditors are said to have grabbed what little she had left, acc