Mary Ellen Pleasant was a successful entrepreneur, real estate magnate, financier, and abolitionist whose life was historically unique. She worked on the Underground Railroad, a large movement in North America consisting of several individuals who worked together to aid slaves in their escape from their captors. Pleasant was also known for winning several civil rights cases in court, which won her the name, “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”
Having used ingenious ways to build her fortune, she became one of the first African-American female self-made millionaires in the U.S. But she had troubles with society for being Black and a self-made millionaire in the 1800s. The white press accused her of being a brothel owner and a ‘Voodoo Queen’ who would do anything to sustain her wealth.
At the end of the day, she died penniless when her business partner’s wife took her fortune. Here’s how Pleasant built her fortune and lost it all.
Born sometime in 1814, historians are unclear about her place of birth. Some reports say she was born in Georgia while others say she was born in Virginia. In her autobiography published in San Francisco’s Pandex of the Press in January 1902, she, however, stated that her mother was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana” and her father was Hawaiian, and she had been born in Philadelphia.
At the young age of six, she lived with a White family as a domestic servant in Nantucket. There, she learned to read and write but she never had a formal education. “I often wonder what I would have been with an education,” Pleasant said in her autobiography. “I have let books alone and studied men and women a good deal. … I have always noticed that when I have something to say, people listen. They never go to sleep on me.”
Pleasant first married James Henry Smith who was said to be either White or mixed race. After his death in the 1840s, Pleasant received an inheritance of $45,000. She married again — a Black man named John Pleasant who historians believe she met in New Bedford while working on the Underground Railroad.
In 1852 during the Gold Rush, Pleasant moved to San Francisco where she worked as a domestic servant and chef for wealthy businessmen. While working for these wealthy individuals, she picked up valuable investing tips by listening in on their conversations. “It’s quite possible that the jobs she had as a domestic were a cover that she was using because she clearly made her money from investments,” Lynn Hudson, who wrote the 2003 biography “The Making of ‘Mammy Pleasant,’” told The New York Times.
Pleasant at the time was earning about $500 a month as a cook in San Francisco. She invested much of her salary and her savings in real estate and other business opportunities she overheard from her clients. She would soon become the owner of a chain of laundry businesses and boarding houses.
It was during this period that she met a bank clerk named Thomas Bell. They became business partners. Bell, who is White, helped Pleasant acquire investments under his name to enable her to overcome the difficulties she would face in getting those investments herself as a Black woman. Pleasant and Bell bought shares of laundries, dairies, restaurants and Wells Fargo Bank founded in San Francisco in 1852. They made a lot of money, with their combined fortune totaling more than $30 million (about $864 million today).
Pleasant built a 30-room mansion worth about $100,000 (roughly $2.4 million today) in San Francisco. She lived in the mansion along with Bell and his family and also acquired a 985-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley as well as other properties. Pleasant used her fortune to support abolitionist causes across the country before becoming a civil rights activist. She sued two streetcar companies for racial discrimination, paving the way for the desegregation of San Francisco’s streetcars.
The African-American businesswoman also claimed to have financed John Brown’s infamous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. She said she sent $30,000 (more than $850,000 today) to the abolitionist for the raid. And despite establishing a fortune on her own, rumors painted her as just Bell’s mistress and belittled her boardinghouse establishments as “brothels”. She was also accused of acquiring her wealth through voodoo while others called her “Mammy Pleasant,” a nickname she disliked due to its racial origins.
And then when her business partner Bell died in 1892 after falling down the stairs, many accused Pleasant of murder. After Bell’s death, his widow sued Pleasant for control of their shared multimillion-dollar fortune, according to CNBC. With Pleasant’s finances “closely tied” to Bell’s, it was hard to prove what was hers alone. Her image at the time had also been ruined by the White press. Thus, she lost the case in court.
She also lost most of her fortune and was evicted from her San Francisco mansion even though she had documents showing she had designed the building and paid for its construction, according to The Paris Review. Pleasant in her last days had to live with friends. She died in 1904 at almost 90 years old. Sources say lawyers and creditors seized the little she had left.