History February 15, 2020 at 11:00 am

Four pioneering African-American women millionaires after slavery

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

Michael Eli Dokosi February 15, 2020 at 11:00 am

February 15, 2020 at 11:00 am | History

Mary Ellen Pleasant made a name and a fortune in Gold Rush–era San Francisco
Pic Credit: theparisreview.org

Mary Ellen Pleasant

In her autobiography published in San Francisco’s Pandex of the Press in January 1902, Madam Pleasant stated her mother was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana” and her father a Hawaiian, adding she was born in Philadelphia.

While in Boston, she married Alexander Smith becoming an associate of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists.

Pleasant is noted as a successful 19th-century American entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnate and abolitionist.

She worked on the Underground Railroad across many states. She used her Gold Rush wealth to support abolitionist John Brown. She is also known for winning several civil rights cases in court after the Civil War, which won her the name, “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”

Mary Ellen Pleasant, an early African-American businesswoman and abolitionist.
Pic Credit: Everett Collection/Alamy

In a bid to flee persecution under the Fugitive Slave Act for leading people from slavery to freedom, she moved to San Francisco, California with her husband, John James Pleasant in the 1890s. She inherited her deceased husband’s wealth becoming an investor with her restaurant at 920 Washington Street became a meeting place for the city’s most prominent politicians at the time.

According to the New York Times, in the 1890 census, she stated that she was a “capitalist” by profession. She amassed so much wealth that her portfolio grew to include shares in businesses that ranged from dairies and laundries to Wells Fargo Bank. She owned restaurants and boardinghouses, which locals whispered were actually brothels.

Pleasant died in 1904 as an African American abolitionist, businesswoman, and entrepreneur.


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