Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant was in Philadelphia with a mother who was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana” and Hawaiian father. Living with her family as a domestic servant in Nantucket at age 6, she learned a lot that later helped shape her life.
“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 married Alexander Smith while in Boston. She moved to Canada Westin, working with abolitionists and fugitive slaves near Chatham in the late 1850s after the demise of her husband.
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 new husband, John James Pleasant in the 1890s. with the money she had from her first marriage, Pleasant became an investor and her restaurant at 920 Washington Street even 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.
Attributed with being an important conductor of the Underground Railroad, Pleasant died in 1904 as an African American abolitionist, businesswoman, and entrepreneur for over 50 years in the San Francisco Gold Rush heyday.
Comparing her to Harriet Tubman, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his 1924 book “The Gift of Black Folk” that Pleasant was “quite a different kind of woman and yet strangely effective and influential.”
“Here was a coloured woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State. She anticipated the development in oil. She was the trusted confidant of many of the California pioneers such as Ralston, Mills and Booth, and for years was a power in San Francisco affairs,” he said.
According to Lerone Bennett, Jr., in Ebony, she was “a bold black pioneer who was one of the most enigmatic and mysterious women in American history.”