All That’s Black: Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant, Entrepreneur and Activist:

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Mary Ellen Pleasant’s exact origins are fuzzy, but we do know that she was indentured early in life to a Nantucket shopkeeper from whom she learned the basics of running a business. There she also learned about the abolitionist movement.

A marriage to a wealthy free landowner named J.J. Smith, who was also an abolitionist, both solidified her fortune and helped her advance the cause. The Smiths worked to help slaves escape to the North and funded abolitionist causes. After Pleasant’s husband died young, she headed west to San Francisco; she worked as a cook and servant in rich people’s homes until she was able to start her own boardinghouse, which would be the first of many.

Pleasant was a familiar fixture in the houses of the wealthy during the period of the Gold Rush, as were the servants she began to train and place there, and it’s said that she used the information she gained from her proximity to wealth to increase her own assets. She invested her money and soon amassed a startling personal fortune based on stocks, real estate, and a series of businesses (including laundries and food establishments) that made her one of the growing city’s major entrepreneurs.

At her peak, she was estimated to be worth $30 million dollars, an astonishing sum for the period. As Pleasant became a powerful woman, she continued her work for civil rights, often in the courts. Shortly after the Civil War, she sued one streetcar company for not allowing blacks on their line and sued another that permitted segregation. She won both cases.

She became known in the black community for her philanthropy and very public support for civil rights. She used her money to defend wronged blacks and spent thousands in legal fees, becoming a hero to a generation of African Americans in California.

By Aprille’ Morris & Emily Burke

Edited By Keshav Kant

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