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Know your ‘Black History’: Mary Ellen Pleasant

We've all heard of Madame CJ Walker, who is famously thought to be the first Black female millionaire, but have you ever heard of Mary Ellen Pleasant? Her story is quite extraordinary and illustrates how a savvy Black cook, who was deemed "invisible" by whites, used financial tips she picked up while eavesdropping on wealthy White businessmen she served, lead her to become a multimillionaire.
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We’ve all heard of Madame CJ Walker, who is famously thought to be the first Black female millionaire, but have you ever heard of Mary Ellen Pleasant?

Her story is quite extraordinary and illustrates how a savvy Black cook, who was deemed “invisible” by whites, used financial tips she picked up while eavesdropping on wealthy White businessmen she served, lead her to become a multimillionaire.

Born sometime between 1814 and 181, the exact date is unknown, and dying in January 1904, Pleasant was a 19th-century American entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnate and abolitionist. She identified herself as “a capitalist by profession” in the 1890 United States Census.

She worked on the Underground Railroad and helped bring it to California during the Gold Rush era. She was a lover, friend and financial supporter of John Brown and well known in abolitionist circles. After the Civil War, she won several civil rights victories, one of which was cited and upheld in the 1980s and resulted in her being called “The Mother of Human Rights in California,” though other legal battles had mixed results.

In Creole terms, Pleasant could have been referred to as a “passe blanc,” which is someone whose appearance could pass for White.

She wrote that her mother was a “full-blooded Negress from Louisiana” and her father was Hawaiian.

Pleasant married James Smith, a wealthy flour contractor and plantation owner who had freed his slaves and was also able to pass as white. She worked with Smith as a “slave conductor” on the Underground Railroad until his death about four years later. They transported slaves to northern states such as Ohio and even as far as Canada. Smith left instructions and money for her to continue the work after his death. Pleasant is looked at by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”

When Pleasant arrived in San Francisco, she passed as white, using her first husband’s name among the whites, and took jobs running exclusive men’s eating establishments. She met most of the founders of the city as she catered lavish meals, and she benefited from the tidbits of financial gossip and deals usually tossed around at the tables. She engaged a young clerk, Thomas Bell, at the Bank of California and they began to make money based on her tips and guidance. Thomas made money of his own, especially in quicksilver, and by 1875 they had together amassed a 30-million-dollar fortune. The partnership was seen by many as illicit; the mansion she built in San Francisco for herself and Bell and his family was thought to be a brothel.

Pleasant did not conceal her race from other blacks and was adept at finding jobs for those brought in by Underground Railroad activities. Some of the people she sponsored became important black leaders in the city. She left San Francisco from 1857 to 1859 to help John Brown. She was said to have actively supported his cause with money and work. There was a note from her in his pocket when he was arrested after the Harpers Ferry Armory incident, but as it was only signed with the initials “MEP” (which were misread as “WEP”) she was not caught. She returned to San Francisco to continue her work there, where she was known as the “Black City Hall.”

After the Civil War, Pleasant publicly changed her racial designation in the City Directory from “White” to “Black,” causing a stir among some Whites. She began a series of court battles to fight laws prohibiting blacks from riding trolleys and other such abuses.

Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local Whites. The press also called her “Mammy” Pleasant, but she did not approve.

“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.

If you didn’t know– now you know!

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