Mary Ellen Pleasant
August 19, 1814 – January 11, 1904
The exact details of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s early life are unclear. By some accounts, she was born Mary Ellen Williams and her father was Louis Alexander Williams. The location and condition of her birth are uncertain. Williams claimed to have been born free in Philadelphia the child of a Hawaiian man and a Black woman from New Orleans.
But sources state she’d also provided accounts of having been born into slavery in Georgia or Virginia, the child of a Virginia planter and a Black voodoo priestess from the Caribbean. Even the year of her birth is unclear as Williams cited 1812 as her year of birth but most sources refer to 1814.
What is known for certain is that Williams was sent to live with the Husseys, a White Quaker family, in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Williams began working in the household as a domestic servant but later became a clerk in a dry goods store that was owned by the family. Slavery had been outlawed several years before Williams’ birth but the community was segregated by race.
Williams might have been apprenticed to Mary Hussey likely with hopes that she would receive an education. Initially, Williams could not read or write and she would not attend school to receive a formal education. But she learned how to operate a small business from years of working in the store. She also saw examples of entrepreneurship in the local Black community. Of special importance, Williams distinguished herself as being naturally intelligent, observant, capable of reading people, and effective at influencing others.
Once again, the details are unclear but Williams moved to Boston in her early 20s where she is believed to have worked as a tailor’s assistant. While there she met and married her first husband, James Smith, whose race and background are also unclear. It’s believed that he was either a Black American man or a mixed-race man from Cuba and had become relatively wealthy from either previously operating a plantation or as a merchant.
What is known is that Smith was an abolitionist. While married to Williams, the couple was actively involved in Boston’s abolitionist community. Pleasant wrote for The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. She and Smith were also conductors on the Underground Railroad and helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada and Mexico.
Following Smith’s death in the 1840s, Williams received an inheritance of tens of thousands of dollars, a sizeable sum for the time. Williams married John James Pleasant around 1848 and had one child during the marriage, a daughter. Mary Ellen Pleasant continued her work with the Underground Railroad and contributed some of her inheritance to the abolitionist movement. Her involvement with the Underground Railroad began to garner unwanted attention and contributed to Pleasant leaving town.
When gold was found in California in the late 1840s, many fortune hunters headed west hoping to strike it rich. Pleasant was amongst those who set out for California and arrived in San Francisco around 1852. But instead of mining for gold, Pleasant sought to increase her wealth by providing resources and services that the miners would need.
Pleasant still had a good deal of money from her inheritance. Yet, she found work as a cook and housekeeper. At first glance, this might seem questionable. Given the period, many of the people headed west were men. Skills such as cooking, cleaning, and laundering were needed but in short supply. While considered menial labor, these jobs paid about ten times more in California than they did back East. Thus, Pleasant was able to earn a good income while adding to her nest egg.
Secondly, working these types of jobs brought Pleasant into contact with the rich and powerful. As a Black domestic worker, many would have ignored her. Thus she was able to listen and pick up investment tips from conversations she overheard.
Pleasant invested her inheritance and earnings in real estate, stocks, and other aspects of the growing local economy. She was an early investor in Wells Fargo and helped to establish the Bank of California. As an entrepreneur, Pleasant provided restaurants, laundries, boarding houses, and financing for miners. She also formed a long-term though unconventional investment relationship with a White banker, Thomas Bell.
Utilizing her wealth and connections, Pleasant helped fugitive slaves get settled when they arrived in San Francisco. She also helped Black people who had been kidnapped and illegally enslaved in California. Pleasant led initiatives to secure civil rights and equality for Black people in California. In particular, she was involved with court cases that allowed Black people to testify in court and ended race-based denial of service on streetcars. There are also claims that Pleasant provided financial support for John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
Unfortunately, Pleasant experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune later in life. Bell died in a suspicious accident and his widow speculated that he’d been murdered by Pleasant. She was also involved in an extortion scandal and a smear campaign that alleged she ran brothels and had manipulated Bell with voodoo.
Pleasant and Bell’s finances were closely intertwined. His wife’s allegations led to Pleasant being forced out of the mansion she’d shared with the couple. This occurred after providing documents that showed she’d designed and paid for the home. Pleasant filed for bankruptcy in 1899 and now living in relative poverty relied on friends for housing and support until her death in 1904.
- Boomer, Lee. 2022. “Life Story: Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814–1904).” Women & the American Story. New-York Historical Society Museum & Library. July 8, 2022. https://wams.nyhistory.org/industry-and-empire/expansion-and-empire/mary-ellen-pleasant/.
- Huddleston, Tom. 2020. “Mary Ellen Pleasant, One of the First Black Self-Made Millionaires, Used an Ingenious Trick to Build Her Fortune.” CNBC. NBC Universal. February 15, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/14/how-mary-ellen-pleasant-became-one-of-the-first-black-millionaires.html.
- Lowe, Turkiya. 2020. “Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904).” Blackpast.org. February 7, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/pleasant-mary-ellen-1814-1904/.
- “Mary Ellen Pleasant (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed March 22, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/people/mary-ellen-pleasant.htm.
- “Mary Ellen Pleasant.” 2013. History of American Women. January 5, 2013. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/01/mary-ellen-pleasant.html.
- White, Edward. 2020. “A Girl Full of Smartness.” The Paris Review. August 26, 2020. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/06/02/a-girl-full-of-smartness/.
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