Mary Ellen Pleasant’s exact origins are fuzzy. She may have begun her life as a slave in 1810s Georgia, but it’s equally possible that she was born free in Philadelphia. We do know that she was indentured early in life to a Nantucket shopkeeper from whom she learned the basics of running a business. She also learned about the abolitionist movement, since the shopkeeper’s family were die hard abolitionists. A marriage to a wealthy free landowner named J.J. Smith, who was also an abolitionist, both solidified her fortune and advanced the cause. The Smiths worked to help slaves escape to the North and funded abolitionist causes (including, it is said, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry).
After Pleasant’s husband died young, she headed west to San Francisco, which at the time was an almost lawless town. 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 cannily 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, which was unusual for a woman and doubly unusual for a woman of color. 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.
Unfortunately, Pleasant’s later life was tough. She supported the case of a woman engaged in a marriage dispute with a senator from Nevada, which hurt her financially and politically when the woman lost. The death of her financial partner Thomas Bell threw her affairs into turmoil, and his widow challenged Pleasant’s right to most of her holdings. Yellow journalists branded her “Mammy Pleasant,” accusing her of everything from murdering Thomas Bell to putting entire households under voodoo spells (Pleasant, it is said, once maintained a friendship with New Orleans voodoo queen Marie LaVeau). Pleasant’s vast fortune was lost and she died in poverty in 1904. Fortunately, her sullied reputation as “Mammy” has not defined her life; today, she is more commonly remembered as “The Mother of Civil Rights in California.”