Mary Ellen Pleasant, one of the first black self-made millionaires, used an ingenious trick to build her fortune

Mary Ellen Pleasant
Source: Wikipedia

Mary Ellen Pleasant may not be a household name, but her story rivals that of any great American entrepreneur. In the 1800s, Pleasant became one of the first African-American female self-made millionaires in the U.S. despite the significant obstacles she faced as black woman.

Pleasant employed her inherent savvy, building a massive investment portfolio that was reportedly worth as much as $30 million at one time — a fortune that would make her close to a billionaire in today's value.

She put her fortune to use aiding abolitionist causes across the country while helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and settle down in free states. Here's her story.

How she built a fortune

Born in 1814 (some biographers say she was born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, though she claimed to have been born free in Philadelphia), Pleasant was separated from her parents at a young age and sent to work as a domestic servant for a white family in Massachusetts, where slavery had essentially been illegal since the end of the 18th Century. It was there that she learned to read and write and work in a shop, but she never had a formal education.

"I often wonder what I would have been with an education," Pleasant said in an autobiography published in 1902. "I have let books alone and studied men and women a good deal."

Indeed: Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 during the Gold Rush (California entered the Union as a free, non-slavery state in 1850). There she worked as a domestic servant and chef for wealthy businessmen.

White, wealthy men would have been dismissive of an African-American woman in their midst, and Pleasant took advantage of that, according to The New York Times.

Pleasant used her proximity and anonymity to pick up countless valuable investing tips by listening in on her employers' conversations. In fact, one historian posits the possibility that Pleasant worked as a domestic servant specifically to pick up on investment advice and juicy gossip.

"It's quite possible that the jobs she had as a domestic were a cover that she was using because she clearly made her money from investments," Lynn Hudson, who wrote the 2003 biography "The Making of 'Mammy Pleasant,'" told The New York Times.

Pleasant reportedly earned roughly $500 a month as a cook when she first arrived in San Francisco at the age of 38, and invested much of her salary and her savings in real estate and other opportunities she overheard, including gold and silver mines.

She also bought various local businesses, starting with laundries. By the 1860s, Pleasant was the owner of a prosperous chain of laundry businesses and a series of boarding houses — where she still often disguised herself as a servant to be more easily overlooked.

CNBC Celebrates Black History Month
CNBC Celebrates Black History Month

Pleasant also met a bank clerk named Thomas Bell who helped her pursue some of her investments as part of what would be a years-long business partnership forged in order to make both parties extremely wealthy. In order to avoid discrimination, or simply questions about how a black woman could accumulate a substantial fortune, Pleasant reportedly put many of her investments in the name of Bell, who was white, according to The New York Times.

The two bought shares of laundries, dairies, restaurants and even Wells Fargo Bank, which was founded in San Francisco in 1852. Some historians estimate their combined fortune eventually totaled more than $30 million (a sum that would be equal to roughly $864 million today, based on inflation).

As a wealthy African-American woman in the 1800s, Pleasant didn't exactly flaunt her wealth — but she didn't hide it, either. She built a 30-room mansion worth roughly $100,000 at the time (or about $2.4 million today) in the heart of San Francisco, in what is now the city's wealthy Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood. In her biography, the historian Lynn Hudson describes the estate as "a lavishly furnished multistory Victorian mansion with large grounds."

Pleasant lived in the mansion along with Bell and his family, though she also acquired various other properties through the end of the century, including a 985-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley northeast of San Francisco (a property that is now a vineyard with a bed and breakfast).

As a result she faced animosity and vicious rumors that painted her as merely Bell's mistress and denigrated her boarding houses as brothels while claiming she practiced voodoo.

Supporting the cause

Throughout her life, Pleasant supported causes aimed at ending the practice of slavery, while also working with the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to freedom.

Before landing in San Francisco, Pleasant was married to a wealthy mixed-race merchant and abolitionist, who reportedly left her an inheritance when he died. (Pleasant married twice but had no children.) During the 1840s, Pleasant used it to help transport slaves to freedom in northern states and Canada as part of the Underground Railroad.

Once in San Francisco, Pleasant continued to offer financial assistance to former slaves using the money her husband had left her as well as her own growing fortune. Pleasant often found jobs and housing for African-Americans who had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.

As her fortune and standing in San Francisco society continued to grow, Pleasant publicly took on issues of civil rights, including suing two streetcar companies for racial discrimination. Those cases paved the way for the desegregation of the city's streetcars while helping to earn Pleasant recognition as the "mother of civil rights" in California.


Pleasant also put her money to use to help fund anti-slavery efforts. She admitted to sending $30,000 (more than $850,000 in today's dollars) to abolitionist John Brown to fund his 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, an attempt to kick off a larger armed slave revolt in the Southern U.S., according to historian Lynn Hudson's 2003 book.

She died in poverty

While Pleasant's actions earned her local fame (a small park is still named after her in San Francisco), her wealth did not last until the end of her life. After her investment partner, Bell, died in 1892, his widow sued Pleasant for control of their shared multimillion-dollar fortune.

Pleasant lost that legal battle in large part because her finances were so closely tied to Bell's that it was difficult to prove what was hers alone. It also didn't help Pleasant's case that her reputation had been tarnished by the accusations, repeated in local newspapers and tabloids, that she ran brothels and used voodoo to hold sway over her deceased business partner, The Paris Review notes.

As a result, she lost most of her fortune and was evicted from her San Francisco mansion, despite the fact that she showed the court evidence proving she had designed the building and paid for its construction, according to The Paris Review.

Pleasant was plunged into poverty and forced to live with friends until she died in 1904 at nearly 90 years old.

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Key takeaways from the life of America's first female self-made millionaire
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