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Mary Ellen Pleasant - California's First Black Woman Millionaire

Mary Ellen Pleasant - California's First Black Woman Millionaire

Aug 16, 2020

Rozella Kennedy

California's first Black woman millionaire, Mary Ellen Pleasant was born a slave on August 19 (1812 or 1814). Bought and freed by abolitionists, she grew up as a bonded servant, passing as white. Her first husband, a merchant, also passed as white. They were “slave stealers” on the Underground Railroad, and when she fled to San Francisco, she'd become known as "The Harriet Tubman of California."

Endowed with his wealth, she opened a restaurant, laundries, boarding houses and other enterprises, rising on the social register and amassing a sizable fortune. Her employee Thomas Bell was her great love; she designed a 30-room Italianate mansion, found him a white wife, and they all moved in together. Rumors flew about the Thomas Bell Mansion, but like much of Mary Ellen’s life, the details are not fully known.

Also unclear to many whites was Pleasant's race, though she sponsored many people who had escaped slavery, and conspired with abolitionist John Brown. It was she who gave him the funding for his failed 1859 Harpers Ferry Slave Revolt. The initials on a note Brown had in his pocket at his hanging read “WEP” instead of “MEP,” seemingly saving her from a similarly dire fate.

After the Civil War, she “came out” as a Black woman, which cost her her status among white society (she was slurred “Mammy Pleasant”). Still, she continued to fight against racial discrimination, such as for Black people's right to ride in streetcars (a century before Rosa Parks).

Court battles and difficulties reduced her to dying in poverty in 1904. Today a street in SF's tony Nob Hill neighborhood is named Pleasant Street in her honor. Annoyingly, the park named in her memory is the smallest public park in the city—a plaque and six eucalyptuses in the Fillmore District.

See the 2019 episode of Comedy Central's "Drunk History" where she's portrayed by Lisa Bonet. We'd like to think if she were alive today, she'd have dreadlocks down to her behind!