Resource

Life Story: Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814–1904)

Businesswoman and Abolitionist

The story of a Black entrepreneur who made her fortune in the West.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

“Image of Mary Ellen Pleasant,” Historic Nantucket, Spring 1995. Berkeley Library Digital Collections, University of California

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Mary Ellen Pleasant stated in interviews that she was born on August 19, 1814, in Philadelphia, but her exact birth date is unknown. Many people claimed that she was born into slavery. However, Mary Ellen insisted that she had a free Black mother and a native Hawaiian father. 

As a young girl, Mary Ellen moved without her parents to the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. It was common for Black children to be raised by adults other than their parents at this time. Many Black Americans needed to move frequently in search of jobs and safety. Instead of bringing their children with them, some parents made the painful decision to arrange for their children to live with people who could provide better educational opportunities and more stability for them. 

Nantucket had one of the largest free Black communities in the state of Massachusetts. However, segregation was still present. Even though slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, Black Americans were expected to live apart from white residents. They had separate churches, schools, and neighborhoods.

Mary Ellen lived with Mary Hussey, an older white woman who ran a dry goods store. It is unclear how Mary Ellen came to live and work for her. One newspaper article suggests that Mary Ellen was apprenticed to Mary Hussey. This meant that she worked for a very low wage in exchange for learning the trade. Mary Ellen worked in the store for years and learned how to run a small business.

Mary Ellen left Nantucket when she was in her early twenties and moved to Boston. Little is known about her life in Boston, but she most likely worked in a tailor shop, where she met her first husband, James Smith. James was wealthy and an abolitionist. As with Mary Ellen, his racial background was unclear. Some claimed he was Cuban, while others believed him to be a Black American. He left Mary Ellen a significant inheritance when he died in the 1840s. 

Mary Ellen remarried several years later. Her new husband was named John James Pleasant. They had one daughter together, who they named Lizzie. Mary Ellen and John moved to California at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849. John worked as a ship cook at sea, and Mary Ellen worked as a domestic servant. 

Black Americans moved to California with hopes of economic and political opportunity. California was part of Mexico until 1848 and became a free state in 1850. The racial diversity of the state, which included many Indigenous and Mexican people, made it more welcoming to Black people than other places in the United States. However, Black people still faced racism in California. For example, the state passed its own Fugitive Slave Act in 1852.

Mary Ellen arrived in California with $15,000, which was a huge amount of money for the time. She wisely invested in companies that had a major influence on the western economy like Wells Fargo and the Bank of California. She also invested in gold, silver, quicksilver, and property. In addition, she opened laundry businesses and continued to work in domestic service.

“Some folks say that words were made to reveal thoughts. That ain’t so. Words were made to conceal thought.”

More than 92 percent of California’s residents were men in 1850. Job opportunities for women were plentiful and lucrative. Many domestics in California made ten times more than domestics doing the same work on the East Coast. Domestic work was likely a high-paying opportunity for Mary Ellen. She was a renowned cook and worked for the wealthiest residents of San Francisco. This gave her opportunities to listen in on conversations about upcoming investment opportunities.

Mary Ellen and her husband pursued abolitionist and activist work as well. She pushed for allowing Black people to testify in court, helped rescue fugitive slaves, and raised funds to help free enslaved people who traveled through California. They spent several months in Chatham, Canada, in an abolitionist community. There, she met John Brown and allegedly funded his famous 1859 raid. 

Even though California was a free state, San Francisco was racially segregated. Mary Ellen and other Black activists fought for equal access to the ballot box, education, and public transportation. In 1866, she successfully sued two streetcar companies for refusing to let her ride on their cars. During the case, she described herself as a maid, and she became known as “Mammy Pleasant.” The “mammy” is a stereotypical representation of a devoted Black housekeeper with its roots in slavery. By portraying herself as “Mammy Pleasant,” Mary Ellen used this painful stereotype to convince white residents that she was non-threatening and likable.

In 1869, Mary Ellen left domestic service and opened a boarding house. The boarding house was located in the center of San Francisco and became the most exclusive boarding house in the city. One of her boarders, Newton Booth, was elected governor of California while living at her house in 1871. 

In the 1870s, Mary Ellen moved her business and built a new mansion with her business partner Thomas Bell, who was vice president of the Bank of California. She lived there with Thomas, his wife, Teresa, and their children. Although she was a part-owner of the property, Mary Ellen hid her financial status from the public and portrayed herself as the family’s domestic servant. 

In 1883, Mary Ellen became involved in a complicated situation with a young woman named Sarah Althea Hill Sharon. Sarah claimed that she secretly married William Sharon, a wealthy investor. Sarah sued for divorce and accused William of being unfaithful. Mary Ellen served as Sarah’s prime witness and supported the validity of the marriage contract. 

The truth was that Mary Ellen and Sarah secretly conspired to claim Sarah and William were married. They worked together to blackmail William and were almost successful. The first trial awarded Sarah money, but the marriage contract was found invalid on appeal. In addition, Mary Ellen’s character was attacked during the trial. She was accused of being a “baby seller,” or an evil domestic worker. This was also a racist stereotype that was the opposite of a mammy. Mary Ellen’s decision to testify damaged the good “Mammy Pleasant” character she created for herself.

This trial was the beginning of the end of Mary Ellen’s reputation as a trustworthy person. Thomas Bell died in an accident at their mansion in 1892. Mary Ellen and Thomas’s wife fought over his inheritance in court for years. The relationship between Mary Ellen and Teresa soured. Newspapers negatively portrayed Mary Ellen as untrustworthy. 

Mary Ellen spent the last years of her life defending herself against creditors in court. A series of bad investments and her complicated financial situation with the Bell family significantly decreased her wealth. Mary Ellen Pleasant died on January 11, 1904. At one point in her life, she was a millionaire. By the end of her life, her inheritance was only $10,000, which was still a tremendous amount of money for this time.

Vocabulary

  • abolitionist: Someone who fights to end slavery. 
  • boarding house: A house where people can stay for a short time.
  • conspired: Made a secret plan to commit a crime.
  • creditors: People or companies someone owes money to.
  • domestic servant: Paid worker in someone’s home who does chores such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.
  • dry goods store: Store that sells a variety of items that are not groceries.
  • free state: State where slavery was banned before the Civil War.
  • lucrative: Something that makes someone a lot of money.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Mary Ellen Pleasant gain her wealth? What decisions did she make to become successful?
  • How did her race influence Mary Ellen Pleasant’s career? How did she use stereotypes to her advantage?
  • What opportunities did Black women have on the West Coast? What were the potential dangers of moving there?
  • How did Mary Ellen Pleasant use her status in her civil rights activism?
  • How did Mary Ellen Pleasant’s race and gender influence her business? Towards the end of her life, how did her investments and attempts to work around the system backfire?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

IMMIGRATION, MIGRATION, AND SETTLEMENT

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