Mary Ellen Pleasant was arguably the first self-made millionaire of African-American heritage. Although she died in poverty in 1904, aged 88, her fortune was at one point assessed as being worth $30,000,000, an extraordinary amount for the time.
Mary told enough versions of her early years story, that it is impossible to pin down her exact beginnings but it is likely that she was born into slavery in the Southern States of the US. She arrived in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1820 to be an indentured servant to the Hussey family who were Quakers and, like many other Quakers, abolitionists. Despite not being able to read she was made a clerk in the Hussey’s store, where she learnt how to manage the accounts and also developed the business acumen that would come in useful later in life.
By the time she had completed her service with the Husseys, she had grown to love them and they her. They helped her to start as a tailor’s assistant in Boston where she met her first husband James Smith. James was a plantation owner and abolitionist who also ran an underground railroad, moving freed slaves to Canada or Mexico. He died after only four years and left Mary with $45,000 to continue their work to free slaves.
Mary soon started a relationship with one of James Smith’s overseers, John Pleasant and together they continued James’ work. Mary would sometimes disguise herself as a jockey to gain access to plantations where she would help slaves to escape. Before long, both were being hunted as slave rescuers and fled the East Coast, landing in San Francisco in 1852.
The San Francisco of that time was small but fast growing due to the gold rush. Mary managed her money well; speculating in gold and silver, dividing her money between several banks and lending money out at 10% interest. She also established boarding houses and laundries for the migrant miners. Her higher class boarding houses were used by wealthy and influential, white men and by listening in to their conversations she was able to pick-up investment tips and grow her own portfolio.
Mary didn’t have access to the traditional routes into investing and so instead developed a partnership with Thomas Bell a white banker. She used his access to develop a joint portfolio of property, investments and businesses worth $30m ($750m in today’s money). For most of the last 20-years of her life (until Thomas’ death and a falling out with his widow), Mary lived in a 30-room mansion spanning two San Francisco city blocks, that she had designed and built.
Due to her work to free slaves, set-up lodgings and find them work she was known as ‘The Black City Hall’ and the mother of the early civil rights movement in California. She also funded and/or took on civil rights cases in court, with one successful judgement setting a precedent that was used in the California Supreme Court as recently as 1983.
Further information about Mary’s extrordinary life can be found at: