From Slave To Millionaire: Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814–1904)
“I`d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born the illegitimate daughter of a slave and a Virginia governor’s son in Georgia and worked as linen worker at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. She later went to worked for a Cincinnati merchant who promised that he would free her but instead placed her in nine years of indentured servitude with an aging Quaker merchant known as Grandma Hussey.
Turns out the Husseys were abolitionists who helped slaves flee to Canada and safe states.
Pleasant had no “freedom papers” so she passed herself off as white so she could work as a steward and cook in a boardinghouse. She began investing in real estate and used her money for social change and to help former slaves go into business for themselves. “She became successful at leveraging social change that many called her San Francisco’s ‘Black City Hall’. Her money and activities helped ex-slaves avoid extradition, start businesses and find employment in hotels, homes and on steamships and railroads of California,” reports Concrete Loop.
She even gave famed abolitionist John Brown money for his crusade.
After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Pleasant moved back to San Francisco where she was to learn that her investments were now worth a whopping $30 million. “She then publicly changed her racial designation in the City Directory from ‘white’ to ‘black’ and led the Franchise League movement that earned blacks the right to testify in court and to ride the trolleys. Her lawsuit in 1868 against the North Beach and Mission Railroad was used as a precedent in 1982 to achieve contemporary civil rights,” says Concrete Loop.
Sadly, we took a look around and didn’t see much about Pleasant, even though she’s clearly a fascinating figure. What did pop up was a Comedy Central clip about her life from the show Drunk History starring Lisa Bonet. Check it out below.