Disguised as a housekeeper and cook, Mary Ellen Pleasant became the first African-American millionaire in the 1800s

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 5, 2024 5:35 AM EDT
Mary Ellen Pleasant. Photo credit: Public Domain

The name Mary Ellen Pleasant is often left out when recounting the African American wealth tradition. Preceding Madam C. J. Walker by over half a century, Pleasant didn’t have the privilege of being as documented as the former. Arguably the first self-made African-American millionaire, Pleasant built an enormous investment portfolio worth $30 million at its peak. Valued today, this fortune would almost make her a billionaire.

But as a Black woman wielding such tremendous political and financial power in the 1800s, Pleasant was in a delicate position. She blended in with the culture of the times by disguising herself as a housekeeper and a cook even after gaining wealth. These roles enabled her to connect with wealthy citizens and garner valuable information for her investments.

The origins of Pleasant are not clear. Even during her lifetime, there were various accounts of where she was born, who her parents were and whether she was born free or not. In some versions, she was born into slavery in Georgia and others, she was the daughter of a wealthy Virginian planter and a voodoo priestess from the Caribbean. Pleasant claimed to have been born in Philadelphia in 1812 (other sources say 1814) to a Hawaiian father and “a full-blooded Louisiana negress.” This ambiguity was a part of her identity.

However, what is certain is that Pleasant was indentured early in life to a shopkeeper in Nantucket. She learned about the abolitionist movement from the shopkeeper’s family who were ardent abolitionists. Although she didn’t attain formal education, Pleasant learned the basics of running a business from working at the store.

“I often wonder what I would have been with an education. I have let books alone and studied men and women a good deal. I have always noticed that when I have something to say, people listen. They never go to sleep on me.,” Pleasant said in a memoir.

During her twenties, she married James Henry Smith, a merchant and abolitionist in Boston. They were involved in the Underground Railroad, helped slaves escape to the North and funded abolitionist causes. After her husband died in the 1840s, Pleasant inherited a small fortune. She followed the Gold Rush to California which was sold as a promised land for African Americans.

Pleasant found a lucrative moneymaking opportunity in San Francisco. The majority of the settlers were male which placed a premium on conventionally feminine skills such as cooking and running a household. She found work as a cook and servant in the homes of the rich, earning tenfold the income she would have received back home. Pleasant overheard conversations from wealthy men as she attended to them during meals and conferences and based her investments on this inside knowledge. Ranging from laundries and boarding houses to Wells Fargo, she spread her inheritance across California’s growing economy. 

By the 1870s, Pleasant had bought a variety of local businesses. She was the owner of a successful chain of laundry businesses and boarding houses. Still, she often disguised herself as a servant so as not to draw attention to herself. But it was her long-lasting partnership with Thomas Bell, a wealthy banker and capitalist that singularly elevated her prosperity. He helped her make even more money and ensured that her riches and true financial status remained a secret.

Pleasant was consequently able to invest in more luxurious accommodation which drew the elite. She established several restaurants, including the Case and Heiser, a 1,000-acre ranch called Beltane Ranch, and co-founded the Bank of California. Within five years of her partnership with Bell, Pleasant had amassed a hefty personal fortune of $30 million and had become one of the city’s major entrepreneurs. She used this wealth to orchestrate the planning and construction of a large mansion disguised as the Bells’ residence. Pleasant then assumed the role of housekeeper for the Bells although it was common knowledge in the city that she actually ran the household.

Fondly referred to as the “Mother of civil rights in California”, Pleasant campaigned for the end of slavery in the state. She funded the surreptitious transportation of Black men and women to California and provided for their daily needs until they were employed or had established businesses. Additionally, she helped establish a safe house for runaways, helped enslaved people escape their masters while in California and paid for legal fees when attempts to extradite them were made.

Pleasant often campaigned for civil rights in the courts. She funded the repeal of the law that banned the testimony of African Americans in court. In 1866, she sued a streetcar company that refused to admit her on their line and another that permitted segregation. She won both cases and became a hero of African-Americans in California.

As fate would have it, Pleasant’s later life was primarily spent in the courts of law. Following the death of her financial partner Bell, his widow challenged her right to the majority of her holdings claiming that her husband had been manipulated. It was difficult to separate what assets belonged to Bell or Pleasant at trial as the transactions were greatly entwined. Although Pleasant could prove that she paid for the construction of her mansion, she left the house in 1899.

Pleasant spent the last days of her life in a six-room apartment on Webster Street. Her case reclaiming her property and a diamond collection was not settled by the time she died in 1904. Her clever business acumen and achievements continue to inspire generations.