Mary Ellen Pleasant may not be a household name, but her story rivals that of any great American entrepreneur. In the 1800s, Pleasant became one of the first African-American female self-made millionaires in the U.S. despite the significant obstacles she faced as black woman.
Pleasant employed her inherent savvy, building a massive investment portfolio that was reportedly worth as much as $30 million at one time — a fortune that would make her close to a billionaire in today’s value.
She put her fortune to use aiding abolitionist causes across the country while helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and settle down in free states. Here’s her story.
Born in 1814 (some biographers say she was born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, though she claimed to have been born free in Philadelphia), Pleasant was separated from her parents at a young age and sent to work as a domestic servant for a white family in Massachusetts, where slavery had essentially been illegal since the end of the 18th Century. It was there that she learned to read and write and work in a shop, but she never had a formal education.
“I often wonder what I would have been with an education,” Pleasant said in an autobiography published in 1902. “I have let books alone and studied men and women a good deal.”
Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 during the Gold Rush (California entered the Union as a free, non-slavery state in 1850). There she worked as a domestic servant and chef for wealthy businessmen.
White, wealthy men would have been dismissive of an African-American woman in their midst, and Pleasant took advantage of that, according to The New York Times.