Black History Makers: Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant, 1814-1904, Entrepreneur and abolitionist

Mary Ellen Pleasant (1852)

Mary Ellen Pleasant was born on Aug. 19, 1814 in Virginia and spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts.  She worked as a bond servant to the Hussey family, an abolitionist family.  She later married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and an abolitionist.  Mary Ellen and James worked on the Underground Railroad.

California’s Slave Act forced Mary Ellen Pleasant to assume two identities in order to avoid capture when she arrived in San Francisco in 1852. At this time, anyone without freedom papers could be sent back into slavery. Her two identities: ‘Mrs. Ellen Smith,’ a White boardinghouse cook serving the wealthiest and most influential men while leveraging secrets for favors such as providing jobs and privileges for Colored people; and ‘Mrs. Pleasant,’ an abolitionist-turned-entrepreneur who used her money to help ex-slaves fight the California Slave Act and become business owners. Pleasant’s fortune was once assessed at $30 million.

Source(s): Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History by Julianne Malveaux

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