During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Mary Ellen Pleasant who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.
Born: 1810s, in Georgia or in Philadelphia
Died: January 4, 1904 in San Francisco, CA
Known best for: Being a wealthy entrepreneur who used her money for philanthropy and civil rights out west
Mary Ellen Pleasant learned how to run a business as a child while working as an indentured servant to a shopkeeper. She married a wealthy, freed man and together, they helped slaves escape north and funded abolitionist movements. After the death of her first husband, she moved to San Francisco, CA, from the east coast.
Mary started out working as a servant in the homes of wealthy Californians while also working at fine dining establishments. Being smart with her money, she eventually started her own boardinghouse and invested her money. She was reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars at the peak of her finances based on real estate and investing in stocks.
But Mary Ellen is most well-known for her work in civil rights. She used her considerable fortune to sue a streetcar company that would not allow Black people to ride on it and sued another streetcar company that allowed segregation. She won both. The second case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. After two years, the court ruled in her favor, saying that in San Francisco city transportation could not be segregated.
The wins spurred her on to tackle more cases. She used her own money to defend Black people in courts as well as philanthropic causes.
Sadly, her life took a turn for the worst, in large part thanks to racism. She died in poverty after her financial partner, a white man, died. His wife made sure that Mary was not able to keep most of her holdings. Her name was also dragged through the mud in the press.
Sources: Wikipedia, BlackPast