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How Did Mary Ellen Pleasant Make Her Fortune?

In a period when the systemic discrimination against African-Americans was legal, Mary Ellen Pleasant used her anonymity as a Black domestic helper to become a self-made millionaire. Pleasant’s portfolio included shares in laundries, dairies, and the Wells Fargo Bank. 

Mary Ellen Pleasant became one of the first African-American millionaires, becoming a business-savvy entrepreneur in the 1800s. Pleasant amassed her wealth by following the numerous investment advice she overheard from her affluent employers when she worked as a domestic helper. 

The Becoming of Mama Mary Ellen Pleasant

Recognized as one of the first African-American entrepreneurs and self-made millionaires, Mary Ellen Pleasant remains relevant to this date with her story as an African-American woman.

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story starts in 1814, the year of her birth. While some state that Pleasant emerged from a family victimized by slavery, Pleasant claims that she was born free in Philadelphia. As a child, Pleasant became separated from her parents and soon worked in Massachusetts as a domestic servant for a white family. Pleasant learned to read and write in a shop and acquired no formal education.

In a 1902 autobiography, Pleasant states that she left books alone and prioritized studying men and women, which became the primary cause of her success. During the Gold Rush in 1852, Pleasant transferred to San Francisco and worked as a chef and domestic servant for white, affluent businessmen. With Pleasant often being ignored as an African-American worker, Pleasant used her secrecy well. (Source: CNBC

Pleasant utilized her supposed anonymity and closeness to learn numerous investing tips by listening to her employers’ discussions. Lynn Hudson, the author of the 2003 biography The Making of ‘Mommy Peasant’: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, suggests that Pleasant intentionally took the job of being a domestic worker to acquire lessons on investments and gossip.

It’s quite possible that the jobs she had as a domestic were a cover that she was using because she clearly made her money from investments.

Lynn Hudson

(Source: The New York Times)

The Outcome of Pleasant’s Overheard Lessons

When Mary Ellen Pleasant initially transferred to San Francisco at 38 years old, she only made $500 a month. Following her employers’ advice, she soon allotted most of her savings and salary to real estate and other financial opportunities, such as gold and silver mines.

In addition to that, Pleasant purchased numerous local businesses, and when the 1860s emerged, Pleasant owned a successful laundry businesses chain and boarding houses. To avoid garnering any attention, Pleasant continued to disguise herself as a servant.

Thomas Bell, a white bank clerk, aided Pleasant in her business pursuits, forming a business partnership that lasted many years. Pleasant continued to buy many restaurants, dairies, laundries, and even the Wells Fargo Bank, putting her investments in Thomas Bell’s name to avoid controversy and discrimination. Historians state their accumulated fortune equaled to $864,000,000 today.

And although Pleasant became successful in her path towards a self-made millionaire, her fortune didn’t last forever. Her wealth diminished away when she lost a legal conflict upon Thomas Bell’s passing, making her pass away in poverty. (Source: CNBC)

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