The Million-Dollar Mother – Mary Ellen Pleasant

In a time where women were seen as less than men, and black people weren’t seen as human, you’d think it would be remotely impossible to be a successful black businesswoman.

Her story is complicated but abolitionist, financier, real estate magnate and Gold Rush entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant was a free black woman who dedicated her life to equality for African Americans shattering racial and gender barriers.

Born into slavery, Mary Ellen was the illegitimate daughter of the son of then-Virginia governor and a Haitian voodoo priestess. She was sold from Georgia to New Orleans, then later bought and freed as an indentured servant in Rhode Island. She eventually made Philadelphia home, married an abolitionist and became a conductor of the Underground Railroad in Canada. ⁠

Around 1848, Mary and her husband heard about the Gold Rush and saw it as an opportunity to move west to California. She came to San Francisco fleeing prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act while continuing her work leading people from slavery to freedom and finding them employment. Arriving in San Francisco with a considerable sum of money left to her by her first husband, Mary Ellen invested it wisely. She established several businesses included laundries, dairies and restaurants — all of which became quite lucrative in a city filled with gold miners, politicians and businessmen.

By 1875, she had earned a great deal of money from her businesses and investments and used it to help establish the Bank of California. Mary Ellen continued the fight for civil rights and challenged Jim Crow laws ⁠in suing the North Beach Railroad Co. for not letting African Americans ride streetcars in San Francisco.

Today the Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park in San Francisco lives on the property that once occupied a 30-room Italianate mansion she owned on Octavia Street.

Searching her history you may find so much more about this woman. Mary Ellen was relentless and sometimes controversial yet she died known as “the Mother of Civil Rights in California.”

She amassed a fortune worth over $30 million and used much of that fortune to challenge the white supremacist status quo marking her million-dollar legacy in civil rights and black entrepreneurship.

 

This post is the part of The Bag Collector series – a spotlight posts that feature serial entrepreneurs of color each recognized for their ability to diversify in business, wealth and investments. These individuals exemplify what it means to be creative and unapologetic in pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence, and ultimately collect the “bag” then use it to make greater community impact.

A Martyr for the People – Thomas Moss

Kroger and Publix, Wal-Mart and Target, every successful business has its competition. There’s inspired competition – the kind that motivates you, challenges you, and makes you chase after success. And then there’s competition that only wants to see you lose and drive you out of business. The story of Thomas Moss is one that undeniably captures the trauma of competition that black entrepreneurs faced while working to acquire wealth post-slavery.

In 1889, Thomas Moss and 11 prominent black investors, opened The People’s Grocery. The store was located just outside Memphis in a neighborhood called the “Curve.” News of this black owned business spread quickly and black people in the community began to feel empowered. 

Moss was motivated to attain wealth and invest into his community. A postman by day, he used earnings delivering mail to invest in his start-up idea of a community grocery store. He delivered mail by day and ran People’s Grocery by night. And, as family man in the community, his popularity lent great success to his entrepreneurial pursuits. 

With this cooperative venture for the store, a unique structure of its kind in those days, he ran along corporate lines and made his store the 5th largest wholesale grocery market in the country. Moss was an instant success. His store brought capital to the black community while also instilling a sense of pride. 

Sadly, his social nor economic status was able to save him from the racial hostility of the South. Across from Moss’ store was another store owned by a white man, and many white people in the community were not pleased. Many felt as if they shouldn’t compete for the black dollar and the People’s Grocery quickly became an enemy of their white competitors. Moss was confident. He ignored the animosity and persisted to thrive in business. He knew the blacks in the community loved him and would support his grocery store.

In March 1892, a series of racially charged fights broke out outside of the store. Two of Moss’ workers went outside to ease the tension. Moss along with his two workers were arrested and later dragged out of jail by an angry mob of 75 white men. They all were publicly lynched while in police custody. ⁠

Moss was asked if he had any last words and he stated, “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice here.” This lynching became known as the Lynchings at the Curve. ⁠Ida B. Wells, a famed anti-lynching journalist and a dear friend to Moss, was set to show through media that lynching had become a tool of economic terrorism and disenfranchisement and became a vocal champion to broadcast the lynchings as they spread especially among black male business owners.

Many black entrepreneurs lynched across the South were people who dared to be their own boss or were perceived as having too much ambition, property or talent. Moss’ lynching, like many others, was framed as an organized act of extralegal violence and a punishment for becoming an economic competitor to whites.

The success and sacrifice of Thomas Moss has major takeaways for us today. The idea that discrimination is alive and well is true but the promise that opportunities are endless for those who fearlessly pursue entrepreneurship is even greater.

For that, we have martyrs like Thomas Moss to thank.

 

This post is the part of The Bag Collector series – a spotlight posts that feature serial entrepreneurs of color each recognized for their ability to diversify in business, wealth and investments. These individuals exemplify what it means to be creative and unapologetic in pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence, and ultimately collect the “bag” then use it to make greater community impact.