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.