Mary Ellen Pleasant

In honor of Black History Month, every school day The Cardinal will feature a prominent and historical Black American, living or dead, who has worked toward change, advancement, and/or world peace. Some of them are heroes, and some are unsung heroes, who deserve recognition, and have made a contribution to society.


Kayla Onn, Staff Writer

As an entrepreneur, civil-rights activist, and benefactor, Mary Ellen Pleasant made a name and a fortune for herself in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, shattering racial taboos. Mary Ellen Pleasant was born on Aug. 19, 1814, in Virginia.

By the 1820s she was in New England, working at a busy shop and likely helping fellow Black Americans to freedom along the Underground Railroad. It was there that she met her first husband, carpenter and constructor, James Smith. When he died, he left Pleasant a large inheritance. Her arrival occurred with the peak of gold fever in California. She owned properties in San Francisco and neighboring Oakland; she eventually bought property in Canada, as well. Yet despite her considerable wealth, she worked as a housekeeper for some of San Francisco’s most prominent merchants. These jobs provided her with free investment advice gleaned from conversations between rich and powerful people. Pleasant’s wealth allowed her to give generously to her community. Historians have believed that assisted other enslaved people escape their captors, essentially establishing California’s Underground Railroad.

Near the end of her life, she told a reporter that she helped found the militant abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia—an attempt to spark a slave revolt throughout the South. Despite her wealth and power, it did not protect her from scandal. Mary Ellen Pleasant died of old age in San Francisco on January 4, 1904. In 1965, Pleasant’s final wish was belatedly granted: “SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN” was added to her gravestone. It could be the shortest, most eloquent summary of a remarkable life: rebellious and audacious, driven by personal ambition and social justice, and radical to the end.