Mary Ellen Pleasant was a successful 19th-century African American entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnate and abolitionist who identified herself as “a capitalist by profession” in the 1890 United States Census.
She was born on Aug. 19, 1814, in Virginia and spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts as a bondservant to the Hussey family, an abolitionist family. She later married James Smith, they both worked as conductors on the Underground Railroad.
She worked on the Underground Railroad across many states and then helped bring it to California during the Gold Rush Era. While in California, she established several restaurants for California miners, the first named the Case and Heiser. With the help of clerk Thomas Bell, Mrs. Pleasant amassed a fortune by 1875 through her investments and various businesses by 1875. She also helped to establish the Bank of California. She was a friend and financial supporter of John Brown and was well known in abolitionist circles. In the 1860s and 1870s, Mrs. Pleasant brought several civil rights lawsuits in California, especially against the trolley companies, most of which she won, one of which was cited and upheld in the 1980s and resulted in her being called “The Mother of Human Rights in California”. Mary Ellen Pleasant died on Jan. 4, 1904.