Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Black Women Entrepreneurs

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Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant, courtesy the William Loren Katz Collection

Although many details of Mary Ellen Pleasant's (1814–1904) life are obscure, it is generally agreed she lived for a time as a free woman in Boston before coming to San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849. Taking advantage of the opportunities available in the booming new city, Pleasant started working as a cook for wealthy clients but soon began opening laundries, boardinghouses, and restaurants using the 45,000 dollars she inherited upon the death of her first husband. Her establishments were patronized by many of San Francisco's newly-minted elite, enabling Pleasant to interact with the city's most powerful businessmen and politicians. An ardent abolitionist and racial advocate, Pleasant employed many African Americans and used her businesses as a way to promote black employment throughout San Francisco. In time her involvement in the social and political affairs of the city, as well as her appearances in court to protest Jim Crow legislation, led to the growth of considerable folklore and myth about her character. Portrayed as everything from a radical abolitionist to a scheming voodoo queen, Pleasant was first and foremost a powerful entrepreneur whose influence was felt in San Francisco throughout her life.

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