Mary Ellen Pleasant Pt 4: Black Wall Street

May 31, 2021
Ghosts
"I don't like to be called mammy by everybody. Put. That. Down. I am not mammy to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant. I wouldn't waste any of my paper on him." 

Mary Ellen Pleasant, to the San Francisco Call 

Mary Ellen Pleasant used her financial and social resources to improve the lives of Black folks in San Francisco. She funded Black businesses, hired Black workers, and used her network and influence with the white elite to integrate businesses and get people jobs. Pleasant was a world class capitalist and entrepreneur who knew how to make money and how to spread it around.  For this, they called her “Black Wall Street.” 

Pleasant’s best known business was boarding houses. In the late 19th Century, these residences functioned like apartment buildings. Men would room in boarding houses that employed staff to cook meals, clean rooms, and do laundry - performing women’s work for men who didn’t have a wife. Pleasant ran upscale establishments, and housed some of the most important men in San Francisco. And to run her business, she hired Black employees. 

Running boarding houses provided Mary Ellen Pleasant with more than just money. The social capital that she raised networking and tending to the city’s elite allowed her to help her community, as well. She used her network to get Black residents hired as domestic workers in wealthy homes and hotels, on the railroad, and on ships. She facilitated loans, bankrolled litigation, and supported Black churches and press. 

Pleasant carefully cultivated relationships and allies to accumulate social capital, as well. Running elegant boarding houses allowed her to network with, and gain the confidence of, wealthy political figures in town. She took good care of these men, earning loyalty, trust, and financial advice. Her proximity to power allowed her to learn the inner workings of government and business, helping to grow her fortune and empire. As she made more money, she could hire more Black folks to work for her, and donate more money to abolitionist and civil rights causes. 

Even more than that, she placed people from her community into wealthy and elite homes, hotels, restaurants, and other spaces where rich people gossiped and did business. Service employees were overlooked and ignored, and could blend into the background. According to some sources, she used this network of employees to collect useful secrets, stock tips, and insider information. Remember Varys’ “little birds” in Game of Thrones? Pleasant invented that shit (well, maybe she learned it from Marie Laveaux - more on that in Part 5). 

Before the Civil War, Mary Ellen Pleasant was careful to keep her true fortune hidden.  She mostly appeared in public as a stately, well dressed domestic employee. She presented herself as a housekeeper, a cook, a laundress. She kept a low profile when she could. Most sources agree that the Black community knew her true wealth and power, but she needed to stay under the radar to protect herself from a racist system. 

Simple etching of the bust of Thomas Bell, with receding light colored hair and a suit. He's looking to the viewer's left and seems peaceful.
Thomas Bell, Undated Etching

In the 1870’s, Pleasant was at the height of her career and power, but she was still careful to obscure her fortune with an alliance to a white man. Thomas Bell was a Scottish banker who came to the city during the Gold Rush; in fact, they probably met on the ship passage in. He went on to become the Vice President of the Bank of California, and made a killing in the Comstock Lode. Mary Ellen Pleasant, as his business partner and possibly romantic partner, did the same. There is a ton of speculation as to whether they were lovers, and the best answer I can come up with is probably, yes. They built property together, she had assets hidden in his name, and they lived together. For her to trust a man with this level of control over her shit, I’m going with boyfriend. This was the era of anti-miscegenation laws, so it’s not like they could be open about it. 

Most of the time, she passed as his housekeeper. WHICH IS GOTHIC AS HELL. Here is a wealthy, powerful Black woman who pretends to be an ordinary domestic worker, running her lover’s home, in order to protect her assets and hide her power. She even helped him find a wife, and continued to “serve” in the house with the whole family. It seemed to work for both of them - they were together for a long time.  It’s likely that Teresa Bell (his wife) knew of the arrangement, but she didn’t turn on Pleasant until after Thomas died. 

Pleasant commissioned an enormous, opulent mansion at the corner of Octavia and Bush - where her park is now! It had thirty rooms and took up two city blocks. Ownership of the house was tangled up. When Bell died, his wife sued for possession of the home. Pleasant described herself as a servant in the home, but she clearly had an ownership interest and was running more than just its domestic affairs. During the court battle, which Pleasant eventually lost, Bell’s widow colluded with the San Francisco Chronicle to run a sneering, racist hit piece that called Pleasant “Queen of the VooDoos.” 

Pleasant lost the title to her own mansion, which is sad because in order to protect herself, she had to pretend that she had nothing. When called upon to defend her ownership, she wasn’t able to. In Reconstruction era California, there was no protection for Black people, no matter how much they achieved, how many allies they had, or how well they managed to hide their success. Not even Black Wall Street could overcome those forces, in the end. 

Next: Part 5 - Voodoo Queen

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