As a Black domestic worker in 1850s California, Mary Ellen Pleasant eavesdropped on her wealthy clients so that she could learn how to invest her money wisely.

She later used this knowledge to build a real estate empire — which was worth over $30 million.

Pleasant put her investment profits to good use by purchasing businesses like laundries and boarding houses before building a real-estate portfolio. Before long, she owned shares in other businesses like restaurants, dairies, and a bank.

It’s believed that her white male business partner helped her acquire numerous investments under his name so that she wouldn’t have to encounter as many issues as other aspiring Black businesswomen of the era.

Pleasant soon became one of the wealthiest women in America, and she always tried to use her money for good, first by supporting antislavery causes and then later by fighting against racial discrimination. When it came to standing up for what she believed in, she once famously said, “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”

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