Early African American Women Entrepreneurs

MARY ELLEN PLEASANT (1815-1904)


Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 185 when she was fleeing the South, accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. She had, in fact, broken the law, punishing anyone who aided people escaping slavery, as being a member of the Underground Railroad. For four years, Pleasant and her husband, James Smith, helped escaped slaves find new homes in free states and Canada, and when Smith died only four years after their marriage, Pleasant continued the work with a considerable inheritance from him.

When Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 amid Gold Rush ever, she worked as a cook and housekeeper, but also began investing in stock and money markets, and lending money to miners and other businessmen in California's surging economy. She was successful enough that she became a philanthropist, and continued her abolitionist work by housing escaped slaves and finding them jobs.

In 1866, she brought a civil rights case against the North Beach Mission Railroad Company, which refused to pick up black passengers. She won. Her success in court, as well as in continuing the Underground Railroad through her businesses, had earned her the title of the mother of California's civil rights movement.

By this time, she amassed a sizable fortune and was considered one of the wealthiest women in America. But many people in white society saw her only as a black stereotype, and dubbed her Mammy Pleasant - a tile she hated.

ELIZABETH HOBBS KECKLEY (1818-1907)

Keckley was one of Washington, D.C.'s most popular 19th century dressmakers - but it was a long and difficult road to financial independence and recognition. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Keckley was moved from plantation to plantation. Taught sewing by her seamstress mother Agnes Hobbs, Keckley used this skill while still a teen to build a clientele, making dresses for both white women and freed black women. While much of the money she made from her dresses when to the family who owned her, some of her loyal clients loaned her the $1,200 needed to buy her and her son's freedom. Keckley worked to pay back all the patrons who helped her buy her freedom before moving to Washington, D.C.

In D.C., word of her talents reached Mary Todd Lincoln. The first lady took Keckley on as her personal designer - and close personal friend. She designed nearly all of Mary's gowns during her time in the White House, including the dress she wore at Lincoln's second inauguration, now on display at the Smithsonian. As a visible and well-respected free black woman, Keckley also founded the Contraband Relief Association (later the Ladies' Freedmen and Soldiers' Relief Association), an organization that raised money and provided food and clothing for black people and wounded Union soldiers.

Her success in D.C. ended shortly after she published an 1868 autobiography - Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mary saw the sections about her and the White House as a betrayal of confidence and ended their friendship. The ripple effect ruined her reputation. In the aftermath, she was offered a position at Wilberforce University in Ohio as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts, which she accepted. She also organized the dress exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. She died in 1907.

ANNIE TURNBO MALONE (1877-1957)


Though Madam C.J. Walker is often recognized as the first black woman millionaire, some historians say that credit belongs to Malone, the woman who hired Walker to sell her Wonderful Hair Grower in St. Louis before Walker started her own company. Like Walker, Malone's parents were former slaves who died when Malone was young. Her older sister Peoria raised her, and together, they began experimenting with hairdressing. Hair care products for black women were not widely produced, and the chemical solutions that were used often damaged hair. Malone developed her own chemical straightener around the turn of the century, and soon created an entire line of products for black women's hair. In 1902, she moved to St. Louis and sold her hair care line door-to-door. She expanded the company rapidly, advertising in newspapers, traveling to give demonstrations at black churches, and even selling her line at the 1904 World's Fair. In 1906, Malone trademarked her products under the name Poro, and in 1918, she built Poro College that housed her business offices, training offices, operations, and a variety of public gathering spaces for the local black community. Malone even franchised retail outlets throughout North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines, employing over 75,000 women worldwide.

Her company was worth millions, and she continuously used her money to improve the lives of those around her, either by hiring women or donating to colleges and organizations around the country. She donated the land for the St. Louis Colored Orphans' Home and raised most of their construction costs, then served on their board from 1919-1943. In 1946, the orphanage was renamed in her honor, and it is still operational today as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

MADAM C.J. WALKER (1867-1919)

Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation on December 23, 1867, Walker was the daughter of Owen and Minerva Anderson, freed blacks who both died by the time she was 7. She was married at 14, and soon gave birth to one daughter, Lelia. After her husband died only six years into their marriage, Walker moved to St. Louis, where she worked hard as a laundress and cook, hoping to provide a life free from poverty for Lelia.

In 1904, Walker began working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone's hair care company - and soon came into some inspiration of her own. As the story goes, she had a dream in which a man told her the ingredients for a hair-growing tonic. Walker re-created the tonic and began selling it door-to-door. After she married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906 and renamed herself Madam C.J. Walker, she launched Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a line of hair care for black women.

Walker build a business that was earning $500,000 a year by the time she died, while her individual financial worth reached $1,000,000. Yet it isn't the wealth alone that earned Walker a lasting legacy - it was how she used that wealth for a larger social good.

Within her company, she trained over 40,000 black women and men and advocated for the economic independence of black people, particularly black women. She financially supported black students at the Tuskegee Institute, and contributed the largest recorded single donation, of $5,000, to the NAACP, to support anti-lynching initiatives.

RECOMMENDED READING MATERIALS @ YOUR LIBRARY

AMERICAN WOMEN INVENTORS
by: Carole Ann Camp
Call Number: J 609.22 CAM

Ten biographies of American women inventors are covered in this work including, Madam C.J. Walker, Lillian Gilbreth, Beulah Henry, Elizabeth Lee Hazen, Rachel Fuller Brown, Katherine Blodgett, Gertrude B. Elion, Stephanie Louise Kwolek, Edith Flanigen, and Ellen Ochoa.
AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP: A NOVEL OF MARY TODD LINCOLN AND ELIZABETH KECKLEY
by: Ann Rinaldi
Call Number: YA F RINALDI

On the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, his frantic wife, Mary, calls for her best friend and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, but the woman is mistakenly kept from her side by guards who were unaware of Mary Todd Lincoln's close friendship with the black seamstress. How did these two women - one who grew up in a wealthy Southern home and became the wife of the president of the United States, the other who was born a save and eventually purchased her own freedom - come to be such close companions.
MRS. LINCOLN AND MRS. KECKLY
by: Jennifer Fleischner
Call Number: 973.709 FLE

Historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of the unusual friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley for the first time, and traces the pivotal events that enabled these two women to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart.

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