Virtual Classroom @ Your Library

Welcome to the Abilene Public Library’s Virtual Classroom.  This space will offer a new place for youth, teens, and adults to learn more about a variety of topics, with new content added regularly.

For each class, we'll share background information, educational videos, lesson plans, resources available for continued learning and more. Plus, we’ll offer a link to a test we’d appreciate if you completed to show what you learned!

Learn About Early African American Woman Entrepreneurs





When Mary Ellen Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 she was fleeing the South, where she had been accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Pleasant had, in fact, broken the law—which punished anyone who aided people escaping slavery—as a member of the Underground Railroad, along with her first husband James Smith. For four years, Pleasant and 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 fever, she initially 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 (at interest, of course). Pleasant was successful enough that she became a philanthropist, and continued her abolitionist work by housing escaped slaves and finding them jobs.

In 1866, Pleasant 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, have earned her the title the mother of California’s civil rights movement.

By this time, Pleasant had 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 title she hated.

 She ended up being dragged into a series of scandals and court cases connected to wealthy men, accused of being both a thief and murderer. Financially drained and emotionally exhausted, she was forced to give up her home. The smear campaigns also greatly diminished her fortune and reputation in her time, but the legacy of her radical life has not been lost. In 2005, the city of San Francisco proclaimed February 10 Mary Ellen Pleasant Day in her honor.

NcNeill, Leila. 8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History, Mental Floss. Feb. 2, 2019  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/574385/historical-female-entrepreneurs





Elizabeth Hobbs 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 teenager to build a clientele, making dresses for both white women and freed black women. While much of the money that she made from her dresses went to the family who owned her, some of her loyal clients loaned her the $1200 she 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. Keckley 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.

Keckley’s success in D.C. ended, however, 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 effects ruined Keckley’s reputation in D.C. 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. Keckley also organized the dress exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She died in 1907.
NcNeill, Leila. 8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History, Mental Floss. Feb. 2, 2019  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/574385/historical-female-entrepreneurs




Though Madam C.J. Walker is often recognized as the first black woman millionaire, some historians say that credit belongs to Annie Turnbo 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 had created an entire line of other products for black women’s hair. In 1902 later, she moved to St. Louis and, along with three assistants, 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, a multi-story building 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.


Malone’s 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 made $25,000 donations to both Howard University Medical School and the St. Louis Colored YMCA. 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 to 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.

NcNeill, Leila. 8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History, Mental Floss. Feb. 2, 2019  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/574385/historical-female-entrepreneurs




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 built a business that was earning $500,000 a year by the time she died, while her individual financial worth reached $1 million. 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 $5000, to the NAACP, to support anti-lynching initiatives.

NcNeill, Leila. 8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History, Mental Floss. Feb. 2, 2019  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/574385/historical-female-entrepreneurs


  1. Resources
  2. Lesson Plans
  3. Test your knowledge

NcNeill, Leila. 8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History, Mental Floss. Feb. 2, 2019  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/574385/historical-female-entrepreneurs

Lowe, T. (2007, January 30) Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/pleasant-mary-ellen-1814-1904/ 

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, January 6). Mary Ellen Pleasant. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:11, February 13, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Ellen_Pleasant&oldid=998668915

https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/search/label/African+Americans

Huddleston, Tom. Mary Ellen Pleasant, one of the first black self-made millionaires, used an ingenious trick to build her fortune. CNBC Makeit website. Feb. 15, 2020.  https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/14/how-mary-ellen-pleasant-became-one-of-the-first-black-millionaires.html

Nine PBS. Annie Malone Living Saint Louis. PBS. Feb. 13, 2018.https://youtu.be/5HvpX95VIEw?t=15

At the Public Library.  2005 Mary Ellen Pleasant at the San Francisco Public Library. YouTube. March 7, 2018. https://youtu.be/W9c9IMvw6w4?t=40

N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Elizabeth Keckley. YouTube. May, 8,2017 https://youtu.be/3-ZzDL-8X74?t=7
Smithsonian Channel
. Meet the First Self-Made Female Millionaire. YouTube.  Jan. 21, 2016. https://youtu.be/wEKXMHIGmrQ?t=200

Camp, C. A. (2004). American women inventors. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers.

Rinaldi, A. (2007). An unlikely friendship: A novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley. Orlando, Fla: Harcourt.

Fleischner, J. (2003). Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The remarkable story of the friendship between a first lady and a former slave. New York: Broadway Books.

Phelps, S. (1997). Contemporary Black biography: Profiles from the international Black community. Detroit, Mich: Gale Research Inc.Mabunda, L. M. (1995). Contemporary Black biography: Profiles from the international Black community. Detroit, Mich: Gale Research Inc.











American inventors
Ten biographies of American women inventors, 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.

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 slave and eventually purchased her own freedom--come to be such close companions?

An unlikely friendship a novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley
Lincoln and Keckley"I consider you my best living friend,” Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary’s widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself. She was independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation’s capital. Mary Lincoln hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a “high society” seamstress and Mary, as an outsider in Washington’s social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice—and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.

Mabunda, L. M. (1995). Contemporary Black biography: Profiles from the international Black community. Detroit, Mich: Gale Research Inc.

Biographical profiles of important and influential persons of African heritage who form the international black community. Covers persons of various nationalities in a wide variety of fields providing coverage of names found in today's headlines as well as selected individuals from earlier in this century whose influence continues to have an impact on contemporary life.
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Smithsonian Channel