The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fighting extreme discrimination, they became America’s first black millionaires

Mary Ellen Pleasant built a 30-room mansion in San Francisco with the fortune she earned through a chain of boarding houses and laundries, as well as stock investments.
Mary Ellen Pleasant built a 30-room mansion in San Francisco with the fortune she earned through a chain of boarding houses and laundries, as well as stock investments. (Bancroft Library)

Wiley Hall, 3rd is a former columnist with the Baltimore Evening Sun.

The most significant revelation in “Black Fortunes,” the engaging profile of the first African Americans to become millionaires, is that these wealthy blacks managed to exist at all. African Americans of the antebellum era, when most of these success stories take place, have typically been portrayed as poor souls ground down by oppression, poverty and bigotry — too ignorant or too intimidated to amass a fortune. Millionaires? Yeah, only if you count a million broken hearts and shattered dreams.

Black and privileged until Jim Crow came and crushed a sense of dignity

But as journalist Shomari Wills demonstrates, that first generation of business superstars owed their fortunes to hard work and enterprise, to seeing opportunities and taking advantage of them, to being faster on the draw than the other guy. In short, they exemplified all the values driving any successful business person.

At the same time, they experienced extraordinary resistance because of their race. The men and women profiled in “Black Fortunes” dodged lynch mobs and assassins, and outwitted conspiracies to steal their fortunes by legislative fiat. And they fought back. When gunmen shot at them, they grabbed guns and fired back. Discriminated against, they marched into court and sued for justice.

Throughout their careers they demonstrated fierce determination and courage. But in fact, they were not all that different from countless other black men and women whose achievements have been invisible. What makes these success stories stand out is that they throw a spotlight on achievements that are often overlooked.

“Black millionaires disrupt stereotypes of black impotence,” Wills writes. “They remind us that African Americans do not lack the desire or ability to work or build businesses and wealth, but instead that they have often had to overcome great struggles to achieve economic stability, let alone independence and power.”

The entrepreneurs profiled include Mary Ellen Pleasant, a New England servant who built her fortune through a chain of boarding houses, laundries and several other businesses, first during the whaling boom of the 1840s and then in San Francisco during the gold rush of 1849. Pleasant also was a shrewd investor in the stock market, leading to rumors that she had voodoo powers. Newspapers persisted in dubbing her “Mammy Pleasant.” And Pleasant, an ardent abolitionist, was not amused.

The country’s first black millionaire, according to Wills, was William Alexander Leidesdorff, son of a Danish sailor and a Caribbean woman. Leidesdorff built his fortune in the 1840s in the import-export trade. Living openly in San Francisco as a mixed-race man, Leidesdorff started a general store, a warehouse, a lumberyard, a shipbuilding business and the growing settlement’s first hotel. His estate was valued at $1.4 million when he died in 1848, the equivalent of $38 million in today’s dollars, and flags were flown at half-staff.

Also profiled are Robert Reed Church, who for a while ranked as one of the largest landowners in Tennessee; Hannah Elias, who built a real estate empire in Harlem; Annie Turnbo Malone, a self-taught chemist who developed the first nationally known brand of hair-care products; Madam C.J. Walker, who took what Malone taught her, built a rival hair-care empire and promoted herself as America’s first black millionaire; and O.W. Gurley, a schoolteacher who built an all-black neighborhood in Tulsa that which became known as “Black Wall Street.”

Unfortunately, as a group, they did not leave a lengthy record detailing how they were able to succeed despite the odds. Most were functionally illiterate, self-taught and inclined to secrecy. However, there are similarities in their stories. The earliest millionaires were light-skinned, enabling them to operate for a period at least without debilitating social conventions. They built their fortunes on the frontier in San Francisco or in nascent black communities in Harlem and Tulsa.

The entrepreneur prototype is a young, white male. They want to change that.

The first black millionaires also learned to keep a low profile. Elias often wore a veil at home so that her wealthy white neighbors in New York could not know she was black. Church and Pleasant used white proxies to expand their empires quietly, especially when trading in stocks or purchasing real estate.

Walker was one who did not keep a low profile. She “was not the first rich African American, but she was perhaps the first to be both brazenly wealthy and openly black,” Wills writes.

Locked in competition with Malone, Walker consciously sought notoriety to build her brand. She bought a 3.38-carat solitaire diamond set in platinum from Tiffany & Co. She built a $329,000 mansion ($5.3 million in today’s dollars) in upstate Irvington, N.Y. “The black society pages reported on Madam’s cars, houses, and jewelry,” Wills writes. “It made people wonder, how much money does she have?”

These early millionaires were pioneers pointing the way for future black success stories. “Today, as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Robert Smith make up the first cohort of black billionaires, it’s important not to lose sight of the history and battles that were waged and are still being fought to make such achievement possible,” Wills writes.

“Black Fortunes” provides necessary context to those achievements and as such is a significant addition to our ever-evolving understanding of collective history.

By Shomari Wills

Amistad. 300 pp. $26.99