Black Fortunes by Shomari Wills tells the story of the first six Black Americans who became millionaires in the years following slavery. It serves as a mini-biography for each individual, giving insight into their early life and then detailing the path they took to accumulate their wealth. For the most part, the book linearly tells each person’s story but jumps back and forth between the subjects as the book moves through the years.
Clocking in at just 320 pages and covering the relatively long lives of six people means that the book is more of a jumping-off point for learning about these business titans rather than complete biographies. Also, because several of the subjects were semi- or completely illiterate and had few descendants in the present, records of their lives and accomplishments were relatively limited. Despite those constraints, Wills still managed to put together a very immersive and engaging record of their lives and businesses. The depth that Black Fortunes might lack about the individuals it more than makes up for with regards to the overview it provides.
Wills begins the book by telling the brief story of a great-great-uncle, John Mott Drew, who became a millionaire. During his life, Drew accumulated wealth by living a frugal lifestyle, saving his money, and making smart investments. Only a generation earlier, Drew’s father, Napoleon Bonaparte Drew, had been enslaved. But after emancipation, the elder Drew managed to purchase a farm in Powhatan County, Virginia becoming the first Black person to do so. He later sold some of the property and used the proceeds to help his children get started in life.
In sharing this family story, Wills draws attention to the reality that despite inaccurate stereotypes Black people strived to be economically independent. After spending generations in bondage, immediately following emancipation Black people made efforts to acquire land, start businesses, invest, and otherwise achieve financial independence. But as their goals ran counter to the aims of White supremacists who preferred to keep them oppressed, their efforts were often met with strong resistance. The ambitions and achievements of these Black people were often regarded as undeserved and resulted in acts of violence, terrorism, or schemes to end their lives or otherwise separate them from their assets.
Yet, despite the general difficulty in establishing a successful business or making the right investments, these six individuals managed to acquire a million dollars in assets or close to it. The subjects profiled are as follows:
- Mary Ellen Pleasant, a talented salesperson who moved to California during the Gold Rush and used her wealth to extend financing at a profit and engaged in precious metals arbitrage.
- Robert Reed Church, a former sailor who amassed ownership of a great deal of land in Memphis, Tennessee, particularly within the Beale Street area.
- Hannah Elias, a kept woman whose lifestyle was supported by a wealthy White business owner which enabled her to invest in Harlem real estate that contributed to an increase in Black residents.
- Annie Turnbo-Malone, an entrepreneur who launched a business that developed natural hair care products for Black women.
- O.W. Gurley, a former school teacher who purchased land and developed properties in the northern area of Tulsa, Oklahoma which became the Black neighborhood, Greenwood also known as “Black Wall Street”.
- Madam C. J. Walker, probably the most well-known of the group as while inaccurate she is often referred to as the “first Black millionaire.”
There was a great deal of change taking place in the years following the Civil War and telling the stories of these individuals also offers some insight into the history of that period. As some areas of the country were still undeveloped, they played roles in the establishment of new towns or neighborhoods. It’s interesting to read about them building businesses in general but especially impressive to understand how with several having a limited education, they were able to assess situations and recognize opportunities to serve or invest in emerging markets.
Due to racism, many stereotypes promote the idea that Black people are lazy and don’t like to work. They have their origins in attempts to justify the enslavement of Black people. These myths began by expressing the idea that Black people were naturally physically strong and tolerated pain and disease better than other races. They also claimed that Black people lacked comparable intelligence to White people. This reasoning was positioned as burdening White people with responsibility for civilizing Black people by putting them to work thus ensuring they were industrious and productive.
Disregarding Black people being forced to work for generations without pay and then being relegated to low-paying jobs after emancipation, a poor work ethic was once again used as an excuse to explain the income and wealth disparity between races. Slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping, convict leasing, and various other systems were put in place to keep Black people from competing for resources on a level playing field. The experiences of these individuals who thrived despite obstacles gives some indication as to how much more Black people could have achieved without race-based opposition blocking their path.
For the vast majority of Black people providing food and shelter for themselves and their families was a difficult task given society’s efforts to deprive them of access to resources. Yet, even for those who managed to fight through these adverse circumstances and achieved some degree of success they often found themselves in danger. Because their success was not in alignment with the expectations and stereotypes of Black people they were viewed as threats to White supremacy. Being poor was a threat to one’s odds of survival but progress as a Black person could also be dangerous as it would often attract jealousy from White supremacists. Achieving financial stability and using those resources to procure a house, decent clothing, or other perceived comforts, especially luxuries, often resulted in acts of theft, assault, and sometimes even murder.
Imagine spending years of your life working hard to make a living and accumulating some money only to have someone come along and confiscate your money and/or property as they know you have little to no legal recourse to reclaim your assets. Or finding your life in danger due to threats of violence via a lynching or large-scale massacre. Being run out of town and forced to leave your hard-earned belongings behind clearing a path for extortionists who covet your assets to take over your land and/or other property.
While there are several successes discussed in the book there is also a looming threat of loss and not just in the form of the potential setbacks that businesses face. In persevering through obstacles, working hard, and otherwise sacrificing to achieve success over several years it could all be lost in a moment. There are incidents discussed where Black investors and entrepreneurs spent years in the pursuit of financial freedom and success. Then someone who deemed themselves as being more deserving solely based on their belief in their racial superiority came along and took what they pleased.
This began during a period when many Black people were slaving away their entire lives and earning nothing in exchange. Then in the years following slavery, as pointed out by Wills, both the North and South strived to keep Black people in a position of being second-class citizens. While slavery had ended there was still a concerted effort to pay Black people as close to nothing as possible and keep them doing the type of work they’d been limited to during slavery. This gave rise to systems like convict leasing and sharecropping and relegated Black women to being maids, washerwomen, nannies, and other domestic work. In a sense, slavery had ended but the social, economic, and legal structure it created remained in existence.
While reading, I’m sure you will have a favorite of your own based on who sounded like someone you might like or which story you connected with the most. Nothing personal against her, but I thought the story of Hannah Elias needed an asterisk. This is because much of her fortune was given to her by the man she was seeing. Yet, her story was all kinds of drama and added a bit of ratchetness to the book. All of the subjects featured were interesting but Mary Ellen Pleasant was my favorite.
As far as I recall Elias was the only person mentioned in the book who did time in prison which is surprising because she’s a woman. And not only did she go to prison, but she did two short stints in jail. The first for stealing and the second for behaving badly. Don’t get me wrong, some of the other subjects had drama in their lives. But this woman was like a good girl gone bad and she was gone forever. All that was missing was for someone to fall down a well or end up in a coma and her life would have been a soap opera.
The reason her inclusion in the book warrants an asterisk is that while she might have become a millionaire she didn’t begin building her wealth by establishing a business or making a wise investment. Instead, she was the mistress of a wealthy White man who bought her a mansion and gave her a lot of money and gifts. She later used proceeds from the sale of those assets to make investments. But if we’re focused on how Black entrepreneurs and investors used their intelligence to build fortunes, it can be argued that she doesn’t fit into that group.
How she chose to live her life was her business. I also don’t believe that in exploring Black history we should only focus on or discuss individuals who were perfect paragons of virtue. My issue is more so that she did not amass her fortune through utilizing business skills or acumen for investing. It would be like including a person whose fortune largely came from an inheritance. They might do a lot with that wealth and grow it over time but they don’t necessarily belong in the same conversation as people who built their wealth through entrepreneurship or investing. Elias might have been a millionaire and could be considered if you were just looking at the money aspect of it and not considering the intelligence, skill, and hustle.
But I could also see the logic in including the story of Elias as whatever the means of her becoming a millionaire, she achieved or came close to that financial status. And like many of the other individuals in the book, her story serves as an example of Black people obtaining wealth but still facing hardships. In her case, in particular, despite living in Manhattan in a mansion and possibly having as much and maybe more money than her neighbors, she couldn’t openly enjoy her wealth. Her wealth and mansion became a prison of sorts as she couldn’t let her neighbors know that she was Black and thus couldn’t move about freely.
Part of her story involves explaining the unfortunate lengths she pursued to distance herself from her Blackness in an attempt to assimilate into general society. While her wealth provided material possessions, her race still prevented her from fully enjoying the freedom that financial stability and wealth are supposed to provide. There’s a degree of double consciousness where she views herself through the eyes of the people around her. Thus she flaunts her wealth while hiding herself away in an attempt to get the respect and admiration of the wealthy people around her though they would ignore her at best and harm her at worst.
She came to believe that enjoying her life and money required trying to change her skin color, hair, and other physical traits. But these were different times and the necessary medical procedures needed to change her appearance had not yet been realized. Not only was she physically trapped within this home, but she was also physically trapped within her own body. Being poor and Black put her survival at risk. But being rich and Black eliminated her financial concerns while still putting her life at risk as if she was found out by her neighbors they or others might physically attack her based on her race.
Most of the other subjects faced hardships in their lives but reading about them overcoming and persevering was inspirational. But the story of Hannah Elias was just sad. Even when this woman was winning in one sense she was still taking losses in life. Some of it began with her making a bad decision when she was young and it upset the rest of her life. Maybe with a little bit of grace and understanding, she could have turned things around and had a different future where she was equally financially successful. Or even if she was less financially successful she might have at least been happier and more fulfilled.
Interestingly, this ends up being the case for some of the other subjects as well. They achieved business and financial success but given the racism of the time, they were unable to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor. That’s not to say that they should have obnoxiously flashed their wealth. But rather that they worked hard for what they had and shouldn’t have had to hide away indications of success or lived in fear of someone coming along and taking it away.
Jeremiah Hamilton, a Wall Street broker who became a millionaire is mentioned in passing but wasn’t fully profiled in the book. Living in New York City he is regarded as being the wealthiest Black man in the city around the time the Civil War began. He sounds like he wasn’t the most ethical person but likely wasn’t any worse than the other businessmen of the time. Hamilton was an unscrupulous hustler and like Elias, he attempted to assimilate into White society and had little to no contact with other Black people.
But as a Black man married to a White woman and living in a fancy home he became a target during the 1863 draft riots and only narrowly escaped being lynched by a White mob. Black people were being attacked in New York City because White draftees didn’t want to go off to risk their lives in a war that they saw as being for the benefit of Black people. Hamilton’s wealth was regarded as being an affront to the mob. They were likely low to middle-income White people being called to go off to war and here was this Black man daring to live a life of comfort and privilege while they had neither.
Madam C.J. Walker is probably the most well-known of the group because of the legend of her being the first Black millionaire or first Black female millionaire or first female millionaire. In reality, she was an incredible businesswoman and deserved to be included with the group. But she never quite achieved the level of being a millionaire. She’s memorable because during her lifetime she was one of the few Black people to openly display their wealth rather than hiding it away due to modesty or to avoid possibly attracting trouble.
There could have been more Black “millionaires” during this period. But maybe some chose to keep their wealth hidden and others might have been struck down before achieving the milestone due to racially-motivated jealousy. Reading about Black history often the excuse for lynchings was that the murdered Black man had sexually assaulted, raped, or otherwise harmed or threatened a White woman. And thus the lynching was in defense of the woman’s honor.
In reality, lynchings were more often carried out because a Black person had violated some racially based expectation. This could have been any action perceived as a lack of deference to a White person. Or a Black person achieving progress and/or financial success above the level deemed acceptable for Black people.
Racists felt as though Black people didn’t deserve what they had. And so they might try to run them out of town. Failing that or not having patience, they would kill the person and then in the aftermath take over their business, land, or other valuables.
Being an entrepreneur is difficult but doing that in a society stacked against you while white supremacist terrorists are breathing down your neck is an especially admirable feat. It speaks to the skill and determination of the people profiled and those forgotten to history. By the end of the book, I had some degree of respect for each of the subjects profiled.
I admired Pleasants because while she was born into decent circumstances, greed on the part of her guardians prevented her from obtaining an education. Yet, she made the best of circumstances to figure out how to learn and benefit from her situation of being put to work in a shop rather than being sent to school. People weren’t made to suffer or endure hardship but sometimes you can learn and grow a lot as a person going through hard times. Thus it was interesting to see her turn her position of disadvantage into an opportunity to learn and benefit herself.
The ability to assess, understand, and connect with people allowed Pleasants to progress beyond her situation despite lacking a formal education. She then used her natural intelligence and ingenuity to recognize opportunities and build businesses for herself. Consider that many Black people of this time were barred from obtaining an education and thus there were no schools available for would-be Black students or if the opportunity was present, their family lacked the financial means.
But despite those shortcomings, they still maneuvered and managed to achieve a degree of success. I couldn’t help but think that even in the face of all that opposition these people still managed to overcome and achieve success. And knowing how hard the road was many turned around and gave back to those coming up behind them.
Pleasants achieved financial success and used her mind to think up all types of businesses and investment plans. But what set her apart was that she was a woman and she also made a conscious effort to dedicate some of her money and a lot of her effort to improving life for other Black people. Some though not all of the other people profiled used their wealth to make life more comfortable for themselves and their families. While others used their financial resources to try to assimilate into mainstream society.
Coming from where she came from, once Pleasant achieved success, she didn’t just sit back in a palace twiddling her thumbs and swimming in her money. Instead, she tried to make life better for Black people. Going so far as to collaborate with her first husband who would purchase enslaved people just to set them free. Giving money to help fund John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Putting herself at risk to protest segregation that prevented Black people from utilizing public resources and otherwise pushing for equality for Black people in California.
I admired all of it. Pleasant achieved success but didn’t just think of herself. Sure, part of her legacy was establishing a successful business, making sound investments, and thus achieving financial success. But then making it her business to help other people just took it to another level. All of those factors made her my favorite person in the book. To be clear, some of the other entrepreneurs were also philanthropists but her story in particular connected with me.
Reading Black Fortunes and the stories of the rise of these individuals was thoroughly engrossing. And I think you’ll enjoy reading their stories if you have an interest in Black history and/or business. As someone with an interest in business and entrepreneurship, I enjoyed reading about how they built their companies. This included their methods for marketing and promotion as well as just developing different business ideas. To be clear, not hustling but recognizing opportunities, building different enterprises, and exploring investment avenues. The thought process that went into figuring out these different ways to make money appealed to me.
There is a mix of people here as their paths in life began differently. They’re from different parts of the country and a variety of backgrounds but their lives just happened to overlap at this period in history. Thus their values and lifestyles differ as did how they acquired their wealth.
Pleasants lived a good life and certainly treated herself to luxuries but balanced that by also putting her money to use with regards to helping Black people achieve freedom and later progress. Some of the other entrepreneurs seemed to want financial freedom but weren’t too wrapped up in material possessions. They too worked to encourage and establish opportunities for other Black people. In the case of Church and Gurley, they helped establish entire neighborhoods geared towards Black people.
Unfortunately, you also have stories of some individuals who achieved a great deal of wealth and then lost much of their money. While others passed on some of their wealth to descendants who were then swindled out of their assets or lost it through poor money management. In a sense, those stories reminded me of some athletes and entertainers. The stories of Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo-Malone, in particular, seemed like familiar cautionary tales. Humble beginnings, a rise to unbelievable heights of success, and then spending like the money would never run out.
At the height of their success, even if they weren’t millionaires, they were at least hundred thousandaires. That would have still made them incredibly wealthy for the time and stanking rich in today’s money. But over-indulgence and their equivalent of “stunting for the Gram” to impress others combined with the oft-told tale of failing to pony up to the taxman landed them in hot water. Lacking financial discipline and ignoring advice from advisors put their companies and everything that they built at risk.
Unfortunately, some overworked themselves which cut years off their lives. But you also had others who lived well into their 70s and 80s which was rather long for the period. It’s interesting that most married several times and had children though for various reasons spouses passed away as did children. There were all these different paths to success and different ways of living. Most seemed to experience a great deal of happiness though how long it lasted varied as not everyone had a happy ending.
I found myself rooting for everyone from start to finish. It’s an amazing business book but also an incredible collection of mini-biographies. People who are interested in business or investing would enjoy this book as there are some great business case studies featured here. But viewing them through the prism of the Black experience and what it meant for these people at that time to achieve this degree of success given all of the social and racial obstacles was inspiring.
Pleasant was my favorite overall while Robert Church was my favorite among the men. Before reading this book, I was most aware of Madam C.J. Walker and knew O.W. Gurley in passing as the founder of Greenwood and Robert Church in passing as the father of Mary Church Terrell. In picking up this book I certainly learned more details about those individuals but was introduced to just about everyone else mentioned.
Likewise, I was previously aware of Greenwood and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as I’d completed Black History Shorts about the subjects. But the author’s telling of the events leading up to the riot varied a bit from the information I got from my sources. That’s not to say that he was wrong and I was right or vice versa but rather that some details in our tellings of the situation are different and likely reflect our use of different sources.
That’s why it’s important to read and get different perspectives, especially as it relates to history. The description of events can vary widely depending on who is telling the story. And the profiles contained within Black Fortunes are a prime example of that. Some sources would have you believe that Black people in America are not and have never been successful due to a lack of ability and poor work ethic within the group. But if anything, Black Fortunes proves that is not at all the case. Despite the odds and obstacles, before and in the years since landing on these shores Black people have been striving for freedom and progress.
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