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New Civil War Books > Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires

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message 1: by Porter (new)

Porter Broyles | 201 comments “Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires” by Shomari Wills is a fun little book. It is very well written and tells the story of seven African Americans who became millionaires. My biggest gripe with the book is the sub-title. Only two of the seven individuals discussed was actually a slave. Four of them were born after the Confederacy ended, 1 was free blacks, and two were slaves. So the title is a little misleading… but the book was good enough that I’ll overlook that.

There were also some historical errors, for example talking about West Virginia before the Civil War?

One thing that I found interesting is that 4 of the cases were females.

All 7 stories are interesting for different reasons (spoilers ahead).

The earliest black millionaire was William Liedesdorff. Liedesdorff was born in the Caribbean to a slave woman but had light skin and lived as a white man until he was engaged. He admitted his racial background to his fiancée. He fled to California where he impressed the Mexican government to such a degree that they gave him 30,000 acres of land…which happened just before the California Gold Rush. Overnight he became a millionaire! His story is told in the introduction.

Marry Ellen Pleasant was the first person Wills talks about. Pleasant was born a freewoman and moved to Nantucket to get an education. She was very bright and ended up marrying a wealthy abolitionist. Her husband used his wealth to purchase and free slaves, but died early on. When he died he asked her to carry on his tradition and to help free the slaves. When the gold rush hit, she moved to California. She made her fortune by selling to the gold miners and speculating in Gold/Silver. Shortly before John Brown’s raid, she gave him $45,000 (about a million bucks today) to help him with his insurrection. When Brown was arrested, he had a letter in his pocket from her and she thought she’d be arrested as a conspirator.

Robert Reed Church was the son of a slaveowner and slave woman. While he was born a slave and never formally acknowledged as his son, his dad made sure that he was taken care of. His dad had him work on his ships and was part of his life before and after the Civil War. Church was a self-made man. During the Civil War his dad’s ship was confiscated by the CSA and he was forced into servitude. The Union Navy sunk the ship and he found himself a freeman in Memphis. Church was smart and started a bar and some businesses. He started making money and when a plague hit the city, he saw an opportunity. He bought property at pennies on the dollar. When the plague ended, he helped refinance the city and became a millionaire (disputed in other sources).

Annie Turnbo-Malone was an orphan child of a slave. She grew up helping other people including braiding their hair. At the time there weren’t any black beauty products and most that existed were designed to help one become white (straighten their hair, dye it, etc). Unfortunately some of them were harmful to hair or contained lye. One day she was sent to a herbalist and discovered that there were herbs that were helpful for one’s hair and started playing around with them to see if she could create something to help her friends clean their hair. She succeeded and went on to become a very wealthy woman.

One of her saleswomen, Madam C.J. Walker moved to Denver and realized that Turnbo-Malone had not patented her hair products, so she stole it! She started selling the same product with a different name. She too became rich, but not quite as successful as Turnbo-Malone. Walker, however, liked to live it up. While most early black millionaires did not live extravagant lifestyles, Walker did. Part of her marketing plan was to sell herself in her products. When she died her company started marketing her as the “First Black Millionaire” and that is whom most people think of today as having that title.

A person who probably beat her there was Hannah Elias. Hannah’s rise to wealth is not the typical one. She was the mistress to a white millionaire. Her lover gave her tons of money and helped her to invest it. Elias bought a house in a white neighborhood and did everything to show off her wealth… but she was a recluse. She was afraid to let others know she was black so she hid in her opulent house---but she wanted the neighbors to know how nice it was. Late in her life, the family of her lover found out about her. They sued her for $685,000 claiming that she bribed her lover. When they went to court, her lover had a case of amnesia and the family lost the case!

O.W. Gurley was a school teacher who helped to develop Greenwood Oklahoma into the “Black Wall Street.” It wasn’t the richest black community in the United States, but it was highly concentrated and had lot of opportunities for black Americans. He was a deputy just prior to the Tulsa Race Riots. Apparently he got along so well with the white population some called him an Uncle Tom and he had most of his money saved in white banks.


message 2: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 160 comments Interesting section in All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930 about Madam Walker's daughter, A'Lelia Walker.


message 3: by Porter (new)

Porter Broyles | 201 comments Jan C wrote: "Interesting section in All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930 about Madam Walker's daughter, A'Lelia Walker."

What was the gist? (Black fortunes didn't talk too much about her family--except her husband.)


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