In Black Fortunes, journalist Shomari Wills tells the story of the first six African-American millionaires in the United States. After emancipation, most of the jobs available to Black Americans paid poorly. Domestic labor and sharecropping made up the vast majority of available employment. How did these six people break out and find an opportunity to make their fortunes? Most found their way through entrepreneurship.
Like many Americans at the time, they benefited from the various booms of the 19th century - the whaling boom in the early 1800s in Nantucket, the mid-century gold rush in California, and the oil boom and land grabs of the later 1800s in Oklahoma.
One common theme throughout their stories was the difficulties these millionaires had to suffer in order to enjoy the fruits of their fortunes. Madam CJ Walker is often cited as the first female Black millionaire; but in fact, she was just the first female Black millionaire to show off her riches. For these six, their wealth offered no break from persecution; most became targets – accused of thievery, subject to unjust legal proceedings (at the time a Black person could not testify against a white person in Court), and victimized with lynching attempts.
While we typically speak of building wealth as a way to find freedom from the usual constraints of working life, for these Americans, their fortunes did not grant them that escape. What many did find, however, was pride in their ability to give money to help the Black community. For example, the writings of Ida B. Wells influenced millionaire Robert Church of Memphis, Tennessee. He started to rent his real estate on Beale Street to professional Black business owners, transitioning the area out of its red-light origins. He went on to be a significant power broker in Tennessee and national politics, giving significant sums to elect Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, amongst others. Another self-made millionaire, Mary Ellen Pleasant, worked on civil rights issues throughout her life. She helped with the Underground Railroad in Massachusetts and then expanded it to the West, acting as a one-woman social agency for fugitive slaves in California. She also gave significant sums to John Brown to help fund his raid on Harper’s Ferry. After the war, she worked to establish schools and fought against Jim Crow laws.
Overall, the book offers a fascinating story of Black American pioneers in wealth and a great insight into American history.