New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research

A Review of Shomari Wills’s BLACK FORTUNES (2018)

Editors’ Note: HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey reviews Shomari Wills’s Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires (New York: Amistad, HarperCollins Publishers, 2018). 

Detailing a history of the “first cohort of black millionaires” in the United States, journalist Shomari Wills begins Black Fortunes by correcting the popular myth that haircare entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) was the first black millionaire in the United States. Instead, the author explains that this title belongs to William Alexander Leidesdorff, entrepreneur and U.S. diplomat in California who in 1847 “built California’s first public school and a horse racing track for the citizens’ entertainment.” Passing away in 1848, Leidesdorff left behind an estate then valued over $1 million. However, reflecting the precariousness and short-lived nature of black dynasties in the United States, Wills notes that a real estate investor convinced Leidesdorff’s sole heir—his estranged mother—to sign over his property in exchange for $75,000 ($2.1 million today). In fact, Leidesdorff’s estate was then worth $1.4 million ($38 million). When Leidesdorff’s family subsequently sued the investor in California, claiming that he had conned them, a series of 1850s California statutes and court decisions banning “blacks, Indians, and Chinese from testifying against white men in court” rendered their testimonies inadmissible in court.

Throughout Black Fortunes, Shomari Wills makes passing reference to Leidesdorff along with other leading nineteenth-century black Americans such as Wall Street broker Jeremiah Hamilton, entrepreneur Alonzo Herndon, and land settler Edward P. McCabe. However, the author places most attention on six black millionaires whose lives spanned from the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, with the most prominent protagonists being Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904) and Robert Reed Church (1839-1912).

Born in Philadelphia, Pleasant became a financial investor in California. Discussing some of her methods for wealth accumulation, Wills notes: “Once Pleasant had acquired as much silver as she could get her hands on in San Francisco she found buyers to purchase the silver for an incrementally higher price than she paid for it… By 1858, she was worth more than $150,000 ($4.2 million).” Pleasant used her wealth to buy and build homes and to throw her daughter a lavish wedding, but she also donated money toward causes she found meaningful from lawsuits challenging racial segregation in California to slave emancipation in the Southern United States. For example, she gifted $45,000 ($1.3 million) to abolitionist John Brown in anticipation of his planned slave rebellion in Virginia; the very raid on Harpers Ferry for which he was captured and hung.

In contrast to Mary Ellen Pleasant who was born free in Philadelphia, fellow black millionaire Robert Reed Church was born a slave on a cotton plantation outside of Memphis, Tennessee. With the end of the Civil War, Church transformed from a slave working on his white father’s ships into a billiard hall owner in Memphis. Over the years, he also became a leading property owner in the city.

Wills writes that Robert Reed Church too was charitable to individuals such as black journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, who also lived in Memphis, and groups such as the one formed by black residents eager to relocate to Oklahoma in the wake of a lynching in the Texan city (donating $10,000, $270,000 in todays’ dollars, to the group). Later in life, Church also built “Church Auditorium” in Memphis, which Wills explains sat on “a four-acre park ringed by flower gardens with carnival rides, an outdoor theater, gazebos, and orange trees. Peacocks roamed its grounds, spreading their colorful tails to the delight of visitors. [Church] put on concerts with big bands. Eventually he called his park a ‘resort for colored people.’”

Beyond Church and Pleasant, four other black entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth century take center stage in Black Fortunes from Ottowa W. Gurley of Oklahoma and Annie Turnbo Malone of Missouri to Madam C.J. Walker and Hannah Elias of New York.

By telling this history of black wealth in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States, Shomari Wills goes beyond decentering Madam C.J. Walker’s place in the public imagination: He disrupts U.S. historians’ general narratives on wealth, poverty, race, and philanthropy. To be clear, Wills is not the first writer to detail the lives of wealthy Americans or black Americans during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. After all, U.S. historians long have written about wealthy white Americans during the Gilded Age, and about former black slaves during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. However, like other researchers of nineteenth-century black elites such as Carla L. Peterson, Lawrence Otis Graham, and Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, Wills sidesteps assumptions that nineteenth-century wealth and influence belonged exclusively to whites and that their black contemporaries existed exclusively in the terrain of poverty and subordination. Unique to this prior scholarship, however, which has largely focused on unearthing communities of black elites in various U.S. cities, Wills is specifically invested in presenting the intertwined lives of the first black millionaires in the United States. Noting the importance of this narrative, Wills writes that Black Fortunes thus disrupts “stereotypes of black economic impotence. They remind us that African Americans do not lack the desire or ability to work or build businesses and wealth, but that instead they have often had to overcome great struggles to achieve economic stability, let alone independence and power.”

Making this statement in the book’s introduction, early on it becomes clear that Wills intends to illustrate that nineteenth-century blacks—like whites—accumulated impressive fortunes. In addition, he intends to show (and successfully shows) how this wealth in the hands of blacks—this very marker of black economic progress that whites long have said that they yearn to see before they treat blacks as equals—in fact enraged whites. Particularly aware of the ways that black affluence unsettled white supremacy, Wills explains that the vast majority of his protagonists understated their wealth in public, fearing the ire of whites. And far from being an unreasonable fear, Wills illustrates throughout the book’s twenty chapters that many of these black men and women endured the fury and violence of whites who viewed these black Americans’ economic prowess as somehow underserved, unnatural, or quite simply, a direct challenge to their assumptions about the superiority of whites.

In detailing this nuanced history of black wealth in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S.—wealth that existed in spite of white supremacy, and yet too, enjoyed only a short and muted life precisely because of white supremacy—Wills contributes to Americans’ understanding of wealth, poverty, and race in the United States. Specifically for HistPhil readers, he provides a peak into black philanthropy in the nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. It existed, and it was not an echo of leading white philanthropists’ hopes for black Americans at the time.

As far as the shortcomings of Black Fortunes, I start with a minor criticism and then transition to my larger critique. The minor point is that Shomari Wills’s varying and inconsistent use of first and last names for his protagonists is distracting; a problem that could have been avoided if the author had remained loyal to some general rule as to when he would use first and last names as well as maiden and married names.

Now to the more substantive critique of Black Fortunes: it is fair to say that it is not an academic book. Black Fortunes eschews footnotes in favor of a concluding section, “Source Notes” where the author discusses the primary and secondary sources supporting his main arguments in the book. Though this presentation is relatively detailed, I would have preferred seeing how the author substantiated specific claims within the chapters; and for this, footnotes in the text would have been valuable. Aside from helping me follow the narrative, footnotes also would have helped future scholars build upon Will’s work. And to this point, I do hope that scholars find inspiration in Black Fortunes and further investigate the history of black wealth and philanthropy in the United States.

I see exciting possibilities for this in the book. For example, scholars could investigate further the series of essays in Frederick Douglass’ Paper from the spring of 1852 which Shomari Wills discusses in the third chapter. In them, Wills notes that black intellectual James McCune Smith analyzed whether free blacks should “pursue wealth, abolition, and civil rights.” Here, Smith contrasted the lives of black abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward and black investor Jeremiah Hamilton. A scholar could bring into dialogue Smith’s essays with Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth (1889), where the steel titan tried to reconcile wealth accumulation with the general public good and concluded that philanthropy could help leading industrialists such as himself play this latter role in society.

If my hopes are met for greater scholarship on the history of black wealth and philanthropy in the U.S., there could be—much more than there is today in the historical study of wealth and philanthropy in this country—more thoughtful engagement with the various experiences of affluent Americans and their role as philanthropists. That said, such efforts will come with their challenges. Not only are Americans generally accustomed to researching and reading about economically prosperous white Americans rather than their non-white counterparts, and thus too, more comfortable reading and writing histories of wealthy whites aiding poor non-whites, but whites have produced (and have preserved larger quantities of) their own archival material. In order to write from the perspective of non-white economic elites, researchers will need to work from fewer and less accessible, harder-to-find, sources. This is a challenge that Wills himself acknowledges in the introduction.

Even with these challenges in mind, though, I urge scholars to follow in Wills’s footsteps and investigate black and other non-white economic elites in the United States. By doing so, Americans will approximate a more honest history of wealth, poverty, race, and philanthropy in this country. Because contrary to the myths that Americans tell themselves and that their historians long have echoed, whites no more own the history of wealth and philanthropy than non-whites the history of poverty and dependency.

-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor.

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