The earliest wealthy Black Americans

1745

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

The story of Madame CJ Walker,  the Black woman who built a business empire by serving the beauty needs of Black women and became a millionaire in the process, is the substance of American mythology. Walker clearly did the work and made the sacrifices to make millions and she may have been America’s first woman self-made millionaire. But, she was not America’s first Black millionaire.

Walker began her entrepreneurial ascendance in the early 1900’s and at the time reached unparalleled heights. But, according to journalist Shomari Willis, Walker was the first Black millionaire to actually flaunt her wealth, an inherently perilous position especially for a Black American woman. But, there were other wealthy Black women and men before her.

In his book, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires (published in 2018), Willis tells the stories of: Mary Ellen Pleasant, Robert Reed Church, Hannah Elias, Annie Turnbo Malone, O.W. Gurley and Walker.

“Between 1830 and 1927, as the last generation of Blacks born into slavery was reaching maturity, a small group of industrious, tenacious, and daring men and women broke new ground to attain the highest levels of financial success,” Willis writes in the book’s introduction.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was a multi-dimensional moneymaker and abolitionist, who ultimately expanded the Underground Railroad west during the time of the California Gold Rush near San Francisco and earned the title, “The Mother of Human Rights in California.” She was a friend and financial supporter of the abolitionist John Brown. Unlike the sometimes ostentatious Walker, Pleasant often presented herself outwardly as a domestic worker, who would glean valuable (literally) information from wealthy Whites and act upon it.  By the time she arrived in California in 1852, she had accumulated a small fortune in gold, about $15,000 worth (equivalent to more than $400,000 today) and she constantly built upon her wealth.

She was born August 19, 1814, but apparently there is no clear indication where exactly. What is clear is she identified herself as “a capitalist by profession” in the 1890 United States Census. What is also clear is that she, like her compatriots of color post Emancipation exhibited an otherworldly level of savvy, intelligence, tenacity and boldness when it came to making money and in many cases using that money to help liberate other Black people.

Robert Reed Church, born a slave June 18, 1839, in Holly Springs, Miss., was one of the first Black millionaires in the South and the founder of Solvent Savings Bank, the first Black-owned bank in the city of Memphis, where he amassed his fortune. Church was the largest landowner in the state of Tennessee Black or White.

His father Captain Charles B. Church, who was White, owned his mother Emmeline, who was also biracial (she died when Robert Church was 12). Although he never officially “acknowledged” his son Captain Church, who owned a steamship that sailed along the Mississippi River taught Robert everything about the steamship business. He became a steamship steward, the highest position that a Black could obtain in that industry at the time. In 1862, he was working on the steamer Victoria when it was captured by the Union Army and Church was basically stranded in Memphis, but he clearly made the best of the situation working various jobs and saving his money. Between 1862 and 1865, Church purchased his first Memphis business, a saloon. Around 1879, an epidemic of yellow fever swept through Memphis. And Church took advantage of the devalued properties and bought several businesses and undeveloped land amassing his fortune mostly through real estate.

His granddaughter Mary Church Terrell was one of the first Black American women to earn a college degree and was a co-founder of the NAACP,  and an advocate for Black liberation and suffrage.

The saga of Hannah Elias seems implausible, yet this woman of color became one of the richest women in the world in the early 1900’s.

Known as “The Negro Enchantress” in the tabloids of New York City in the early 1900’s, Elias was born in Philadelphia in 1865. However, there seems to be no definitive date for, or location of her death.

In 1884, at age 19, she apparently did some prison time for “borrowing” a gown from an employer to attend her sister’s wedding. A year later in 1885, she was supporting herself as a sex worker at a brothel when she met a wealthy White man named John R. Platt, who was 45 years her senior. Subsequently, Elias wound up in New York and reconnected with Platt (although the order of events may have been reversed) where he allegedly gave her large sums of money and set her up as the owner of a boarding house on 128 W 53rd Street in New York. She (passing for Cuban or Sicillian) later moved into a mansion on Central Park West. From  this point her odyssey becomes very precarious and bizarre.

 A Black man named Cornelius Williams who rented a room at the boarding house she owned and became smitten mightily with Elias gunned down a man named Andrew Green, a very prominent man in New York, who Williams believed was Platt.

And Platt’s family allegedly convinced him to accuse Elias of blackmailing him out of the large sums of cash he gave her.  Racist headlines and images were splashed across the New York tabloids, labeling Elias as the “Ebony Enslaver,” among other things. And Although she was briefly jailed, Elias ultimately prevailed in court and kept all the money and gifts Platt gave her. She parlayed much of that money into numerous properties around New York making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Then around 1915, legend has it she traveled to Europe with her Japanese butler named Kato and was never seen in America again.

Born August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois, Annie Minerva Turnbo was the 10th of 11 children of Robert and Isabella Turnbo, although her parents died when she was young and an older sister raised her. In high school in Peoria, Illinois, she missed school a lot due to illness. However, she discovered a love and talent for chemistry that ultimately made her a millionaire. A former employee of Madame CJ Walker, Turnbo developed a hair straightening product for Black women that did not damage their hair. She created an entire line of hair and beauty products for Black women and moved her business to St. Louis in 1902, where her beauty business took off along with the city’s booming economy. By the end of World War I, Turnbo was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest women in America. Around that time she built a cosmetology school, Poro College (named after her beauty business) for Black women.

Despite some business hardships, the Great Depression and a failed marriage to a man named Aaron Malone, Turnbo remained in business and opened 32 branches of the Poro School throughout the United States. By the time she died May 10, 1957, Turnbo had given much of her vast fortune to charity.

O.W. Gurley was one of the founders of the Tulsa, Oklahoma community known as “Black Wall Street” one of the wealthiest Black communities in American history.

He was born on Christmas Day to freed slaves in 1868, in Huntsville, Ala., but he grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark.

In 1893, Gurley was part of the Cherokee Outlet Land Rush in Indian Territory and he staked a claim in the town of Perry, in Noble County Oklahoma. There he became principal of the town’s school and operated a general store in the community. By 1905, he and his wife sold their property in Noble County and moved 80 miles south to the oil boom town of Tulsa, where Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in North Tulsa and established his first business, a rooming house. He opened in a dusty road that would become Greenwood Avenue, which became the main artery of the community that would be known as Black Wall Street. He later opened a grocery store there. From 1910 to 1920, the Black population in that community more than quadrupled in size from 2, 000 to 9,000. It had become a self-sufficient community with Black-owned businesses, many initially financed by Gurley. He also built the Gurley hotel and purchased other buildings and he was one of the founders of Vernon AME Church. However, as racial tensions across the nation continued to roil in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, White terrorism finally reached Black Wall Street. The Tulsa Massacre was sparked on May 30, 1921, causing the deaths of at least 300 Black people and much of Black Wall Street was burned and bombed to the ground. Gurley lost most of his fortune, about $200,000. He and his wife fled Tulsa for Los Angeles where they opened a small hotel. He died 14 years later at the age of 67. 

Yet, even before the rise of the six subjects chronicled in Black Fortunes, other Black Americans were able to amass great wealth against great odds.

Prior to the arrival of Mary Pleasant in the San Francisco Bay area, William Alexander Leidesdorff was one of the founders of the city that would become San Francisco. Leidesdorff, who was a West Indian immigrant of Afro-Cuban, Jewish ancestry was one of the first biracial-Black U.S. citizens in California. He migrated to Alta California from New Orleans in 1841. A few years later in 1945, he served as U.S. vice consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco. He later became president of the San Francisco school board and was elected the city treasurer. After his death in 1948, his estate was auctioned off in 1856, allegedly for more than $1.4 million.

Perhaps the most famous wealthy Black American of the country’s post colonial era was James Forten, who was born September 2, 1766. Forten was born free in Philadelphia and became a sailmaker after the Revolutionary War. After his boss retired he purchased the sail loft and developed equipment that made his business very profitable. As one of the most well-known abolitionists of the time, He used the wealth he accumulated to help liberate other Black people in Philadelphia and across the burgeoning nation. He helped finance William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator, one of the most important publications of the abolitionists movement. And when he died in 1842, he was one of the wealthiest Philadelphians, Black or White.