As a student of economics, investing, and black history; I really enjoy learning about our ancestors who contributed to these arenas in a significant way. Given our historic and current financial status in America, it always perplexes me why we don’t know more about these notable figures as a concrete example of how to achieve wealth even in the face of powerful racial inequity.
I wish that names like AG Gaston, Herman Russell, and Reginald Lewis rolled off the tongue of black people as easily as MLK, Malcolm X and other well-known luminaries when discussing the social and political ills plaguing our community.
With that backdrop; I had the good fortune to stumble on a relatively new book that broadened my knowledge on the very first pioneers of black entrepreneurial success in this country.
While on a recent vacation, I noticed a woman poolside reading a book entitled Black Fortunes. As I approached the subtitle became legible… The Story of the first six African Americans who escaped Slavery and became Millionaires. Instantly intrigued; I watched a Youtube video interview with the author Shomari Wills and downloaded the book immediately after.
Rather than a dry piece of history, the author has constructed a colorful narrative of these six individuals’ lives documenting extraordinary tales of boldness tenacity, and in some cases, sheer luck. Counted in this group is Wills great-great-great-granduncle John Mott Drew, a classic serial entrepreneur. Drew made his initial big money opening the first black bus line in Philadelphia, parlaying those profits into the historic bull market of the 1920’s and eventually owning a successful negro league baseball team . As a testament to how both profit and community consciousness can coexist; he eventually sold out to the Philadelphia Transit Authority on two conditions: one was that there would not be segregated seating on his buses, and second that his black employees would be retained.
Easily the most well-recognized name featured in the book would be madam CJ Walker; widely touted as the first black female millionaire. Wills documents that this claim is false, and that her original employer Annie Turnbo actually achieved this milestone years prior to Walker and did it on a much larger scale. It is a testament to Walkers’ marketing genius including openly courting and flaunting her wealth in front of the press that this myth endures till today. In a nod to the importance of protecting your intellectual property, Walker actually got her independent start by copying Turnbo’s unpatented formulations and selling them as her own.
The Story of Hannah Elias would make for a worthy tabloid or TMZ headlines today. For those of us that remember the movie Harlem Nights, you’ll recall there was a black prostitute who’s “sunshine” skills in the bedroom caused her white John to leave his wife declaring that he’s “never coming back home”. Hannah pulled off this extraordinary trick – pun intended – with a wealthy New York state senator after a tryst in the brothel she was working in at the time. As verified by court documents, Senator Platt gave her over $700, 000 (in 1920s dollars!) to be the ultimate “kept”woman on the side. She lived in a palatial home overlooking Central Park decorated with an Egyptian royalty theme and complete with servants imported from overseas. After a time of trying to escape from her Blackness, she ultimately wound up being one of the main financial backers of the real estate developer who turned Harlem into a black neighborhood.
Other stories covered include OW Gurley, founder of “Black Wall Street”, Robert Reed Church who became the largest landowner in Tennessee, and laundry queen turned activist Mary Pleasant.
I read a large number of books and it’s very rare that I will do a formal review. Wills has crafted a masterpiece of storytelling that any students of American history would be well-served to read, regardless of their race.
As African Americans, of course it has special resonance and significance. We here on the manosphere understand that the odds for financial success are stacked against us, yet we have to strive to achieve it anyway. No one would argue that our present circumstances are worse than reconstruction America and so if our ancestors could do it, so can we!
Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy HERE and get inspired. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the section below.