Black Fortunes book review

By Leroy Douresseaux
March 14, 2018 - 10:50

Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires book cover image

Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires is a non-fiction book written by journalist Shomari Wills.  Black Fortunes tells the story of the first six African-Americans who were born into slavery and then went on to become millionaires

According to Black Fortunes, there are an estimated 35,000 black millionaires living in the United States.  That includes celebrities like Beyoncé, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.  Some are billionaires (Oprah Winfrey) or are near billionaires (Michael Jordan, Jay-Z).

However, these rich folks are not the first black people to become the “one percent.”  Between the years of 1830 and 1927, there was a small group of people among the last generation of blacks folks born into or during slavery.  Smart, tenacious, and opportunistic, these daring men and women broke new ground for African-Americans by attaining the highest levels of financial success.

These are the first six to escape the holocaust of American chattel slavery of African-Americans and find wealth:

1. Born in Philadelphia in 1814, Mary Ellen Pleasant built her wealth in California during the “Gold Rush” and used that wealth to further the cause of abolitionist John Brown

2. Born in 1939 on a cotton plantation outside Memphis, Tennessee, Robert Reed Church was the child of a slave who was a fair-skinned black woman and a married white man who owned a fleet of steamships.  Church would go on to become the largest landowner in Tennessee and a man of such political influence he was acquainted with President Theodore Roosevelt.

3. The daughter of a respectable professional family in Philadelphia, Hannah Elias, was the “Black Cleopatra” who “exhibited a peculiar influence over white men.”  She became the mistress of a New York City millionaire and used the land and money her lover gave her to build a real estate empire in the city, and in Harlem, in particular.

4. Born in Illinois in 1969, Annie Turnbo-Malone was an orphan who dreamed of making a business of doing people's hair.  She became a self-taught chemist and went on to develop “Poro,” the first national brand of hair care products and a franchise of beauty shops.

5. Initially an employee of and salesman for Annie Turnbo-Malone, Madam C. J Walker began her journey to riches by stealing her employer's hair care formulas to start her on hair care business.  She would go on to earn the nickname America’s "first female black millionaire,” and she openly flaunted her wealth.

6. The son of slaves, (Ottawa) O. W. Gurley was born in Huntsville, Alabama on Christmas Day 1868.  He moved to Oklahoma during the “oil boom” and using his business acumen and political savvy he developed a piece of Tulsa, Oklahoma, into a “town” for black craftsmen and tradesmen and wealthy black professionals.  Named “Greenwood,” this unofficial town that would become known as “the Black Wall Street,” before jealous white racists looted and destroyed most of it.

The astonishing untold history of America’s first black millionaires is now told in the new book, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires.

THE LOWDOWN:  We need books like Black Fortunes, and by “we,” I mean Americans in general, and black Americans specifically.  American history as taught to me at the elementary and high schools I attended was piss-poor.  Every school year, we began with Christopher Columbus and had barely began studying the 19th century by the time the school year ended.  I think we only once got anywhere near the Civil War, and slavery was touched upon only a few times.

Luckily, I had Black History month and African-American teachers who had graduated from Southern University and A&M College (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and legendary Grambling State University who were determined that we ''learn about our ancestors and the people who came before us.”  In spite of their best efforts, I found that white kids from pricey private and parochial schools knew more about “Black History” than I did.

I have learned a lot from books like Black Fortunes, which are both history and story books.  And the truth is that Black Fortunes and books like it tell stories that are as much American as they are specifically African-American.  In the case of these six individuals here, their lives are often in the center of the maelstrom that was the time period from the administration of President Andrew Jackson to the 1920s (the “Roaring Twenties), a time of great change and growth for the United States of America.  You cannot read this book and understand these six individuals and the scope of their achievements without grappling with the larger context of a turbulent 100 years.

On an individual level, the thing that surprised me most about these men and women is how much they hustled.  The term “hustler” has a negative connotation, being related to black criminals and male sex trade workers.  But the stars of Black Fortune were always hustling more jobs, investments, and opportunities.  Mary Ellen Pleasant was a rich woman in California, and she was still catering on the side.  Robert Reed Church was a real estate magnate, a rich landlord, and he still operated his bar/jook joint from behind the counter.  The black women chronicled here built mansions and took in tenants to earn some extra cash?!

There is a lot to learn from Black Fortunes.  The history of black Americans is America's history.  The most important thing that one can learn from this book is this:  always hustle, grab that extra job, snatch  every opportunity, embrace a helping hand, and don't stop – even when the racists and haters are trying to hold you down.

I will also go so far as to say that every black high school student in America should have a copy of Black Fortunes.  It should be required reading for incoming freshmen at all HBCUs and at many other American universities and colleges, especially the ones that benefited from slavery and the oppression of black folks.

I READS YOU RECOMMENDS:  People looking from great untold American stories must have Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires.

10 out of 10

Rating: 10 /10

Last Updated: January 24, 2022 - 11:00

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