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Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six…

Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped… (2018)

by Shomari Wills

Other authors: Renata De Oliveira (Designer)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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491360,562 (4.13)3
"The astonishing untold history of America's first black millionaires - former slaves who endured incredible challenges to amass and maintain their wealth for a century, from the Jacksonian period to the Roaring Twenties - self-made entrepreneurs whose unknown success mirrored that of American business heroes such as Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Thomas Edison. Between the years of 1830 and 1927, as the last generation of blacks born into slavery was reaching maturity, a small group of smart, tenacious, and daring men and women broke new ground to attain the highest levels of financial success."--Amazon.com… (more)



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Millionaires today are no big deal. Half of Congress is millionaires. Not impressed. But the first six black American millionaires is a terrific story. These unlikely individuals started off with huge disadvantages, from race to skin color to illiteracy to being slaves or the children of slaves. That they rose to wealth in such a hostile environment – civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow – makes them all the more impressive. And half of them were women.

Unlike todays’ millionaires who can set out to make a fortune and just do it, the first six black millionaires often backed into it. Every story is different, every fortune is different. They leveraged the mobility of America, taking advantage of the California gold rush or the Oklahoma land giveaway. They became lenders to help build local businesses that helped them rent their buildings, or in one case, became the kept woman of a white multimillionaire. Their million in assets is worth tens of millions by today’s standards, making it all the more impressive.

Shomari Wills has to be a fine storyteller to fill in the gaps in these largely unrecorded lives, and he is. They come alive in his pages and their stories move quickly. Rather than profile each one alone, his book is chronological. The chapters run from the 1800s to the 1950s. The characters show up in different decades as we pick up their stories again. There is little or no interaction among the players. They were too busy living their own lives to even know about each other, unlike todays’ crop, which constantly gather and socialize.

And none of them made their fortune in office.

My favorite is Mary Ellen Pleasant, who took off for California to track down her man, and ended up with a fortune in real estate, securities and a prominent place in secretly funding John Brown and the Abolitionists. She totally dedicated her fortune to the cause. She was a class act.

There is a shelf of these books now. They tend to make far more interesting biographies for me than the run of the mill. There’s Prince of Darkness – the story of Jeremiah Hamilton, a Wall St. finagler, who shows up in Black Fortunes too, Washington’s Mulatto Man and most recently Black Tudors, all of which I have reviewed and loved. Black Fortunes is yet another, very different and fascinating collection to add to the shelf.

David Wineberg ( )
3 vote DavidWineberg | Dec 12, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shomari Willsprimary authorall editionscalculated
De Oliveira, RenataDesignersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Iacobelli, JamesCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the descendants of those who came to this country in bondage and persevered to reveal our true greatness.

In particular, to my wife, Aprielle, my daughter Zora, and my entire family
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I grew up hearing stories from my mother of “Uncle Johnnie” the millionaire. (Introduction)
On a warm night in 1841, William Alexander Leidesdorff sat on the porch of an old white house covered in vines in New Orleans with his fiancée, Hortense. (Prologue: The First Black Millionaire)
The sun was warm and the air smelled of the salt water on the sandy coast of Nantucket on August 12, 1841.
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