The status of “millionaire” has particular resonance in the United States, perhaps in part due to the weight contemporary America places upon meritocracy and the country’s perception of itself as a classless society.
According to an analysis of Federal Reserve data, Black families are far less likely to be millionaires than White families. Moreover, the racial wealth gap has persisted since the Civil Rights era and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. With these modern-day facts in mind, early Black millionaires have drawn attention as entrepreneurs who overcame significant structural barriers to achieve stunning success and wealth across a variety of areas. They have also won attention as underappreciated contributors to the formation of American capitalism, with Black contributions to developments such as industrialization also gaining recognition in recent decades.
- The status of “millionaire” has particular resonance in America, perhaps in part due to the weight placed upon meritocracy and the country’s self-perception as a classless society.
- For Black Americans, millionaire status has served as a signpost of success and opportunity in a country that tends to celebrate Horatio Alger–style rags-to-riches stories without irony or hesitation.
- According to recent reviews of financial worth, however, Black Americans are far less likely to be millionaires than White Americans.
- Though Madam C.J. Walker is often cited as the nation's first Black millionaire, there were several who predated her. The first Black millionaire was likely William Alexander Leidesdorff, according to some authors.
- In recent years, "billionaire" has displaced "millionaire" as a stand-in for the height of success.
William Alexander Leidesdorff (1810-1848) was likely America's first Black millionaire.
Leidesdorff, who had immigrated to the U.S. from the Danish West Indies, owned the first steamship in San Francisco Bay. He also accomplished a list of other notable firsts, including setting up the first public school in California, as well as creating the first hotel and the first waterfront warehouse in San Francisco.
Leidesdorff became a naturalized U.S. citizen in Louisiana in 1834 where he became a ship captain, according to historical accounts. He landed in California around 1841. It was there—where he spent the rest of his short life—that he would accumulate a fortune in commerce and real estate in the lead-up to the California Gold Rush. He eventually became a millionaire when gold was found on property he owned.
Leidesdorff was active in business and politics. During Mexican rule of California, he functioned as the U.S. Vice Consul at San Francisco, and he played a hand in aiding the Californians who undermined Mexican control of the region. He was also a city treasurer, councilman, and school committee member. He died unexpectedly of a fever in 1848. Because he hadn't set up a will and was a dual citizen, his fortune was auctioned off after much confusion. It was estimated to have been worth around $1,445,000.
John Carruthers Stanly (1774-1845) was a mixed-race former slave who himself became perhaps the biggest slaveowner in North Carolina. Upon being freed, Stanly became a barber, a relatively stable trade at that time. Eventually, he was able to purchase his wife and children's freedom. Stanly would come to own two plantations on Bachelor's Creek along the Neuse River, along with several houses and businesses. Stanly's involvement in real estate, cotton farming, and turpentine manufacturing made him one of the richest men in his county.
Jeremiah Hamilton (1806-1875), "Wall Street's first Black trader," made his fortune in New York in the 19th century.
Not much is known about Hamilton's early life, but he immigrated to New York after fleeing Haiti, where he was helping to bring in counterfeit coins for a consortium of New York merchants.
Litigious, secretive, and shrewd, Hamilton cut a figure in real estate speculation, deal brokering, and insurance fraud in a time when the burgeoning business in the state was mostly unregulated. A man of twisting fortunes, Hamilton lost his fortune—which he would later rebuild—in the 1837 financial panic and outwitted a lynch mob during the Civil War draft riots.
By the time of his 1875 death, he left his family a sizable fortune, estimated to be worth about $2 million (or about a quarter of a billion dollars in today's currency). An exception in every sense, Hamilton apparently showed little interest in racial struggles and was disliked by the Black press of his time. He also invested in railroads that wouldn't serve Black passengers or that segregated their compartments.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
Mary Ellen Pleasant (1815-1904) was the most powerful Black woman operating in San Francisco in the heat of California's Gold Rush. She may have been born a slave, but by the 1820s, she was living in New England and was involved with the Underground Railroad. While there, she married James Smith, who left her a significant amount of money upon his death. She left for San Francisco in 1852; accounts of her life suggest she was fleeing due to her work as an abolitionist.
Pleasant invested the money she inherited from her husband, including in profitable investments in real estate and mining stocks, and apparently, she listed her profession as "capitalist" on an 1890 census form. She was active in advancing the abolitionist cause. Pleasant provided financial support for fiery abolitionist John Brown, funding his raid on Harpers Ferry. She admitted this to reporters at the end of her life and had "friend of John Brown" inscribed on her tombstone. She was also a plaintiff in a case that went to the California Supreme Court and led to a decision that held that segregating streetcars was unconstitutional.
Robert Reed Church
Robert Reed Church, Sr., (1839-1912) was born to a White steamboat captain and an enslaved seamstress in Mississippi. Reed was enslaved after being captured while serving as a steward on the Victona steamer during the Civil War.
After being freed, he settled in Memphis. He made his money primarily in real estate, but he also ran a hotel and other businesses, including a saloon. He opened an auditorium, Church's Park and Auditorium, for Black members of the community, where President Theodore Roosevelt later spoke. He was also involved with the founding of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company and in saving the Beale Street Baptist Church from foreclosure.
Madam C.J. Walker
The title of millionaire serves a financial, technical designation and also a cultural one. It denotes someone with an unusually high net worth who enjoys the freedoms and pleasures associated with that net worth.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), who started life as a Louisiana sharecropper born to formerly enslaved parents in 1867, is usually cited as the first Black millionaire. She became famous as a successful businesswoman in New York in the Progressive Era, some decades after the end of Reconstruction, when successful Black businesses were relatively rare, but when targeted violence against Black entrepreneurs was not. The infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, for instance, which burned “Black Wall Street,” a nationwide symbol of Black success, in the Greenwood District of Oklahoma to ashes, occurred two years after Walker's death.
Walker made her fortune selling beauty products. Annie Malone, an entrepreneur in the beauty industry and the inventor of the "pressing comb" and the Wonderful Hair Grower, also made a fortune in hair care products and is often discussed alongside Walker.
In terms of net worth, however, Walker was not the first Black millionaire. Shomari Wills, who authored Black Fortunes, a book about the first half-dozen Black millionaires in the country, argues that Walker has become memorialized as the first Black millionaire because earlier millionaires were less flamboyant about their success, fearful that it might make them a target of reprisal. The former slave Robert Reed Church, Wills writes, was shot in the head during the Memphis race riots of 1866 because he was noted as a wealthy Black man, though he survived the attack. Afterward, he regained his status but remained careful to keep himself from becoming a target. In this account, it was the cultural perception of Walker as wealthy that accounts for her citation as the first Black “millionaire.”
Daniel A.P. Murray (1852-1925) was a librarian at the Library of Congress for more than a half-century. Murray climbed the social order of Washington, D.C., after catching the attention of a senator and a Librarian of Congress. Eventually, he made a fortune as a business owner and developer.
Murray is mostly remembered now for advancing the literary accomplishments of Black Americans in concert with the work of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. However, the end of Reconstruction reduced Murray's wealth, and he was buried after his death in a segregated graveyard.
Scholarship Around Black Capitalism
Until relatively recently, historical accounts neglected the role Black businesspeople played in the creation of American capitalism.
Black business was an object of study for writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, with high points in the second half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, prior to Juliet Walker’s 1998 book, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, most historical accounts took the view that Black Americans lacked a substantial business tradition, citing their relatively few big businesses. Walker’s book persuasively shows that Black business owners have run fewer big-scale businesses because of racism, especially through government institutions, scholars say. Black millionaires didn't exist before the 19th century, but Walker documents examples of successful enterprises.
Antebellum Black Entrepreneurship
In fact, Black entrepreneurship stretches back before the Civil War, and even into slavery. "Slave entrepreneurs" would sometimes work independently, assuming all the risk, negotiating contracts, and advertising on their own, to establish the venture capital to purchase their own freedom or the freedom of friends or relatives, writes scholar Juliet Walker.
An enslaved man known as Free Frank, to pick out one antebellum example, purchased his own time from his slaveowner to establish a thriving saltpeter manufacturing business in Kentucky during the War of 1812. He then purchased his own freedom and that of his wife.
Other businesspeople exist about whom it can be difficult to dig up biographic details, and who didn't quite cross the million-dollar threshold. Based on documents from 1846, Walker identified a number of Black businessmen in Philadelphia—including Joseph Casey, a hairdresser; James Forten, a sailmaker; Robert Purvis, a farmer; and Stephen Smith, a lumber merchant and money broker—as having had significant net worths at that time.
Two Notable Post Civil War Figures
Two other early Black capitalists have been identified.
O.W. Gurley (1868-1935) was a founder of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla., known as "Black Wall Street." He worked primarily as a successful real estate speculator during segregation, but the Greenwood District was burned down in a race riot in 1921, and Gurley and his wife were detained in a National Guard internment camp. He died in Los Angeles in 1935. Gurley was called the "Bezos of Black Wall Street" by Forbes in 2020.
Hannah Elias (1865-unknown) was a sex worker who became a controversial and wealthy woman after building a real estate empire in Harlem. After a man named Cornelius Williams shot someone he had mistaken for her elderly lover, John R. Platt, in front of her property, a suit alleging that Elias extorted around $645,000 from Platt obliged her to give some details of her life in court. The revelations received extensive newspaper coverage. According to the reporting, Elias said that Platt had given her large amounts of money. The suit was dismissed.
In recent years, with interest in inequality and the racial wealth gap, the study of Black contributions to the growth of American capitalism has grown. Black entrepreneurs played an active role in the growth of American capitalism, especially since the 19th century, and the 20th and 21st centuries have brought a growing roster of Black investors, as well.
In recent years, "billionaire" has somewhat displaced "millionaire" as a stand-in for the height of success. The first Black American billionaire is Robert Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) and became a billionaire with its sale to Viacom in 2001.
Who Was the First Black Millionaire?
William Alexander Leidesdorff, co-founder of what eventually became San Francisco, was probably the first Black millionaire in the U.S.
Who Was (Is) the First Black Billionaire?
Robert Johnson, who co-founded BET, became a billionaire in 2001.
Who Was the First Self-Made Black Woman Millionaire?
Madam C.J. Walker is usually cited as the first Black woman to be a “self-made” millionaire. Other women, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, may have beat her to this status, though this may be contentious because Pleasant's fortune was partly inherited.
The Bottom Line
Black Americans have an entrepreneurial tradition stretching back into slavery and a distinguished list of early millionaires, beginning in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the racial wealth gap persists. Perhaps the 21st century will finally see it shrink. It is seeing a growing list of Black millionaires and even some billionaires.