Strictly speaking, he says, the first Black millionaire in
America was William Alexander Leidesdorff, real-estate
mogul, philanthropist, and friend to the powerful, who lived
in San Francisco well before the Civil War.
But this book isn’t about Leidesdorff.
It’s about Mary Ellen Pleasant, who received an inheritance
from her late first husband, and parlayed that “small
fortune” into a much larger one that she used as an
activist. It’s about O.W. Gurley who bought land in Oklahoma
and built a predominantly Black town that was exceptionally
prosperous – especially for Gurley.
It’s about Annie Turnbo Malone and her protégée, Sarah
Breedlove. After Emancipation, Malone made it her mission to
create hair and beauty products that worked specifically for
Black women. Once her business was successful, she hired
salesladies – one of which was Sarah Breedlove, who married
C.J. Walker and created her own product to rival her mentor.
It’s about Robert Reed Church, former slave, favorite son of
Memphis, and the richest Black man of his time. Even now,
more than a century after his death, his legacy can still be
seen in his adopted home town.
And it’s about Hannah Elias, who spent most of her life in
scandal and built her wealth with the money of her lovers,
then disappeared. To this day, says Wills, nobody knows
where Elias landed – or how much of her ill-gotten fortune
is a good idea in bad need of an editor.
Over and over, I found dates that didn’t match, incorrect
information, statements that conflicted with other
statements, silly repetitions, and a lot of “huh??” moments.
After awhile, these errors superseded any information I was
Still, author Shomari Wills offers interesting, thoughtful
tales that basically show readers how Black entrepreneurs –
some of whom could barely read or write – changed U.S.
economics and paved the way for later wealth-builders and,
in some cases, for overall equality. Wills admits in his
introduction that he brought these stories forth, even
though “Few records exist” from his subjects’ times, and
diaries and letters were largely non-existent.
That would explain the deep novelization of the tales, which
is not the bigger distraction; lack of attention and a red
pen are more the issue. Even so, with a dose of patience,
this book is worth a look. Just be aware that Black
Fortunes isn’t what you may be used to.