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The First 6 African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires

Immediately following Emancipation, there were 4,047 millionaires in the United States — and six of them were African American. Between 1830 and 1927, as the last generation of blacks born into slavery was reaching maturity, a small group of industrious, tenacious, and daring men and women broke new ground to attain the highest levels of financial success.

Many people think that Michael Jordan, Bob Johnson, and Oprah Winfrey were the first Black people to generate a seven figure income, but this is not true!

Long before they were even born, these six African American men and women were actually the first pioneers to become millionaires:

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant (19 August 1814 – 4 January 1904) was a successful 19th-century American entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnae and abolitionist whose life is shrouded in mystery. She identified herself as “a capitalist by profession” in the 1890 United States Census.[1] The press called her “Mammy” Pleasant but she did not approve, stating “I don’t like to be called mammy by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not mammy to everybody in California.” In her autobiography published in San Francisco’s Pandex of the Press in January 1902, she stated her mother was a full blooded Louisiana negress and her father was a native Kanaka (Hawaiian), and when she was six years of age, she was sent to Nantucket to live with a Quaker woman named Hussey. She worked on the Underground Railroad across many states and then helped bring it to California during the Gold Rush Era. She was a friend and financial supporter of John Brown, and was well known in abolitionist circles. After the Civil War, she took her battles to the courts in the 1860s and won several civil rights victories, one of which was cited and upheld in the 1980s and resulted in her being called “The Mother of Human Rights in California”.

Robert Reed Church

Robert Reed Church Sr. (June 18, 1839 – August 29, 1912) was an African-American entrepreneur, businessman and landowner in Memphis, Tennessee, who began his rise during the American Civil War. He was the first African-American “millionaire” in the South. His total wealth probably reached $700,000, not a round million.[1] Church built a reputation for great wealth and influence in the business community. He founded Solvent Savings Bank, the first black-owned bank in the city, which extended credit to blacks so they could buy homes and develop businesses. As a philanthropist, Church used his wealth to develop a park, playground, auditorium and other facilities for the black community, who were excluded by state-enacted racial segregation from most such amenities in the city.

Hannah Elias

Hannah Elias (1863 -????)was once considered the richest Black woman in America. Many were shocked to learn she was African-American, as Black folks sitting on that amount of cash was just unheard of at the time. Elias wasn’t always wealthy, however. She was born in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia to a Black mixed race couple with nine children. In 1905, Senator John R. Platt accused the “negro enchantress” of blackmailing him out of $685,385 and sued her for it. The two were in a secret relationship and it is said that Platt had given her large sums of money in the past. Elias was unafraid and hired her own lawyer to beat the case. She took the stand to plead her case before the court — and won. Not bad for a Black woman with little education. In all, her properties and goods were valued at approximately $1M.

Annie Turnbo-Malone

Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1877 – May 10, 1957) was an African-American businesswoman, inventor and philanthropist. She was one of the first African American women(after Madam C.J. Walker) to become a millionaire. In the first three decades of the 20th century, she founded and developed a large and prominent commercial and educational enterprise centered on cosmetics for African-American women.

Madam C. J Walker

Sarah Breedlove (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919), known as Madam C. J. Walker, was an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a political and social activist. Walker was considered to be the wealthiest African American businesswoman and wealthiest self made woman in America at the time of her death in 1919.[2]Although she was eulogized as the first female self-made millionaire in the US,[3] her estate was worth an estimated $600,000 upon her death.[1] According to Walker’s obituary in The New York Times, “she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time”.
Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women through the business she founded, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Walker was also known for her philanthropy and activism. She made financial donations to numerous organizations and became a patron of the arts. Villa Lewaro, Walker’s lavish estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, served as a social gathering place for the African-American community.
Her name, Madam C. J. Walker, came as a result of her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker.

O. W. Gurley

O.W. Gurley was a wealthy Black landowner, born to former enslaved Africans, who traveled the United States to take part in the Oklahoma Land Grab of 1889. The young businessman resigned from a presidential appointment under then-president Grover Cleveland to venture out and found his own town. In 1906, Gurley moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he bought 40 acres of land that was only allowed to be sold to Black folks. One of Gurley’s first businesses was a rooming house which was built along a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. This road would later become Greenwood Ave. of the legendary Black Wall Street. Adding to the rooming house, Gurley went on to build three two-story buildings and five residential homes. He also purchased an 80-acre farm in nearby Rogers County. The entrepreneur later founded a church, today known as Vernon AME Church. By 1913, more businesses began springing up in Gurley’s Greenwood district, including hotels, law and doctor’s offices, cafes, pharmacies, barbershops, movie theaters and hair salons. Eventually, there were hundreds of businesses, all were Black-owned and operated. Greenwood’s unpaved roads served as Tulsa’s racial division lines and African-Americans flocked to the thriving city to escape racial prejudice elsewhere. After years of economic success in the thriving Black “enclave,” the entrepreneur lost all he had built after an angry white mob attacked and set fire to the Greenwood district, burning everything to the ground. He lost an estimated $200,000 in the 1921 race war. It was rumored that Gurley had been lynched by a white mob in the race war, but the memoirs of fellow Greenwood pioneer, B.C. Franklin indicate that he exiled himself to California where he later died.

For more details about these stories, check out the book Black Fortunes: The Story of the First 6 African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires by author Shomari Wills.

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Brenda Graham April 13, 2019 at 10:58 am

It should be eradicated. As a mental health worker for over 15 years.I stuns me that in the black community 90% of individuals are diagnosed parinoid schtzoid and thats a lie. We were all born with a chemical imbalance of the brain. We all have intellectual disabilities and it could easily be eleviated with smaller doses of the mind alterining medicine they are given .I believe if you checked old instititional records the meds given and the doasges between black and white patients are different

Benicia June 16, 2022 at 7:48 am

The headline photograph is by James Van Der Zee, a famous black photographer during the Harlem Renaissance who documented the emerging black class during that era.

MicheleElys June 17, 2022 at 4:26 pm

These stories are very inspiring, especially during harsh times when we ALL are seeking change and new places to begin or evaluate where we stand.
Thank you Black Main Street for your publication. Extremely timely!!


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