Madam C.J. Walker wasn't the first African American millionaire

Her success is an inspiration, but we should also honor her predecessors, who are less well-known for a reason

Published February 26, 2018 6:58PM (EST)

Madam C. J. Walker (Wikimedia)
Madam C. J. Walker (Wikimedia)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Every year during Black History Month, African American pioneers and luminaries like Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King are celebrated with pride in African American households and taught by teachers in classrooms throughout the country. When it comes to noting the historical achievements of Blacks in business during the month of February and throughout the year, the most frequent name to come up is often Madam C.J. Walker, who is credited as the first black millionaire in the U.S.

Black Fortunes

Walker’s life story is an incredible rags-to-riches tale. She went from poverty as a sharecropper in Louisiana, the unofficial capital of Dixie when she was born there in 1867, to living in replete luxury in a New York City brownstone during adulthood. She was routinely spotted shopping on Fifth Avenue in 1916 after her business took off, a rarity for most New Yorkers during that time, let alone African Americans in the economic upheaval of the Progressive Era.

For African Americans well aware of how our ancestors struggled against segregation, poverty, and racial violence after Emancipation, Walker’s excess during a horrific era is a powerful aspirational symbol.

Walker, however, was not the first black millionaire, a title which is often attributed to her. In fact, it was an earlier black millionaire named Annie Malone who gave Walker her start. In 1903, Annie Malone, the proprietor of the top black hair care product company in the country, gave Walker a job as a sales associate. After a year working for Malone, Walker started her own company marketing similar products.

So why has Walker been remembered this way, and who were the first black millionaires?

The actual first black millionaires lived during the Antebellum and Reconstruction Eras, just before and after Civil War, a time where black codes in Free states and the Fugitive Slave Act made being high profile, wealthy and black dangerous. When Frederick Douglass’ first book, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” became a hit in 1845, he left the country for Ireland, partially out of fear he would be recaptured and re-enslaved because of his notoriety.

The earliest known African American to achieve a net worth of a million dollars was William Liedesdorff. He lived free in New Orleans in the early 1840s, passing as a white man and working as a naval merchant. When he was outed as a black man, he migrated to California, then a Mexican territory populated with Native Americans and mixed-race Mexican nationals. In California, he acquired over 30,000 acres of land, which turned out to be laden with gold, just before the 1849 gold rush.

A few years later, Mary Ellen Pleasant, a free black woman from Massachusetts, also migrated to California. Pleasant got rich investing in silver and operating boarding houses for the rich bachelors of San Francisco. She used some of her money to help fund John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1857. When John Brown was captured, she went into hiding in fear for her life.

Robert Reed Church, a former slave, typifies the risks encountered by early black industrialists. Church escaped slavery during the Civil War and opened a pool hall, tavern and nightclub in Memphis just after the war ended in 1865. His business was the most prominent black business in Memphis, and during the Memphis race riots of 1866, a white mob targeted him for assassination.

In July of 1866, late on the evening as it had just started to rain, a dozen or so white men dressed in police uniforms shot Church from the street outside his business and stormed the store, emptied the cash register and took a few casks of liquor. As they looted, Church lay on the ground bleeding from the head. The men then set fire to the store and left Church to die.

Miraculously, Church survived that night. He rebuilt his pool hall and expanded his real estate holdings into an empire; becoming the first known black millionaire in the South. He never forgot that fiery night in 1866. From then on, Church used his money to assist African Americans, giving financial support to Ida B. Wells and other anti-lynching activists. He lobbied the Republican party to protect voting rights. He also did his best to stay out of the crosshairs of the “good ‘ol boys” and the KKK in Memphis, but just in case he couldn’t, he kept a gun at his side at all times.

As I write about in my book “Black Fortunes,” the mythologizing of Walker as the first black millionaire is largely a result of earlier millionaire industrialists like Bob Church, Mary Ellen Pleasant and William Leidesdorff being unassertive about their wealth and avoiding the spotlight, as they faced an often-violent racial backlash for their success.

Walker was the opposite of modest. She summered in a mansion in Hudson Valley where she threw galas. She proudly placed stories in black newspapers about her high-end lifestyle and publicized her donations to charity. Because of her celebrity and conspicuous consumption, Walker was eulogized as the first black millionaire after she died in 1919. A biography written by her great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, “On Her Own Ground,” states, "Many newspapers called her a millionaire, though in truth the value of her estate — her homes, factory, office, salons, apartment buildings, real estate, furnishings, cars, diamonds and furs — at the time of her death was probably closer to $600,000." According to my research, she was preceded by half a dozen African American millionaires at least. Nonetheless, her status as a pioneer found its way into history books and became a source of racial pride for decades.

Walker never wanted to be deemed the first black millionaire, in fact. “I have been mistaken for a rich woman which has caused scores of demands for my help,” she once told Booker T. Washington in a letter. She inherited the legacy largely because of the racist backlashes her predecessors encountered, making it necessary for them to maintain a low profile, causing their extraordinary legacies and lives to be overlooked.

Today, we are witnessing another milestone: the first generation of black billionaires, which includes Oprah, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Robert Smith, and Michael Jordan. Looking back on the lives of the first African American millionaires, like Mary Ellen Pleasant who funded John Brown and the Underground Railroad, and Bob Church who helped fight lynching and backed early black politicians, today’s black elite don’t face the same obstacles their predecessors did, and owe them a debt for the path they blazed. Hopefully, today’s Black one percenters will seize this opportunity and use their wealth to aid their communities just as those who came before them.

By Shomari Wills

A writer and journalist, Shomari Wills is the author of "Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires." He has worked for CNN and Good Morning America, and has contributed to the NY Carib News and Columbia Journalism Review. He received a BA in English from Morehouse College and an MS in journalism from Columbia University, where he was named a Lynton Book Writing Fellow. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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