Black History Month has passed, and I had a plan to read three non-fiction books about black history during the month of February. I finished Maurice White’s wonderful biography, My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire quickly and then I read Before The Mayflower by Lerone Bennett, Jr. Bennett’s groundbreaking book chewed up the rest of the month in reading because of its dense nature. The epic scope of Before The Mayflower demanded to be read slowly and thought about after each chapter. Now, it comes to my third book (a few days after February has ended), Black Fortunes by Shomari Wills.
Black Fortunes tells the story of the First Six Black Millionaires during the period of Reconstruction and going into the 1920s. Mary Ellen Pleasant began in the 1820s as a free black girl from New England and ends up becoming one of the wealthiest black women during the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s-early 1850s. Pleasant was a commodity trader, moneylender, and helped financed the infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia led by abolitionist John Brown. Robert Reed Church, born as a slave, from a tryst between white steamboat captain and his black mistress, becomes one of the largest landowners in Memphis and helps create the famous Beale Street. Annie Malone was abandoned by her parents during slavery and raised by her older sister. She invents several black haircare products and turns it into a thriving business.
O.W. Gurley grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but moved to Tulsa and built the Greenwood neighborhood that became known as “Black Wall Street”. Hannah Elias was the black mistress of white New York millionaire, John R. Platt. Elias used the money she received to help black real estate development in the famed neighborhood known as Harlem. The most famous of the first black millionaires was Madam C.J. Walker. She has been celebrated as the first black millionaire in American history. Walker followed in the footsteps of Annie Malone and created her own black hair care products business that would rival the success of her mentor.
Wills writes a page-turning book that interweaves the stories of these millionaires and the tremendous challenges they faced during the Jim Crow era to achieve the American dream. Also, the book reveals how interconnected these six would become and their place in moving the African American community towards equality.
The Karen Hunter Radio Show mentioned Black Fortunes recently, and I was glad she gave some time on the airwaves for the book. The stories about these first six black millionaires are stories I will not forget and has piqued my curiosity about the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa. Highly recommended.