by Shomari Wills
A dollar used to stretch further, last longer, buy more, and, in the new book “Black Fortunes” by Shomari Wills, it took fewer dollars to make someone rich. Growing up, Wills heard many stories about his uncle, “the millionaire” son of a slave who became a rich man. Such a tale, says Wills, is an “overlooked subject” in American history. 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 also 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.
It’s about Annie Turnbo Malone who, after emancipation made it her mission to create hair and beauty products that worked specifically for Black women. 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 hometown.
“Black Fortunes” 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, and silly repetitions. After awhile, these errors superseded any information I was gleaning.
Still, author Shomari Wills offers interesting, thoughtful tales that basically show readers how Black entrepreneurs changed U.S. economics and paved the way for later wealth-builders and, in some cases, for overall equality. With a dose of patience, this book is worth a look.