An Origin Story of the Black Elite Shomari Wills challenges the idea that African Americans have had little success with business and money.

Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires

By Shomari Wills (2018, Amistad) 300 pages including index, source notes, and photos.

It has long been the dream of at least some significant segment of African Americans to have a powerful and influential elite, what scholar W. E.B. Du Bois called in 1903 a “Talented Tenth,” of cultured, educated race men (and, as times changed, women) who would lead African Americans by example and through advocacy and political action. (Du Bois did not invent the term “Talented Tenth”; it was, in fact, coined by a white man, but Du Bois was its principal popularizer.) As much as Howard University Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier excoriated the black middle class, from where the Talented Tenth was supposed to emerge, in his 1957 polemic, Black Bourgeoisie (originally published 1955 in France in French)[1], he did not condemn the idea of a Talented Tenth or a black elite. He condemned the black middle-class for not living up to its responsibilities to provide such leadership. The black middle-class was not a useful elite; it was, for Frazier, a largely parasitic class that was shallow, anti-intellectual, and filled with self-hatred.

The black religious and political radicals—like the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam—felt much the same way: the bourgeoisie was no sort of worthy elite, but the radicals, representing a “vanguard” in a Marxist sense or a “remnant” in a biblical sense, were. Many of those who most vehemently oppose the idea of an elite, such as political radicals, are often the most committed to its necessity; after all, in their view, the world winds up being divided between the “awakened” or the “aware” and the “unawakened” or “unaware.” And, as always, the awakened are few and the unawakened are many. This formulation, to their ears, seems a substantial improvement over an elite built on privilege and the status of material possessions and income. But is not being “awake” a sort of elect-like privilege (why some people and not others) and a kind of status (“awakened” people clearly see themselves as superior to people who are still “asleep,” so to speak)?

The concept and function of an elite has long been a conundrum for African Americans who, because of their history of persecution, stigma, and relative powerlessness, feel there is a great deal at stake about who determines the future the group should aspire toward, who constructs the group’s role models, who rewards its excellence and achievements, and who articulates the group’s values. In short, who gets to say what kind of group the group is? These tasks are, normally, part of the job of the group’s elite.

For most local readers, the account of Annie Turnbo Malone will be of greatest interest: a black woman who amassed a fortune making hair care products to help black women who damaged their hair when they tried to chemically straighten it, who wound up in St. Louis during the World’s Fair to push her product …

Shomari Wills’s Black Fortune “tells the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, Robert Reed Church, O. W. Gurley, Hannah Elias, Annie Turnbo Malone, and Madam C. J. Walker, America’s first cohort of black millionaires, and their journey to liberty and wealth.” (xii)  Wills is correct to use the singular “story” instead of “stories,” as he knits a linear, chronologically continuous, and compelling narrative, linking the vignettes of his characters into a coherent whole. The chapters of the book are episodic but feel serial, are related, not disparate. The text gives the impression of a non-fiction writer using Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, novels constructed as sets of linked short stories, as a model. This method is hardly innovative or startling for a non-fiction writer—journalist or historian—but it serves the material particularly well in this instance. What we have in Black Fortune is not just a proto-black version of the Rich and the Famous, although it is on some level precisely that, but also another kind of origin story of the black elite or of a black economic elite or leisure class and how it saw its racial duties, this last being a major obsession with successful blacks.

The vignettes themselves are fascinating: how Mary Ellen Pleasant, a free born black Yankee woman from Nantucket, made a fortune in San Francisco running boarding houses and lending money and financed John Brown’s attempted slave insurrection; how Robert Reed Church, the biracial son of a slave woman and a white riverboat entrepreneur, managed to buy up a goodly portion of Beale Street and even open a park that he named for himself in that segregated city; and how Hannah Elias so bewitched her rich, white lover that he gave her hundreds of thousands of dollars, sued her to get it back in a sensational trial which resulted in charges being dismissed against her, and how she ultimately bankrolled the black-owned real estate company that eventually made Harlem black. But for most local readers, the account of Annie Turnbo Malone will be of greatest interest: a black woman who amassed a fortune making hair care products to help black women who damaged their hair when they tried to chemically straighten it, who wound up in St. Louis during the World’s Fair to push her product and there hired as one of her employees the woman who would become Madame C. J. Walker, and who built Poro College, a training center for her hair stylists, in St. Louis.  She was also the most charitably inclined of all the subjects of the book—the closest overall to someone like Oprah Winfrey. The book is a page-turner.

Black Fortune concentrates on the two constituent values that so preoccupy American society today: money and fame or, better put, the glory of business and the meretricious misfortune of notoriety: splashes of conspicuous consumption tempered by efforts to uplift the race upended by bouts of racist violence and white power-grabbing. Despite the fact that the book is a historical study, it illuminates its subject matter in a current light or in a way that readers today would evaluate and even describe people of the past. There is nothing wrong with this; it is almost unavoidable. In fact, it is the “contemporary” nature of the book that gives it its substance and makes it important.

In most cases, successful blacks needed lower-class blacks, as workers or clientele or both, in order to conduct their businesses, racial segregation and stigma being what they were. Slavery and its legacy make understanding the formation of a black “aristocracy” of wealth or manners more fraught because one has to negotiate so many contradictions and theoretical infelicities.

It is only natural to compare Black Fortune to Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, the most famous book by a black about the construction and failure of a black elite. To be sure, as Frazier’s critics have pointed out, Black Bourgeoisie failed to define exactly what the black middle class is or was; a certain theoretical and conceptual sloppiness mars the book, in part, because it was written in haste and anger. Black Fortune’s focus is on an elite, but the fortunes the book’s subjects amassed would hardly make them middle-class professionals but rather upper class, although their incomes fluctuated over the course of their lives. On the other hand, the ways in which they accrued their money, through owning boarding houses and operating catering businesses, buying real estate, and producing black women’s hair care products, all have middle-class, and in many cases, working-class origins. In most cases, successful blacks needed lower-class blacks, as workers or clientele or both, in order to conduct their businesses, racial segregation and stigma being what they were. Slavery and its legacy make understanding the formation of a black “aristocracy” of wealth or manners more fraught because one has to negotiate so many contradictions and theoretical infelicities. Leaving these intellectual perils aside, which, in different ways, might be said to afflict both books (Frazier confronts them inadequately and Wills ignores them), the comparison between Wills and Frazier largely centers on their attitude about black business. Wills celebrates it and the spirit of entrepreneurship and race pride that drove at the turn of the 20th century; Frazier, on the other hand, disparages it as “make believe,” or a sort of race delusion.

For Frazier, the myth of Negro business coincides with the end of the 19th century when racial subordination was at its height, “the nadir of race relations” in the United States as one Howard University historian put it. It was a way for blacks to imagine that they could have their own economy and become a nation within a nation, a way to salve their collective pride and try to make the best of a desperate situation. It was at this time that Booker T. Washington, the principal of Tuskegee Institute and the major race leader of the day, formed the National Negro Business League (1900). This is, in part, what Frazier wrote about League’s first meeting:

 

“At one point during the meeting, the compiler or statistician interrupted the oratory to announce that according to information provided by the delegates they owned personal and real property amounting to $781,900. In the enthusiasm of the meeting, it appears that no one stopped to realize that even if the figures were true, they represented a very small amount of wealth for 115 businessmen.” (156)

 

He goes on to note that the League’s definition of a businessperson is so broad as to be virtually meaningless. He concludes by criticizing studies on the failure of Negro businesses to recognize “that the Negro lacks a business tradition or the experience of people who, over generations, have engaged in buying and selling.” (165) He also observes that the myth of Negro business is self-serving for the black middle class: “Of course, behind the idea of the separate Negro economy is the hope of the black bourgeoisie that they will have the monopoly of the Negro market. They state that it is a sacred obligation of Negroes to patronize Negro business and that they should not complain if they pay higher prices for goods and cannot buy exactly what they want so long as they buy from Negroes.” (166)

Wills captures our current moment well: Black people want to be captains of industry. Maybe they always have been so inclined. In this country, as both Wills and Frazier intimate in their books, it would have been hard for them not to be.

The fact that Wills translated all the sums of money associated with the business affairs of his subjects into today’s dollars (I assume correctly) reveals how much he wants to impress his reader with their wealth. The amounts seem impressive enough in their original; in today’s dollars, they seem astronomical. He goes into lavish detail describing his subjects’ conspicuous consumption: their mansions, their jewelry, the extent of their property holdings, their charity, their servants. But unlike Frazier, Wills is impressed with Washington’s National Negro Business League, which he describes as “a preeminent organization for African American entrepreneurs.” (208)  Indeed, he provides a lengthy account of how desperately Madame C. J. Walker, the black hair care businesswoman, wanted to address one of the League’s annual meetings and be accepted by Booker T. Washington and his associates as one of the black business elite: the group was that important and influential. The difference between Wills’s account of the League and Frazier’s is startling, telling, in many ways, of how the way black writers and readers see wealth, class, and achievement has changed over time and circumstance. Frazier’s book, popular with the very people he criticized, was meant to radicalize the black elite who not only was instrumental in leading, as it turned out, the civil rights movement but also the Black Power movement that followed. In order to do this, Frazier had to remind the black elite that its past was actually paltry, its accomplishments meager.  Wills’s book is meant to inspire black readers to turn to business as a career because some black people, even during the hard years of slavery and segregation, were able to achieve, heroically, significant wealth against enormous odds. And in nearly all instances, they tried to help the race with their money, so making money is not selfish but a kind of race duty. Wills’s book is meant to remind its black elite readers that black business and the elite that it spawned have an intrepid tradition to live up to. One simple difference is that Frazier was skeptical of capitalism and Wills is not. Despite all the leftwing talk in parlor circles, I believe that most black people want very much to be activists in capitalism, not social justice, before they die. Wills captures our current moment well: Black people want to be captains of industry. Maybe they always have been so inclined. In this country, as both Wills and Frazier intimate in their books, it would have been hard for them not to be. Socialists and intellectuals believe that money is funny (not legitimate) but for the persecuted and stigmatized, money is money and is the only form of legitimacy that matters because it can buy any other legitimacy there is. From Wills and Frazier, we learn history is not the eternal truth; it is simply a temporal truth that people need at a particular moment.

[1] E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class, (New York: The Free Press, 1965 paperback edition).  All page references are to this edition.

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