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Blackness has a history of assets

BLACK FORTUNES: THE STORY OF THE FIRST SIX AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO ESCAPED SLAVERY AND BECAME MILLIONAIRES by Shomari Wills (HarperCollins Publishers)

“We’ve got everything we need right here, and everything we need is enough.” — Jack Johnson

Black Fortunes tells the remarkable stories of Mary Ellen Pleasant, Robert Reed Church, OW Gurley, Hannah Elias, Annie Turbo Malone and Madam CJ Walker, the United States’ first cohort of black millionaires and their journey to liberty and wealth as well as their contribution to ending slavery.

This astonishing book focuses on the untold history of the first six African-Americans who were born into slavery and became millionaires. Through their stubbornness and sheer determination, these men and women managed to surpass incredible challenges and break new ground to achieve the highest levels of financial independence and success in their respective fields.

The creation of black wealth is an important but overlooked subject in the economic and social history of the US. Black millionaires disrupt stereotypes of black power. They remind us that African-Americans do not lack the desire or ability to work or to build businesses and wealth, but that instead they have often had to overcome great obstacles to achieve economic stability, let alone independence and power.

Early in their history, African-Americans who achieved wealth were often attacked, demonised or swindled out of their money by those who knew the Jim Crow court system. The black elite, in their first decades of existence, survived assassination attempts, lynchings and frivolous lawsuits — all meant to destroy or delegitimise their wealth.

The accomplished author Shomari Wills, who has worked as a journalist for respectable media publications, manages to chronicle in detail the lives of these great individuals and their fight against the continuation of slavery. Some worked hand in hand and funded the causes of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.

Wills also grew up hearing stories about his great-great-uncle, John Mott Drew, “The Millionaire” — and I guess that’s how the idea of this book came about.

He writes in his introduction that John Drew was the son of a slave. His father, Napoleon Bonaparte Drew, was enslaved on a large plantation called Belmead in Virginia. He had a zealous work ethic and an innate sense of self-confidence, which he passed down to his children.

After emancipation, he bought a farm in 1867 near the plantation where he had been enslaved and became the first black person in Powhatan County to own property. When his children reached adulthood, he sold the farm and told his children that they should go make something of themselves with the money from the sale of the land.

In 1901, Simon Drew, his oldest son, opened an “ice house” in Darby where he sold oysters, beer and ice cream. He later opened a restaurant, bought four apartments and became the landlord.

John was an even shrewder investor. He started in real estate and branched out to more lucrative businesses such as a bus transportation company that he later sold to a larger conglomerate on condition that it would retain his black employees and would never allow segregation on his bus route.

He also became a self-taught stockbroker but was forced to hire a white broker to trade secretly on his behalf. He cashed in his money before the Great Crash of 1929 and became a millionaire. He purchased a local Negro League baseball team, the Darby Daises, which operated until 1932. He spent his later years running a livestock farm.

“His story made me realise that the economic achievement of African-Americans dates further back than today’s black elite,” says Wills.

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Oupa Nkosi
Oupa Nkosi

Oupa Nkosi began taking photos in 1998 with a pawnshop camera, before enrolling at the Market Photography Workshop. He began freelancing after graduating and has since run community projects, won a Bonani Africa award, had his work selected for exhibitions in Zimbabwe and Japan, and been invited to international workshops. He began at the M&G as an intern and is now chief photographer. He also writes features for the paper and lectures at his alma mater.

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