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Sunday, April 15, 2018

From slaves to millionaires

Por Jade

"We think about the struggle for equal rights, but we do not think about how it was financed." That is the starting point of the investigation made by American journalist Shomari Wills about the first American slaves who became millionaires. "When I was a child I listened to the stories that my mother told and that's how my interest in the subject woke up," says Wills, who in his book Black Fortunes reviews the lives of six people who helped finance the abolitionists of mid and late nineteenth century that demanded the end of slavery in the United States.

"They lived in incredible mansions, they traveled around the world, they had servants," says Wills. What is unknown is that several put at risk to their own lives so that the black population could achieve freedom. "There was always a wealthy black class, a donor class that financed black activists and gave the means for people to fight for equality," says Wills.

The author explores the origins and trajectory of six characters who stood out for their success and determination, at a time when there were lynchings in the streets, torture and all kinds of cruel practices that threatened the dignity of people. Among the millionaires is Mary Ellen Pleasant, a woman who went to California during the gold rush, became rich and used her fortune to finance the abolitionist cause. With a strong business vision, Pleasant increased its fortune through laundries, pensions and other businesses. He was also an investor in the stock market, arousing rumors that he had "powers related to voodoo".

Another millionaire was Hannah Elias, famous for building a real estate empire in Harlem. Professor O.W. Gurley converted his land in Oklahoma into a commercial district known as Black Wall Street, while Robert Reed bought properties in Memphis and then transformed them into a musical neighborhood. Annie Minerva Turnbo, better known as Annie Malone, was a woman with a degree in chemistry and hairdressing who formed a cosmetics company for African-Americans. In a time when being a woman and of the black race guaranteed a wall of restrictions for personal development, Annie Malone invented her own beauty products, in addition to creating hairdressing and secretarial schools, and managing a hotel.

One of the sellers of their products, C.J. Walker followed a similar path of entrepreneurship that led her to create her own commercial beauty empire named Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. "Walker was not the first wealthy African-American, but she was perhaps the first to be shamelessly rich and openly black," says Wills.

These millionaires had to face a tough resistance for their skin color and legal battles against those who considered their fortunes illegitimate. The story presented by Black Fortunes shows the courage that many of them had to impose themselves in a world where everything had been created to fail. But they ended up folding their hand to their own story.