Q. & A.: Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: America’s First Black Millionaires

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Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

Oprah Winfrey’s story, from her birth in a small, poor town in Mississippi in 1954, to her becoming a billionaire and having to address rumors about a possible run for president, is extraordinary. But perhaps even more remarkable were the lives of this country’s first black millionaires, some of them born in the first half of the 19th century, decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. The journalist Shomari Wills’s new book, “Black Fortunes,” tells the story of six of those millionaires, including the landowner Robert Reed Church, born into slavery, and the self-taught scientist Annie Malone, the daughter of slaves. Below, Wills talks about how stories he heard as a child about his own family helped to inspire the book, the surprising connections he found between his subjects and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

It’s kind of been with me since I was a kid, even though I didn’t think of it as a book back then. My great-great uncle was John Drew, one of the first black millionaires in the Philadelphia area. I grew up hearing stories about him from my mother. He operated a bus line in Darby, Pa., in the mixed-race suburbs of Philly, in the early 1900s. He used the profits to invest in the stock market in the late 1920s. He rode the bull market pretty long, and pulled his money out right before the crash. He walked away with close to a million dollars.

When I was first starting out as a reporter, in Jamaica in 2012, for a Caribbean newspaper in New York, I went to Devon House, which is a Victorian mansion that belonged to George Stiebel, the first Jamaican millionaire. He was a shipping merchant with an incredible story. He invested a lot of money back into Jamaica. His mansion was so beautiful and ornate that they had to build a road that didn’t go past it, because the British nobles would get mad driving by it, seeing this black guy’s great success. In 2013, when I was at Columbia Journalism School, I started researching the first black millionaires in this country.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

How much of their money these first black millionaires devoted to helping advance racial equality in the United States. Throughout their lives, they put themselves at risk and exposed themselves, funneling the money they were able to make into abolition, civil rights, anti-lynching. They had very good lives with beautiful houses, with all sorts of luxuries, but they devoted an incredible amount of their money trying to help the African-American community. Mary Ellen Pleasant made her money during the gold rush in California. She took $45,000 and gave it to John Brown.

They all had different arcs with that. They all battled with the fact that they were rich but that they weren’t treated as a full human being sometimes. When they arrived at that realization, they started giving money to causes.

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Shomari Wills

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

Their lives ended up intersecting so much. I picked out six characters I thought would be representative of different types of businesses, different parts of the country, but even if they all didn’t necessarily cross paths, there was so much overlap in their lives. One of the main ways that occurred was through civil rights luminaries. Most of them knew Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and later W.E.B. Du Bois. When Washington started the National Negro Business League in 1900, an organization to boost black business and entrepreneurship in the United States, they would meet each other through that.

My plan was just to tell their stories chronologically. But the black business community was so tight-knit back then, so small, they all had connections with each other.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

I’d have to say Bad Brains, which is a black punk rock band. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and they really inspired me because they were one of the only black punk groups in D.C. They embraced a different genre and did their thing.

Persuade someone to read “Black Fortunes” in 50 words or less.

It gives you a different perspective, not only on black wealth but also America’s history. It reveals people who worked behind the scenes to provide the means for abolition, civil rights and racial equality. And they were also rich people with just fascinating lives.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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