tv Shomari Wills Black Fortunes CSPAN March 3, 2019 7:30am-8:12am EST
facebook or instagram. >> here's a quick look at what's coming up on booktv. next, the lives of six black entrepreneurs are detailed who achieved their wealth during the 19th and 20th centuries. then an author discussion on global television from last month's rancho mirage writers' festival in california. after that, booktv visits pasadena, california, to explore the area's literary sites and talk to local authors. now here's author and journalist shomari wills. [inaudible conversations] >> hey, everybody. welcome to greenlight. we're really excited to host
tonight's event presenting the book "black fortunes: the story of the first six african-americans who survived slavery and became millionaires." he will be talking with samuel friedman, so you're in for a really great night. before i turn things over to them, if you coulding silence or turn off your cell phones, that would be great. we have books for sale at the register. and shomari will be signing over hereafter ward. and we also have -- here afterward. and we also have fliers for upcoming events. sam friedman is an award-winning author, columnist and professor. he's a professor at columbia, and he used to write for "the new york times." he's the author of eight acclaimed books, and he's currently at work on his ninth which will be about hubert humphrey, civil rights and the 1948 democratic convention. and he'll be speaking with our featured author who's a writer and journalist who's worked for
cnn and good morning america and has distributed to the columbia journalism review. he was named a book-writing fellow at columbia university, and he lives in brooklyn. his new book, "black fortunes," recounts the lives of six extraordinary individuals who survived slavery and achieved unprecedented financial success. it was between 18 30-1927 when the last generation of black people born into slavery was reaching maturity that this small group of trailblazers emerged. they included landowners, scientific innovators, canny investors and used their largess to provide opportunities for their fellow african-americans. jeff landny cobb says wills has added layers to our understanding of the black past. so he'll be reading from the book, and then sam will join him in conversation, and you'll have
the chance to ask questions after that. please join me in welcoming to the stage shomari wills. [applause] >> hey, everybody. can everybody hear me? okay. well, thanks to everyone for coming out tonight. and thank you for the introduction. so the interpret i'm going interexcerpt i'm going to read from the book was born in the mississippi delta in the heart of the cotton trade. his mother was a plantation slave, and his father was, essentially, a cotton shipper. right in the middle of the civil war he was -- sorry. did everybody get that? or okay. so the excerpt i'm going to read today, and welcome and thank you for that introduction if you guys didn't get that part.
so the excerpt i'm going to read today is about robert reid church who is one of the eventual millionaires in my book. and i think he has, actually, one of the most interesting stories not just of the millionaire, but actually that i've ever heard. so robert reid church was born to slavery in the mississippi delta. his father was a, basically, a cotton shipper, and his mother was a slave. so he grew up on a plantation until he was a young boy and his mother died. and then his father came and kind of took him away and put him to work on his ships that were shipping cotton up and down the mississippi. when the civil war broke out, the confederacy was in desperate need of ships, so they actually commandeered his father's ship with hum aboard it. with him aboard it. so he, as a black man, as a slave, he faced this terrible fate of having to work for the confederacy. and so the excerpt i'm going to read talks about kind of how he
got out of that. and and it takes place during the battle of memphis, this famous battle during the civil war, where the union navy basically stormed memphis and battled the confederate navy right outside the city on the mississippi. and basically took it over and put the city under union rule and liberated the people there. so let me adjust the mic a little bit. can everybody hear me? near day break on june 6th, 1862, the sun was rising over the mississippi river. robert reid church was on the deck of the css victoria. his ship was floating just outside the memphis wharf looking out onto a fleet of confederate warships further out on the river waiting for a coming battle. the union navy was a approaching to invade and conquer memphis. robert stood on the deck with crew members and confederate soldiers watching the
approaching fleet draw closer, feeling both uncertainty and excitement. the union warships would perhaps bring freedom if they were victorious, but they could also bring death if they sank his ship. there were eight confederate ships in the river guarding the city, each of them had cotton bales stacked like bricks against all four sides of the super structures the protect against light artillery. the cotton-clad tila was with -- foe tila was poorly armed. the union fleet was twice the size of the confederate. its 17 ships' exteriors clad with iron, armed with guns and cannon. in another line were nine ram boats with 6-foot-long knife-like structures on the front ends. those beaks would puncture the whole holes of enemy ships, flooding and sinking them.
in the early morning, more than 500 people made their way from the their homes to the edge of the river to watch the battle. they stood in groups on the bluffs, 20 feet up from the fighting. the union fleet stopped 200 feet from the city, then the air exploded with the steady drone of gunfirement at about five a.m., it was answered by us instantly. the fleets exchanged fire for more than an hour with neither side taking much damage. by the time they were done, the river was covered with smoke, and the air smelled like gun powder. in the haze, two union ram boats came charging toward the confederate ships. they knifed their holes, sinking one, and damaged several others, puncturing their hulls. as the confederate ships came scrambling, the union gun boats sailed into the deadly range of the confederate ships and opened fire. the union ships shot up and
breached one confederate ship after another. on the bluff the citizens of memphis, who had been cheering the gunfight if, fell silent. after the union navy sank three confederate ships, the confederate flotilla surrendered. when the battle was over, a union ship began to close on robert's ship, the css victoria. something inside robert told him to flee. he followed this instinct. he walked to the edge of the book, gathered his nerve and jumped. with a splash he disappeared into the mississippi as the sun came up over memphis. in the hours after the battle of memphis, the river was turning and muddy. as gun smoke cleared, scraps of wood, cotton and metal littered the surface of the water. down river robert reid church pad ifinged and kicked toward the shores of memphis. he swam to the bank and pulled himself up onto land. as he collected himself on solid ground, his hair stuck to his face and scalp, sopping wet and
muddy, his clothing clung to his frame. what was he at that moment, a slave? a field man? a deserter? -- a freed man? whom did he belong to? the confederacy? the union? his father? himself? there was only one way to be sure. he collected himself and headed toward the city, dripping water as though he had just been baptized. he was unafraid of whatever awaited him. he had just survived his second flirtation with a watery grave. slavery and brushes with death had wrung whatever fear he had been born with from his breast. in memphis robert found men, both black and white, wearing blue union uniforms and carrying guns stationed on corners, patrolling the town. high in the sky he could see the union flag flying over city hall. after the battle of memphis, the mayor surrendered the city to the union, us pending slavery in -- suspending slavery 234 the
town. at that moment robert dared to think he was free. [applause] [inaudible conversations] >> we're going to get ourselves mic'd up here. first of all, on behalf of both shomari -- can you hear? -- we'd like to thank greenlight bookstore. of i've known jessica, one of the cofounders, almost since the birth of this amazing store, and it's one of the real success stories in book selling in the whole country and the model for semi other terrific independent -- so many other terrific independent bookstores which are tremendous friends to writers. so it's great to be here. second thing, we're delighted to have c-span's booktv here making video of shomari's talk,
and you can go to their part of the c-span web site and look at, check the schedule, find out when it's going to be on. tell all your friends to watch it and then come here and buy signed copies. [laughter] and then the last thing i'd like to do at the risk of embarrassing someone is just introduce a special, dear friend of mine who's in the audience here, the reverend dr. johnny the ray youngblood. one of the extraordinary theologians and congregation alleyeders of any color and any faith in this country. so delight to have my pastor in the house. he knows i'm not out making trouble, because he can see me. [laughter] so, shomari, so beautifully realize and so beautifully written, really incredible to hear it. but i also wanted, i'm curious
how this book even came about. you know, sometimes the book all writers want to write is the book that hasn't been written yet, and request "black fortunes" definitely is such a book, but then how to you even know what it is you want to write about? how do you know what vacuum is waiting to be filled? if what even put you on the trail of these six, you know, millionaires? >> well, i think what actually put me on the trail was kind of a dialogue between me and you. [laughter] >> that's more than i remember. [laughter] >> i remember i went to jamaica when i was working for the caribbean newspaper here, and i had found out about the first millionaire in jamaica. and i remember i was at columbia journalism school at the time, and sam has a famous book-writing class that's produced, what is it, 50, 60 -- >> 87. >> 87 books, i'm way off.
[laughter] and, you know, i was, wanted to get in the class. and i pitched him this idea of writing a book about -- >> that's right. >> -- the first jamaican millionaire, and he said, you know, that might be hard to do, you know, to report from the united states on something in jamaica. why don't you look into maybe doing something about folks here. and so i did, and i was just kind of shocked at, you know, what i found, that there was just this incredible history of black millionaires and these incredible folks that were not really commonly known, the first black millionaires. is so i sort of dove in. >> and wasn't there also family connection -- not through this period of time, but the history of black entrepreneurship in this country? >> yeah. so there was kind of a family connection that came in later and, honestly, i didn't really think about it at the time. i started pursuing the book. but my great, great, great uncle, john drew, was one of the first black millionaires in
philadelphia. he owned a trolley line. he started one of the first trolley lines in philadelphia. he basically, he lives in darby, which was a mixed race suburb in philadelphia maybe about half black, and there was really no way for folks to get to philadelphia or to get to work. so he actually bought a bus and started driving it himself, and it just expanded and grew and grew and grew. and he basically ended up selling it to i forget what the name of the company was at the time, but it ended up becoming septa, philadelphia's main transport system. so he took that money, he put that into the stock market. he did very well in the '20s when the stock market was doing very well. and, you know, he pulled the must be out in time and, you know -- the money out in time, and he retired bought a negro league baseball team. >> wow. >> kind of a family connection. >> and you read beautifully
about robert reid church, but there are six primary individuals in the book. so i wonder if you could tell us briefly who some of the other named figures are. >> so, yeah. there's eight total that i touch on in the book. so i just kind of go through those in chronological order. william -- [inaudible] who, you know, as far as i can tell is the first african-american millionaire. he was basically a early california pioneer. he went out to california when it was actually still part of mexico. and, you know, was a merchant, he was a shipper, exporter, importer. and he ended up getting his hands through kind of politicking with the mexican government on this large swath of land and, basically, all of modern-day sacramento, basically he owned that. and, of course, when the gold rush started, gold was discovered on that land, or so it was infinitely valuable. he died shortly after that, and
his family ended up being swindled out of the land, which is a whole other story. and then so after that there's mary ellen pleasant. she also made her money in the west, but she was born in philadelphia and kind of was raised in massachusetts. >> she went out to the gold rush, and she just got into all sorts of businesses out there. she was extremely savvy, having grown up, you know, sort of in nantucket which is sort of analogous to, like, new bedford during the whale bone that we all read about in moby dick. is -- so she kind of grew up in this boom town, so she was savvy when she went out to the west coast. she got into money lending, hospitality, laundries, all sorts of businesses that were needed in this frontier town. and, you know, she made a lot of money doing it. and probably her most famous of her many accomplishments is that she gave john brown about
$50,000 -- >> what would that be worth in today's -- can you guesstimate? >> so i don't remember exactly. i probably should, but it's, it's in the high six figures, i believe, if not a million. >> okay. i'm sorry, i didn't mean to take you off track, but i was just curious. >> yeah. so she gave john brown a lot of money, which was really a controversial thing to do. there was a group of white men called the secret six who gave him money, if they were fearful for their life. i think one or two of them actually had to leave the country. so giving john brown money was a pretty dangerous thing. of course, robert reid church, who i mentioned, was born a slave, ended up escaping. he ends up going to memphis and just becoming a, you know, basically sort of a, sort of a jack of all trades. but his main thing was real estate. and the interesting thing about memphis is that's kind of where the ku klux klan was founded.
as well as blues music, so a lot of things finish. [laughter] happened in memphis. but basically, it is this black man. he was doing very well in real estate, buying up properties during, you know, different events in memphis. but also he was dealing with just an incredible racist backlash. there was a really bad race riot in 1856 in memphis where, you know, dozens of black people were killed, churches were burned, homes were burned. he was actually -- there was an a assassination attempt in the the -- on him. he was shot in the head, survived. he battled all his life with, basically, the klan in memphis. but he continued buying up property. also was very influential in politics eventually. became sort of friends or associates with roosevelt. after that you have jeremiah
hamilton here from new york city. he was the first black broker or on wall street. he did battle with the vanderbilts over railroad stocks. he was just really -- and he was a really ruthless, ruthless broker, ruthless trader, sort of like an antebellum wolf of wall street, if you will. [laughter] and he was really, you know, he was really unique because he was the only black broker on wall street during the civil war riots here in new york. there was a lynching attempt on him which he survives by just basically being very fleet of9 foot and running away. and so, you know, he was, he was an interesting character. the difference between him and some of the other characters in the book is he kind of -- can't get into it, you know, too much in depth, but he kind of ran away from his blackness in ways that others didn't. and then, of course, the two that are maybe a little bit more
well known are annie malone who started the first big black hair brand, and she employed a woman named sarah breedlove, went on to become madam c.j. walker who started another big hair brand. another man basically built black wall street and became very -- >> which is tulsa, right? >> sorry. tulsa, greenwood is the official name of it, but basically north tulsa was this black, independent region that was not necessarily wealthy, but just very economically stable and independent. and he built the city from a patch of dirt, or built the area from a patch of dirt. and i think, i think that's everybody. >> such an amazing array of people. and i wonder if you could talk a little bit about the process of fetching that history.
because as you know, one of the problems with history is who gets to write it. the powerful get to write it. the wealthy who are white in this country get to write it. african-americans of consequence get written out of it. i mean, you look at "the new york times" just published a whole section on sunday of significant african-americans who weren't considered worthy of bitch wares at the time -- of obituaries at the time they died, including mary ellen pleasant, by the way. who's setting them down. so what kind of efforts did you make, what places did you have to go, what kind of material did you have to locate in order to give these stories life again, to really basically kind of reincarnate these amazing people for readers? >> so most of them left some sort of biographical document, but they were not memoirs. they were, you know, two, three, four pages.
and so that became the source material for the majority of the book. mary ellen pleasant's memoirs are probably six pages. robert reid churches are pretty length chi. he has -- lengthy. so it kind of varied between that length. which is one of the reasons it kind of worked to combine the characters in one book. it probably would have been more challenging to write a biography for each of them given the source material. but one of the things i did, which you suggest ld, was just try to report around it and give a really rich picture of what was going on around these folks, what was going on in the country at the time to kind of situate them and kind of give more, you know to sort of flesh out their life stories. >> you know, one of the things that's really stirring about the book is that a lot of people who, when they become rich either whether they're born into it or self-made, there can be a tendency to then just lu, and
uriate in your own wealth, to have, you know, all of, you know, the bling that life has to offer, all the confidents, all the excesses -- all the comforts, all the excesses and not particularly to think about the larger society. i'm not naming the names of any presidents. [laughter] just saying. but most, if not all, of the main african-american millionaires who you write about in this book felt a real commitment to the people and to the struggle. and what forms did that take? and why do you think for the most part they kept that connection? it's not like i got mine, and, you know, hopefully everyone else get theirs, but that's their problem. >> you know, i mean, i thought that was really interesting. i think the majority of them having felt with slavery -- dealt with slavery in one way or another, most of them were, you
know, born during slavery to slaves or they actually lived through slavery, or they were free but they had to worry about being captured back into slavery. most of them, i think, had an awareness of the limitation on their lives regardless of how much money they have. one character that was interesting that had to go through that awakening process was one of the characters i forgot to mention, hannah elias, who lived in manhattan who was the mistress of a white millionaire who, you know, basically transferred a lot of his wealth to her, and she became a millionaire that way. she sort of battled with her race and ended up coming around on it. she tried to pass as white for many, many years. and then eventually when this affair was revealed with this white millionaire, it became this huge scandal in the papers -- there were actually, basically, riot outside her house and she was actually hauled off to jail as a product
of this. she kind of not out of that. she was, she had sort of an awakening, and she actually moved uptown, you know, basically to harlem and sort of helped with the migration of african-americans to or harlem. -- to harlem. so i think she was a really great representation of just the fact that african-americans no matter what their resources were during that period still had to deal with the society they were living in. most of them realized it, you know, from, you know, circumstances of their lives. and, you know, they did a lot whether it was funding john brown or giving money to black colleges or building blacktowns or whatever the case may have been with these focus. most of them realized it but, you know, for some of them it was kind of an aa wakening as well. >> i'm going to ask one last question because i want to make sure we have plenty of time for your questions or at least enough of them. not going to let anyone out the
door before you start buying books. [laughter] one of my personal rules of being a moderator. but, shomari, in an era -- well, we're still in an era of white supremacy, ideology. but in this particular era, the 19th century, with the civil war within very recent memory, with the institution of formal slavery -- forget jim crow, slavery, easily within living memory -- black wealth and black self-determination was an incredible affront to the doctrine of white supremacy. and so i have to wonder what type of efforts to dis disenfranchise, to basically demolish the wealth, undermine the financial, you know, sources of these individuals, what did they have to endure in the way of business challenges, potentially even, you know,
physical challenges? you talked about church having to survive an assassination attempt. >> so there were a number -- i'd say the two biggest challenges that most of them faced were, you know, basically folks trying to swindle their wealth. because at the time, you know, while blacks were supposedly guaranteed equal rights by the 14th amendment, in a lot of places there were laws that said, for example, blacks couldn't testify in court or that you didn't have to honor a contract if it was with a black person. so a lot of them had a tough time holding on to their wealth if it ended up in court. i mentioned lightersdorf who his family's, basically, you know, sacramento is basically his family's legacy. that ended up in the hands of another person. and they were sort of limited by the fact that in california blacks could not testify in court. it was just an unfortunate law
there. mary ellen pleasant struggledded with that as well where, you know, she had a white business partner that she did a lot of her trans-alaskas with. he was -- transactions with. he was basically just a bigtime silver baron in california. and after he died, he actually didn't leave her any money. she didn't want to be left any money because she didn't want the, you know, sort of the backlash that might have come with that. but after he died his heirs basically blew through everything that he left them. and so they came after what she had. and so she ended up in court just battling with these folks in court almost until the day that she died. and so that was one issue that folks had to deal with, just the effort of folks to basically plunder their wealth away. the other aspect of it was actually physical. robert reid church, he was
assassinated -- or an assassination attempt was made, rather, on his life. and, you know, jeremiah hamilton, assassination attempt was made on his life. and, you know, hannah elias i mentioned, there were basically riots outside her house. so they certainly had those physical threats that they had to deal with and just also slander. almost all of them were slandered in the newspapers at some point. and that's kind of one thing that was really interesting during the research process, figuring out how to separate sort of the slander from the fact. in all of these characters, and it makes its way into the academic research. robert reid church was said to be some sort of a pimp, you know, because he was a commercial real estate proprietor on beale street where there were brothels, strip joints and bordellos, and so
people just kind of dismissed him as, you know, he's just a black pimp when he was really, you know, just a real estate developer. you know, that's what beale street was at that time, there was a lot of different types of stuff going on on beale street. same thing with mary ellen please about is. she was made out to be -- pleasant. she was made out to be, i think, a voodoo queen. that's what they always said about her in the papers, that she was using voodoo to swindle money. .. if
>> the question was did any of this wealth persist into the 21st centuries? >> in in most cases not necessarily but that's just because most of them did not have errors. the ones who did -- >> that was the thing i was getting to. >> so the only -- >> right. >> she's really the only one. robert had i think a great niece that just recently passed away. i think that was his last living relative. the majority of the of the folks him didn't have children or the children actually died, so most of them didn't really have errors to pass the wealth down to. >> just wondering. we focus on these millionaires. 600,000 which would be worth
like five or 6. daughters. i'm just curious, we know that during reconstruction that were very, very educated people who are in these positions. i'm just curious how much wealth was there may be not -- how ubiquitous the high level of wealth among entrepreneurs? >> let me just restated quickly surveyed one, for booktv. the question was beyond these six millionaires how broad was the foundation black wealth coming out of the civil war, particularly because of reconstruction. you at the record height number of black elected officials, yet surge of blacks in higher education. so with all that going on, how much wealth if not millionaire
comparable was around and about? >> it's hard to say. i mean, we hear about, we know that intelligence test. as time went on, maybe somewhere around five, 10% of blacks would be considered upper-middle-class or middle-class or wealthy. there were a lot of folks in just trades that paid well, such as tailoring. after the civil war more and more blacks started to become licensed medical doctors and lawyers. there were definitely a lot of land owners, morticians. that was a big business. insurance, life insurance was another big one. but the majority of blacks, the poverty rate at the time i think was close to 80% for african-americans. and that was just one of the unfortunate things that slavery that the wasn't really a transition plan. the freedmen's bureau try trieo help but most folks eventually
ended up working back as sharecroppers. one of the things the small wealth class, maybe 5% during reconstruction i would guess, it's just a guess, i don't know exactly, but one of the things they did is they kind of provided the infrastructure. they built housing. they provided jobs. they provided access to capital. they started banks. so i'm not sure how much it was exactly but the wealth class really with the ones providing the infrastructure for the black community to kind of advance after emancipation, especially when reconstruction came to an end. they were pretty much the only resources african-americans at. >> the next question from anyone out there. in the front. [inaudible] how do you think this can become
something that is not anecdotal? >> great question. how can you get the word out, the questioner said. that is to say, how can they become as much a part of american history as the vanderbilts or the morgan's. any ideas on that? >> i don't know. i mean come hopefully it's one of the reasons i wanted to write the book. i just hope that we kind of expand to include in black history, it's not the same at about half a dozen people, folks are taught about every year in school. and i think especially to include more women. one of the things i was really happy about is that there were so many african-american women during this time he became successful entrepreneurs.
i just think trying to get out t out there, there's a lot of other people trying to kind of give a platform to talk about these hidden figures. mary ellen pleasant, i was really, really happy to see her obituary in the "new york times" after -- she didn't have a gravestone for many years. she is just such a huge contributor to history, you know, to see her haven't forgotten after all those years and finally starting get a little recognition can you give me a little bit of hope. >> one follow-up question. on the one hand, you're right, you want to and become part of the pantheon of african-american heroes and heroines in the book is a big contribution that am also curious, like graduate schools of business or people from the mostly white business world and world of scholarship about business reached out to you and shown an interest in knowing about these people and
having their graduate students learn about them. >> surprisingly, the business community has probably reached out more than the academic community. >> really? >> so bloomberg reached out. i think is one of the suggested books for their employees to read this summer. and it was on jp morgan's summer reading list. so i've been surprised that folks in the business community have responded to the book, you know, in the way that can't. >> that's great, that's really good at it. let's take one more question, and then under shomari will be happy to talk -- will be happy to talk people informally and have people buy his book and inscribe it for you. two more questions. one in the middle.
>> wondering if you have any sense how the accumulation compared to -- [inaudible] >> the question was how the accumulation of wealth compared to that of the vanderbilts or the morgan's and how that was affected by the need they felt was imperative to be a bit on the down low with how wealthy they were. >> well, i don't think they were quite as rich as america's richest families. jeremiah hamilton who is the only black broker on wall street during this slavery. , he was a rival of the vanderbilts turkey got into a big scrum with the family over a railroad in long island actually
that he was trying to take over anything they had interest in it. they didn't necessarily get to the level, you know, in their lifetimes, you know, that sort of the rockefellers, but these were folks that really most of them just kind of coming to have full rights in society at the end of the civil war. so it was sort of, there were coming a little bit further back. in terms of how they protected the welcome one of the things that's really interesting, they did have to conceal it a little bit to some regards. whether that was through kind of white proxies. mary ellen pleasant had this white proxy, his bachelor, rich bachelor, who she was, she eventually bought a house and let him live in and people thought she was his mates of the
left her alone. or just, church after the first time who shot he always carried a gun on his side. you know, he used it a couple of times. i don't know another way to put it. [laughing] >> all right. i saw your hand before. last word. >> i heard that the achingly black wealth was an affront to white -- [inaudible] without people getting into the whole market and realized how much wealth he had there? >> you mean 2008? i don't know, i don't know.
i think one of the great ironies about 2008, the lehman crisis as they call it, lehman brothers used to own slaves pics i think it's interesting that it's this kind of company that has of this kind of immoral beginning that they kind of collapsed and took down the rest of the economy with them. >> thinking also the subprime crisis and the targeting of black people, some means to deliberately get them in over their heads on balloon mortgages and then to basically crawl clawback the property. >> shomari wills, greenlight bookstore, we thank you. [applause] >> folks, please to pick up a copy of the book, get it signed, spread the word among your