He was a former slave, a coal magnate, a churchman, a philanthropist, and a wealthy Ohioan. In fact, at the time of his death, Robert Gordon was described as Ohio’s wealthiest Black man, having left behind an estate worth $200,000 (almost $5.7 million today).
A Cincinnati Black businessman, he acquired his wealth during slavery interestingly by dealing in coal while outsmarting his white colleagues in the business. After all, he knew the ins and outs of the coal business.
Born into slavery around 1812, near Richmond, VA, his owner, a Virginia coal merchant and a yachtsman, operated a coal yard where Gordon worked. As time went on, Gordon ran the business and came to know how to make extra money from the “slack”—leftover coal dust—that his owner allowed him to collect.
He sold the slack and saved. In 1846, Gordon bargained with his owner and bought his freedom when he was 34 years old. Having heard that his fellow Blacks were doing well in Cincinnati, he set off for that city in 1847. A year later, he bought property along the Miami Canal to live and work. Some historians say he invested $15,000 in a coal yard and employed bookkeepers. Gordon built his own docks on the river and bought coal by boatload. At the same time, he married a 24-year-old freeborn Black woman named Eliza Jane Cressup and they would have a daughter together.
As Gordon became one of the well-known coal dealers in Cincinnati, his white colleagues in the business tried to bring his business down by lowering their prices.
Gordon came up with a solution. He hired biracial men who could pass as whites to buy up the cheaper coal from his competitors. When his competition was unable to procure more coal during freezing weather, Gordon’s coal reserves remained.
Later earning the respect of white coal dealers, Gordon retired from the coal business in 1865, moved to the luxurious neighborhood of Walnut Hills, and transferred most of his investments to real estate. He died in 1884 and is today remembered also for his philanthropy in Cincinnati. Records show that during the Civil War, he donated coal to Cincinnati’s Military Hospital. His estate set up a home for elderly Black women of Cincinnati and an asylum for “colored orphans.” Gordon also built several Black schools and served on the Board of Education.
All in all, Goeff Sutton of Walnut Hills Historical Society writes, “…the most striking thing about Gordon & Co. (Gordon’s coal business) was that it thrived for nearly twenty years, growing organically from small beginnings to larger premises and prominence, and passed to Black successors.”