These seven Black people made their wealth even before slavery was abolished – how?

Mildred Europa Taylor October 21, 2022
Captain Paul Cuffee, born on Cuttyhunk Island in 1759. Painting by Chester Harding

Slave trade in the U.S. remains a complicated period in history that continues to negatively affect Africans and African Americans alike. The transatlantic slave trade saw about two million people enslaved in the U.S. Most of them were Africans who were uprooted from their homes.

Through their harrowing experiences on the ships, many of these enslaved Africans even died before reaching their new homes. For the many who survived, it was the beginning of sleepless nights, several hours of work on plantations on empty stomachs and the constant reminder that in their new lives they were nothing but a commodity to their owners.

But some rebelled and others overcame their situations to make it, acquiring wealth even amid slavery. Here are some of them:

James Forten

James Forten was in his teens when he joined others at Independence Square in July 1776 for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. To a young Forten, the declaration document applied to all Americans, not only whites and so when the Revolutionary War began, a 14-year-old Forten volunteered on privateering ships which attacked British merchant vessels, said biographer Julie Winch.

Forten spent some months on a British prison ship along the way and was nearly sold into slavery, but he came back strong to acquire a vast fortune, becoming one of the wealthiest Philadelphians of his day, black or white, and using his money to buy slaves’ freedom.

He became the owner of one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. Becoming one of the wealthiest men in the city, Forten added to his wealth by diversifying. An account states that he was buying, selling, and renting real estate and using the profits to buy bonds, mortgages, bank and railroad stocks, and shares in various companies while becoming a respected money lender and financial adviser. In 1832, his fortune was estimated at $100,000.

Bridget Mason

Mississippi-born slave Bridget “Biddy” Mason filed a suit in a Los Angeles court on January 19, 1856, against her owner to secure her freedom and that of her extended family. Her owner, Robert Smith, was a Mississippi Mormon convert who followed the call of church leaders to settle in the West. He moved with Mason and other slaves on a religious pilgrimage to establish a new Mormon community in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah which was at the time part of Mexico. They stayed there until 1851 when the Mormon slave owner moved them again in a 150-wagon caravan to San Bernardino, California where slavery was illegal. He moved there to establish another Mormon community.

Biddy was counseled on her way to the free state by freed slaves Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, who urged her to legally contest her slave status. She was also encouraged by her new friends in California Robert and Minnie Owens who were free. The Owens were more interested in the freedom of Bridget “Biddy” Mason’s family because their son was romantically involved with Biddy’s 17-year-old daughter. Their apprehension was followed by the suit filed in 1856 at the Los Angeles District Court by Biddy seeking her freedom and that of her extended family comprising 13 women and children.

After three days, Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down his ruling in favor of Briddy and her extended family backed by California’s 1850 constitution which prohibited slavery. Mason went on to work as a midwife and nurse. She saved her money and bought land in what is now downtown Los Angeles.

Biddy also set up the first A.M.E. Church which is the oldest African-American church in the city. Her children were educated and she supported the entire Los Angeles community with her wealth as a philanthropist. Mason died in Los Angeles in 1891.

William Alexander Leidesdorff

He was a man of many “firsts”. A mixed-race man born out of wedlock in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, William Alexander Leidesdorff went on to become the first Black millionaire when gold was found on his property not too long before he passed away in 1848.

Living in San Francisco as the city’s first prominent businessman of Black ancestry, he established the first hotel in San Francisco, the first public school in California, built the first waterfront warehouse in San Francisco, and introduced the first steam-powered craft in the San Francisco Bay. Leidesdorff also became the first African American to represent the U.S. as Vice-Consul to Mexico and was elected to be the first City Treasurer of San Francisco.

Paul Cuffee

Paul Cuffee was born a free man on January 17, 1759, on the small island of Cuttyhunk located just off southern Massachusetts. His father died leaving his property for Cuffee and his brother John. Soon after his father’s death, Cuffee showed great interest in picking up his father’s trade and helped build boats at the port to make a decent living.

By 16, Cuffee had worked with many whaling and cargo ships and had mastered navigation as well as taught himself how to read and write. By the time Cuffee was 21, he had changed his name from Paul Slocum to Paul Cuffee and was known as a successful navigator and trader. He gathered good fortune to build and purchase ships, hired people to work for him, and started operating his own shipyard. 

Cuffee had become a very wealthy young man by the 1790s and was also very influential in the African- American society. He was considered one of the very few black millionaires in the whole of America at the time who had successfully created a maritime business that traded with Europe and the Caribbean on ships he had either built or purchased.

Aside from his passion for trade and shipping, Cuffee was also very much interested in the abolition of slavery and the freedom of African Americans. He became one of the most respected black men in all of America by all races and is, according to Historian Donald R. Wright, the first free black man to visit the White House for a discussion with the then president  James Maddison in May 1912 on the release of his cargo and those of several other black traders which was granted. His influence soon found its way into Africa. After a few visits to Sierra Leone, Cuffee developed a keen interest in seeing that freed Africans in the USA could establish a colony in Africa with Sierra Leone being the best option. When he died in 1917, he left behind a huge estate with an estimated value of almost $20,000.

Anthony Johnson

The history of slavery in the Americas has always been marred by its deep racial past. So much so that stories like those of Anthony Johnson, a black man who was the first person to legally own a slave in the U.S. is little known or studied. But Johnson’s story changed the course of American history.

It is believed that Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1621, captured in Angola and put on the ship, James. Early records listed him as “Antonio, a Negro” servant, because Virginia had no rules for slaves at the time. notes that “Antonio the Negro” worked on the tobacco plantation of Edward Bennett near Warresquioake, Virginia. He married “Mary a Negro woman” who had sailed to the New World aboard the Margrett and John. In March of 1622, local Tidewater Indians attacked the plantation leaving Johnson, one of only five survivors, on the plantation and fifty-two people killed.

Sometime between 1622 and 1641, “Antonio the Negro” became landowner Anthony Johnson. The Johnsons are believed to have owned 250 acres of land along the Pungoteague Creek on the eastern shore of Virginia by 1650. They acquired the land through the headright system, which allowed planters to claim acreage for each servant brought to the colony. Anthony claimed five headrights, one in the name of his son, Richard Johnson, and the rest believed to have been men he imported.

Court records in 1641 also indicate that Anthony owned a black servant, John Casor. Casor would become the first person to be ‘arbitrarily declared‘ a slave for life in the U.S. in a 1655 court case. Anthony’s neighbor and white planter, Robert Parker, had momentarily secured Casor’s freedom after he had convinced Parker and his brother George that he was an illegally detained indentured servant. But Anthony fought to retain ownership of Castor in a lengthy court battle and he won.

Antoine Dubuclet

In one of his biographies, he was described as “a true Southern gentleman: smart, well-dressed and debonair.” A Black slaveowner who became a Republic politician, Antoine Dubuclet saved Louisiana from bankruptcy. He was the only Black in the south to hold the office of state treasurer for more than one term. Dubuclet was also one of only two to serve as state treasurer during Southern Reconstruction.

Before making history in Louisiana politics, Dubuclet was among some of the biggest Black slave owners who are rarely discussed today but changed the course of American history. In Louisiana, he was a sugar planter with hundreds of slaves, some of whom he inherited from his father. That turned him into the wealthiest Black slaveowner in the 1860s. Widely regarded as one of the richest men in all of the South, even richer than his white neighbors, Dubuclet was born a free man to free parents in 1810. 

Samuel T. Wilcox 

Even before slavery was abolished, Samuel T. Wilcox became a grocer in 1850 and set up a high-end grocery store of a scale never seen before in America. His grocery store was located in Cincinnati, at Broadway and Fifth Street. At the time he started this venture, Wilcox had also established pickling and preserving business. His grocery business picked up because he focused on “fancy groceries that were not kept at the time.” He became known for cigars, first-quality hams, liquors, all kinds of dried fruit, the best brands of sugars, fine soaps and molasses, according to the book, History of the Negro Race in America.

Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia around 1814, Wilcox grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and soon became well known in the city as one of the founders of the Iron Chest Company in 1839, a financial institution that was also into real estate. Before his grocery business, Wilcox had also been a boat steward on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. He was able to save money and acquire the necessary skills in trading and keeping accounts, as stated by this report.

Those skills came in handy when he started his “Fancy & Staple Groceries” business, becoming the most successful Black entrepreneur in wholesale food distribution at the time. He started the business with $25,000 and made $100,000 to $140,000 in annual sales (more than $4.2 million now). 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 22, 2022


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