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The story of Wall Street's first black millionaire

10 November 2015
The larger-than-life tale of a man who defied every convention of his time.

Jeremiah Hamilton made white clients do his bidding. He bought insurance policies on ships he purposely destroyed. And in 1875, he died the richest black American, writes Professor Shane White.

Wall Street in 1880s. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Wall Street in the 1800s. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

No one will ever erect a statue honouring Jeremiah G. Hamilton.

As an African American broker in the mid-1800s, Hamilton was part of no one's usable past: Wall Street in that time was completely white, and New York's black leaders disdained him for his brashness.

But his death in 1875 attracted national attention, and scores of newspapers reported that Hamilton was the richest non-white man in the country and that his estate was worth about $2 million (or about $250 million today).

Hamilton worked in and around Wall Street for 40 years. Far from being some novice feeling his way around the economy's periphery, he was a skilled and innovative financial manipulator.

Unlike later black success stories such as that of Madam C. J. Walker — the early 20th-century manufacturer of beauty products, often assumed to be the first African-American millionaire — who would make their fortunes selling goods to black consumers, Hamilton cut a swath through the thoroughly white New York business world in the middle decades of the 19th century.

He may have been successful, but he was not well-liked.

"The notorious colored capitalist long identified with commercial enterprises in this city," one obituary spat, "is dead and buried."

Rumors of counterfeiting and scams against insurance companies dogged him until he died.

Not that the ethics or business practices of many of his antebellum contemporaries could bear too much scrutiny, but Wall Street was never going to be a level playing field for a trailblazing African American.

His forays soon earned him the nickname of "The Prince of Darkness." Others, with even less affection, simply called him "Nigger Hamilton."

Shane White is Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire. This extract was first published in The Atlantic - read the full article.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

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