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.