William Alexander Liedesdorff
I was always taught that the first black millionaire was Madam C. J. Walker, but she wasn’t. Walker was an amazing businesswoman and is often touted as the first black millionaire. She was one of the first African-Americans to flaunt and claim her wealth openly and fearlessly…so she got the title. Before Walker was Annie Turnbo (Walker’s mentor and former employer).
But even before Turnbo and Walker, there was William Alexander Leidesdorff, the offspring of a Danish sailor and a Caribbean woman, who first earned the title.
The earliest known African American to achieve a net worth of a million dollars was William Liedesdorff. He lived free in New Orleans in the early 1840s, passing as a white man and working as a naval merchant. When he was outed as a black man, he migrated to California, then a Mexican territory populated with Native Americans and mixed-race Mexican nationals. In California, he acquired over 30,000 acres of land, which turned out to be laden with gold, just before the 1849 gold rush. He built an import-export business worth more than $1.4 million. That would be $38 million in today’s dollars.
Read more about it in:
Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills