Black Millionaires from America’s History

Black Americans were able to succeed despite harsh realities–before, during and after the Civil War. These pioneers should be remembered, not for their fortunes but their tenacity and drive. They remind us all to never give up. Keep trying, keep fighting, just keep going, and maybe someday you will go down in history, too!

Children’s Author, Sherri Winston

ROBERT REED CHURCH—biracial landowner who went from enslavement to luxury.

Hey, have you ever heard of Robert Reed Church? He was was born in 1839 in Holly Springs, Miss. His mother, Emmeline, who was an enslaved person, died when Robert was 12. Although landowner and steamship proprietor, Captain Charles A. Church, never formally acknowledged Robert as his son, he did take the boy aboard his ships to work. Robert knew how to work a broom, but his real talent was “working” the richy-rich friends of his father. He asked lots of questions and probably did a little eavesdropping, too. Still, in 1862, Union Troops took control of the city of Memphis and Captain Church’s steamboat was seized. Perhaps a lucky break for Robert, who escaped from the ship and hid out in Memphis, taking odd jobs , doing whatever he could until he had enough to buy his first business–a saloon. Robert also understood the value of landownership. He gradually used earnings from his saloon and other businesses to buy land and property. And in 1873, during a wave of Yellow Fever, Robert took advantage of lowered prices, buying even more land. Robert knew how to hustle, how to listen and how to make sound business decisions. Even so, he avoided the limelight and any attempts to draw him into politics. By the time of his death in 1906 after a brief illness, Church owned a considerable chunk of the prosperous Beale Street area of Memphis. 

ANNIE TURNBO MALONE—born to former enslaved parents and became a trailblazing entrepreneur.

Annie’s dad went to fight with the Union Army. The Union Army was fighting with several southern states to end slavery. He and Annie’s mom escaped from Kentucky with their children to a small town in Illinois. Sadly, Annie was orphaned at an early age. Annie was placed in an orphanage where she remained until she went to live with her sister in Peoria, Ill., to finish high school. Now, Annie loved herself some chemistry. But multiple absences from school due to illness when she was younger kept her from pursuing her passions. Sort of. In 1900, Annie moved with her older siblings to Lovejoy (Brooklyn Illinois), and it was there that Annie combined her newfound haircare fascination with her old love, chemistry. She created revolutionary hair care products and went on to employ door-to-door salespeople. Business grew like well-cared for hair! She was on a roll. One of her students, Mary Breedlove Davis, later went on to start her own haircare empire under the name Madame C. J. Walker. By 1918, Annie established the Poro School, which taught haircare in St. Louis. She would later move to Chicago and continue her entrepreneurial ways. She was also a tremendous philanthropist, and never forgot her time in the orphanage. Annie became a benefactor—that means she gave a lot of money—to the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where she remained President of the board from 1919 to 1943. Much later, the Road where the former orphanage turned community outreach center changed its name from to Annie Malone Drive. Annie had no children and was twice divorced. She died of a stroke in 1957, leaving her fortune to nieces and nephews.

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