Was Jeremiah Hamilton Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire?
Biographer Shane White is confident that he was and has chronicled Hamilton's challenges and chutzpah in his book Prince of Darkness.
However historian Karl Jacoby isn't so sure, proffering William Ellis – a shapeshifting Texan-born freeman who passed as a Mexican on Wall Street in the 1890s – as a candidate for the title. His new book, The Strange Career of William Ellis, recounts the life of the mysterious entrepreneur.
Without question, Jeremiah Hamilton walked the fabled street first, wheeling and dealing financial services from the 1840s.
Karl Jacoby’s sticking point is that Wall Street was still a toddlin' town in these years, not yet stalked by wolves such as Jay Gould, JP Morgan and the Lehman Brothers who prowled the street in the Gilded Age.
However, perhaps the most tantalizing question is not who was the first, but how many more?
Certainly when a English tourist named John Boswell visited Wall Street in the late 1840s he passed large knots of kerbside brokers conducting business in the open air with the "avidity of professed gamblers".
He also watched that “hundreds of Negroes hurrying to and fro through the streets", most of them employed either as draymen or porters -- a detail rarely featured in paintings and illustrations.
But as the recent biographies of Jeremiah Hamilton and William Ellis have demonstrated, African American did more than carry goods. Some of them made large piles of money in the cut and thrust world of share trading.
Wall Street’s lily white reputation will never be the same again.