Earlier this year, New York City commendably acknowledged Wall Street’s complicity in slavery and the slave trade with a 16-by-24-inch memorial sign.
Perhaps, though, given the current state of race relations in the United States, something more might be asked of the city. Specifically, acknowledging that African Americans too were actors — in some cases, prime movers — in the history of American capitalism, not just slaves and some white man or woman’s capital investment.
And Wall Street provides a particularly appropriate site on which to reconsider the extent to which Americans have either ignored or erased black achievement from the usual story with which they have chosen to comfort themselves.
Even professional historians treat Wall Street in an unthinking fashion, as if it was a quintessentially white location — the sole province of the Morgans, the Lehmans and the like. According to accepted wisdom, about as far as a black man ever got at the big end of town was either toting things or, later on, operating an elevator.
This was not the case. In the middle decades of the 19th century, a black broker cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world. Not only was Jeremiah G. Hamilton Wall Street’s first black millionaire, he was one of the earliest New Yorkers to have the word used to describe him. His depredations earned him the nickname of “Prince of Darkness.” Others, with even less affection, simply called him “N----r Hamilton.”
Far from some novice feeling his way around the economy’s periphery, he was a Wall Street adept, a skilled and innovative financial manipulator. In the 1850s and 1860s, Hamilton was running what was termed a “pool.” This resembled a modern hedge fund. Investors lodged their money with the broker, who used it as the margin to raise more funds that allowed him to take aggressive positions in the market.
In order to gain privileged access to this African American’s wisdom about the market prospects of listed corporations, some white New Yorkers were willing almost to grovel, sending him baskets of champagne and boxes of cigars. (Mind you, Hamilton made it clear that when it came to such gifts, “he did not want any but the very best.”)
Generally, white businessmen were more interested in the color of Hamilton’s money than the color of his skin. But the playing field was never going to be level for someone known as the Prince of Darkness.
In the mid-1830s all the principals of New York marine insurance companies agreed amongst themselves that none of them would insure any vessel associated with Hamilton.In the mid-1840s, the New Board, a secondary stock exchange in New York, passed a resolution “that whereas J.G. Hamilton had grossly insulted a member of this board . . . that all members of this board are forbidden doing any business for him on penalty of expulsion.”
One writer considered that the reason for the ban “appears to be, that said Hamilton is a colored man.”
Hamilton, though, brushed aside such obstacles and kept on making money. When he died in May 1875, dozens of newspapers from one end of the country to the other acknowledged that he was the richest black man in the United States, his wealth estimated at $2 million, or more than 200 million in today’s dollars.
His had been a dramatic life, cinematic in its vividness. He was a black man who became rich while living out the American nightmare of race (a nightmare aggravated by the fact that he was married to a white woman).
And yet Jeremiah Hamilton has been forgotten totally. His name has been in print, fleetingly, on four occasions since the turn of the 20th century — and three of those mentions are confused or inaccurate. Hamilton was part of no one’s usable past.
It is crucial this and future generations understand that New York’s African American history is much richer than the commonly understood sum of slavery, poverty and the Harlem Renaissance. No matter how inconvenient it is for accepted views of nineteenth-century New York, Jeremiah Hamilton was a wealthy African American broker who worked on Wall Street for just over 40 years. He took on white New Yorkers, on their terms. And, in many cases, he beat them.
As for giving him his place in history now: Another sign in Wall Street would be a hopelessly inappropriate way to remember him. There are alternatives. He loved newspapers, wrote for them and for quite a while James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, thought Hamilton was the new proprietor of the New York Sun. Perhaps a brief story in a newspaper, for now, can suffice.
Shane White is Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney and author of “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire.”