As I told a friend over the weekend after I learned of this gentleman – there are so many stories from black history that we either don’t know about, or that just don’t get talked about much (if at all), that I think would make for riveting cinema, for any enterprising producers willing to tackle them on screen. We’ve shared a few over the years here on S&A, and whenever I come across any piece of our history that I wasn’t previously aware of – especially something as remarkable as this – it’s exciting, and my creative mind wanders…
Jeremiah G. Hamilton, whose origins are said to have been lowly, possibly born a slave, was reportedly the richest black man in the United States in the 19th century, possessing a fortune of over $2 million (which would be in excess of $250 million in today’s currency).
His larger than life story of a man who defied every convention of his time, boldly navigating the lily white financial world, marrying a white woman, owning mansions as well as stock in companies that wouldn’t do business with him (for example, he owned stock in railroad companies he was not legally allowed to ride, because he was black), and generally set his white contemporaries on edge when he wasn’ outsmarting them, is told in author/historian Shane White’s book "Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire," which is described as a groundbreaking and vivid account, and an important contribution to American history.
The somewhat ominous title refers to – as I understand – both the fact that Hamilton was black, and also the unscrupulous methods he employed to build his wealth, like exploiting fire victims after New York’s great fire of 1835.
Hamilton was the only African American broker on Wall Street and the only black millionaire in mid-nineteenth century New York. Yet today he’s been all-but forgotten.
I learned more about him when I listened to the BBC’s Business Matters podcast – the August 12, 2015 episode. It’s a podcast I subscribe to, and spend my weekends catching up on (among others). In the 8/12 episode, Shane White was a guest, there to talk about Jeremiah Hamilton and his book, which won’t be published until October 13, 2015 (the hardcover), but it appears you can own it today, if you’re an Amazon Kindle user.
In a nutshell, from what I gathered, he wasn’t exactly the nicest of men, and used his cunning, Machiavellian tactics to amass his wealth – although, really, as I see it, he simply played the same game that other Wall Street tycoons did (and still do), and he won.
I’ve preordered a copy of White’s book. you can do the same here if interested.
I’ve embedded the Business Matters episode below, in which White discusses the larger than life Hamilton who has been all-but air-brushed from history.
The Hamilton section begins at around the 22-minute mark, so you can skip ahead.