Jeremiah Hamilton, Wall Street’s first African American millionaire

Armed with clubs, stones, bats, and bricks, the crowd broke into the Colored Orphan Asylum. Their cries of hatred screeched “Kill the monkies!” (sic).

Before the invasion of the building on New York’s Fifth Avenue, between the 43rd and 44th street, employees were able to take the 233 children who lived there to a safe place. Furious because they could not find their victims, the crowd set fire to the building, which burned down completely.  It was the first day of the Draft Riots, which began as a revolt against the arbitrary summoning of soldiers to fight in the Northern Army during the American Civil War, and it turned into outright racial violence.

On Tuesday, July 14, 1863, barbarism continued. Hordes of armed, white people chased, beat up and killed African American people they saw on their way. A few groups of troublemakers had a very clear destination.

“Six-ty-eight, six-ty-eight!”, chanted menacingly the crowd that marched along the 29th street. Protected behind their windows and curtains, white residents of the elegant houses on the classy street watched the invaders go by.  As prosaic as it may seem, when the brutish mass reached number 68 of 29th East street, one of the attackers had the nerve to ring the doorbell.

Facing a total silence, doors and windows were broken and torn down, and the attackers came in, toppling the furniture. They were confronted by an elegant white woman, who calmly asked what they wanted.  “Killing Mr. Hamilton!” was the answer that Eliza Jane Hamilton received, she later told the police. Of course, these were not the exact words she heard. They might have been something much more harsh and inadequate.

They didn’t do it. Not only did Jeremiah G. Hamilton escape the massacre -after those four days of rioting in 1863, 119 people were killed, most of them African Americans- but he managed to keep on leading a prosperous and controversial life.

New York Draft Riots, 1863_patrick dwyer_american financial titans_Jeremiah Hamilton, Wall Street’s first African American millionaire
Image courtesy of Susan DeMark at Flickr.com

When he died on May 19, 1875, at age 67, dozens of US newspapers published the obituary of the African American millionaire of New York. With a fortune estimated at more than $2 million (over $250 million today), he was the richest African American man in the United States.

His life was a whirlwind. From what we know, he began his career in 1828, trafficking counterfeit money in Haiti and was sentenced to death by the local authorities.

In 1833, however, he arrived in New York as a businessman. In the metropolis, he did everything: he lent money at interest, he worked in the insurance sector, negotiated ships, bought land, ventured in the press and became the first African American man to work on Wall Street, the center of the financial environment in America.

Due to the color of his skin and his unorthodox business methods -similar to those of his peers, really- he was subject to hatred, contempt and discrimination; as well as admiration, for sure. He was nicknamed “Prince of Darkness”, though there were surely other offensive monikers for him at the time.

His curious and hazy history is told in “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire”, a book by British historian Shane White.

Maybe just for being African American, Hamilton did not have any contemporary biographers, like other magnates of the time -Cornelius Vanderbilt, for example, whom he faced in legal proceedings in the New York courts.

To tell the story of this character, White used reports and court records, and he managed to find more than 50 cases in which Hamilton was either accuser or accused, and others in which he appeared as a witness.

He completes the story with chronicles of the time. He takes the reader, for example, to know the world of the New York press in the first half of the 19th century. He tells the story of how newspapers were sold directly on the streets in 1833, and presents the first-ever newsboy, Bernard Flaherty, who was ten at the time and sold the then-new “New York Sun” at the affordable price of a penny.

He also discusses the complications of finances at a time when there wasn’t a unified currency in the United States, and draws a vivid picture of the explosion of the first real estate bubble in the US, which led the country to its first Great Depression, the Panic of 1837.

As a background, there are the horrors of racism. Although New York had definitely banned slavery in 1827, segregation continued.

African Americans could not, for example, use public transportation along with white people. They had the right to vote, but the requirements for registration were such that it became virtually impossible to achieve -out of 12,499 African Americans living in New York County in 1826, only 16 of them met the requirements to be eligible to vote.

African American entrepreneurs did exist, and some even made a fortune. But they had to “know their place”, acting within their own community or, at most, provide services to the world of the whites, which was the case of Thomas Downing, the renowned restaurant owner.

Jeremiah Hamilton chose to subvert that order. Like a hurricane, he stormed into a white world, in an area previously forbidden to African American people. And he won.

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