Who was black America’s first millionaire?

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Chapter Business and Commerce

In 1890 Thomy Lafon (1810–1893) was thought to be the first black millionaire. He was a New Orleans real estate speculator and moneylender. He was recognized as a community activist and philanthropist before the Civil War, when he was still a young man. He was listed as a merchant in the New Orleans City Directory in 1842; in 1868 the directory listed him as a broker, and he was considered the city’s second leading black broker until 1870. As his wealth grew, he gave freely to those less fortunate, including religious and anti-slavery causes; he also supported the Lafon Orphan Boys’ Asylum and the Home for Aged Colored Men and Women, both of which he founded. The Thomy Lafon School, dedicated in 1898, made him the first black man and the second black person in New Orleans to have a school named for him. The Wall of Fame at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair listed his name along with those of other blacks, Native Americans, and foreign-born Americans who were notable contributors to American progress and culture. He lived frugally, and despite his philanthropic gifts, his estate was valued at nearly half a million dollars. Lafon’s will provided for his relatives and friends, but he left the bulk of his estate to charity.

Madam C. J. Walker, or Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker (1867–1919), is believed by some to be the first black woman to become a millionaire. Supporters of Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957) dispute this. Both women produced hair-care products for black women during the period; it is asserted that Walker worked as a salesperson for Malone products. Both became very wealthy by around 1910, but by 1927 Malone’s business began to run into difficulties because of poor management.


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