By Ryan Velez
The growing amount of \Black filmmakers getting the chance to put their visions to screen is a boon to African-Americans in many ways. For one, there is the obvious chance to have more representation in various roles outside of some of the stereotypical ones we’ve seen over the years. Perhaps equally important though, is the chance for some of the Black stories throughout history that many have not heard of to be portrayed on screen, such as the recent Hidden Figures. Newsone reports that Don Cheadle is taking advantage of this platform, planning to direct and star in a biography of Jeremiah G. Hamilton. While a name is forgotten to many, Hamilton is actually the first Black millionaire in the U.S.
Cheadle’s film will draw from the 2015 biography of Hamilton, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire. The book focuses on his being chased out of Haiti before setting up business in New York, breaking many taboos such as marrying a white woman and owning stock in rail companies, despite not being legally allowed to ride the trains. The film will be a familiar collaboration for Cheadle, who is bringing back writer Steven Baigelman for this project. The two worked together on Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davis, Miles Ahead.
Fleeing his native Haiti in 1828, Hamilton made his fortune by becoming a broker and land agent in New York City. Unlike many Black businessmen of the day, who sold their wares generally to other Black people, Hamilton entered the white business world as well, which earned him both success and ire from the white and Black community alike. At the time of his death in 1875, Hamilton’s worth was $2 million, $42 million today accounting for inflation. In life, he was considered one of the true rivals of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and in his obituary, he was the described as the richest Black man in America.
One thing that may be lingering in the back of your head while reading about this is “What about Madame C.J. Walker?” The woman that made her name and fortune with Black hair care products is generally known by many as the first African-American millionaire, but in fact, she was not born until 1867, and wouldn’t make her fortune until Hamilton has already passed away. However, she is still a trailblazer in her own right, being the first self-made woman millionaire of any race in the United States.