After his iconic status reached its height in the mid-19th century, Jeremiah G. Hamilton left behind a blazing trail as Wall Street’s first and only Black millionaire.
In celebration of Black History Month, we are recounting Hamilton’s life and work to acknowledge his existence and prominence among the many Black millionaires who have resisted historic oppression.
Today, vague historical records (there are no surviving photos of Hamilton) bring light to the scattered fragments of the story about an elusive stockbroker and financier, saddled with the moniker “Prince of Darkness.” He was as aggressive and ruthless as most antebellum businessmen, and yet he earned a disdainful reputation for seizing opportunities that were insurmountable for Blacks in the then-segregated New York City.
Leveraging his wits, the adept, skilled and innovative Wall Street manipulator steered clear of obstacles and carried on architecting his life and fortune.
By the time of his passing in 1875, Hamilton earned a newspaper reputation for being the richest Black man in the country — as one outlet dictated it, the mystery man collected “a colossal fortune of nearly two millions ($2,000,000) dollars.”
Hamilton amassed in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s currency, but not without the strife from rumors of counterfeiting and scams against insurance companies. By the 1830s, he was well on the path to building a legacy and enterprise that could sustain generations to come.
Though American historians have not noticed Hamilton’s eminence in his lifetime, Shane White‘s 2015 book Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, reveals a groundbreaking account about the man “who defied every convention of his time.”
In addition, Don Cheadle will serve as executive producer alongside Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh and Carlos Foglia, to bring Hamilton to life in the forthcoming HBO Max mini-series tentatively titled The Other Hamilton, BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported. The anticipated retelling is based on White’s book.
The beginning of a criminal enterprise
Born in 1807, Hamilton was recorded to have hailed from the West Indies with parents who were born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, according to the African American Registry. Along the way, he had intimated to different people at different times that he came from Richmond, VA or somewhere in the Caribbean, perhaps Haiti or Cuba or even Puerto Rico.
He was in Haiti when he first appeared on historical record in 1828. In that year, the 20-year-old man attracted attention after arriving secretly at Port-au-Prince Harbor aboard the brig Ann Eliza Jane.
Hamilton slipped in and out of the city to run a cargo of counterfeit Haitian coin to Port-au-Prince for a group of New York merchants. When Haitian authorities caught wind of the ploy, Hamilton allegedly escaped with a $300 bounty and death sentence on his head, as well as $5,000 worth of the counterfeit coin.
In a story published by Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and -operated newspaper, the editor blasted Hamilton for disgracing the world’s first and only Black republic.
Joining New York’s millionaire’s club
Though newspapers condemned him, Hamilton worked in and around Wall Street for 40 years. His focus shifted to the world where white Americans associated African Americans with slavery and poverty.
In 1711, an official slave market opened by the East River on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets, where ships would dock with the same enslaved people whose labor made the city’s economy run.
Some 100 years later, just a few years before the abolishing of slavery in New York, Hamilton learned the game of Wall Street and quickly acquired a reputation for over-insuring vessels and then arranging for them to be destroyed. The marine-insurance industry was lucrative for him – until he was blackballed.
During the mid-1830s, White revealed in an opinion piece on Gotham’s Only Black Millionaire that Hamilton, who was renting an office space on Wall Street, made large profits off of what is now known as the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed half a billion dollars’ worth of property, nearly taking down a city built on the back of enslaved labor.
Hamilton received a $5 million pay-out, in today’s dollars.
Within months, the multi-millionaire impressively found his groove in a real estate boom in the city. He invested in 47 lots of land in present-day Astoria, as well as property in Poughkeepsie, a 400-foot-long wharf along the Hudson River, and a mansion.
Notably, the determined businessman even owned stock in railways that denied access to the Black community.
In pursuit of his millions, Hamilton turned to more creative and relentless endeavors while he continued to be the subject of discrimination and pubic shaming.
From running a “pool” in the stock market with white businessmen to confronting his enemies and outsmarting racial attacks, he gained the notoriety of being referred to as “one of the most remarkable men of his race” and the only “man who ever fought the Commodore” (after suing the tycoon’s Accessory Transit Company.)
Hamilton was married to a white woman, Eliza Morris, that lasted 40 years until his death. They shared 10 children.