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Marlon Weems

The Other Hamilton

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Marlon Weems
Marlon Weems
 2021-05-13

Jeremiah G. Hamilton may have been America’s first Black millionaire, but the Wall Street broker was no role model.

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Image credit: JeremiahHamilton.org

In 1983, there were only three Black financial services professionals in the entire state of Arkansas. I was one of them. A decade later, I started the first Black-owned investment bank in Arkansas. For a little over ten years, I was part of an exclusive club — the world of Black professionals working on Wall Street. 

For over thirty years, I navigated the universe of Black-owned investment firms, ultimately building and managing a successful program trading operation for one of the largest minority-owned investment banks on Wall Street. Most people are unaware of this, but there is a rich history of Black entrepreneurs in finance going back decades. Indeed, my journey through the world of finance was made possible, at least in part, by the blood, sweat, and tears of Black trailblazers that came years before me. 

These iconic figures are part of a unique historical tapestry: Travers Bell, co-founder of Daniels & Bell, the first Black-owned investment bank on the New York Stock Exchange, in 1971, Wardell Lazard, who left Salomon Brothers in 1985 to start WR Lazard & Co, or Carla Harris, who rose through the ranks to become a Vice Chairman at Morgan Stanley, one of the world’s largest investment banks. But those modern-day trailblazers were not the first Blacks to excel on Wall Street. 

A few years after Alexander Hamilton lost his duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey, another Hamilton was born in Haiti — or perhaps Virginia. He claimed both places as his birthplace, so we may never know for sure. At the time of his death in 1875, Jeremiah G. Hamilton was purportedly the wealthiest Black man in the United States. Believed to be America’s first Black millionaire, Hamilton amassed a fortune worth $2 million — $50 million today

Nearly one-hundred-fifty years before the rise of modern-day Black trailblazers on Wall Street, Hamilton challenged pre-Civil War racial conventions. A larger-than-life figure on Wall Street for at least 40 years, he excelled in an arena that still struggles today with racial inclusion. That Hamilton excelled as a lone Black man in the lily-white playing field of finance defies our common perception of pre-Civil War New York City. 

Long before Madam C.J. Walker, the country’s first female self-made millionaire — of any race — made her fortune in Black hair care, Hamilton was a fixture on Wall Street. Unlike successful Black entrepreneurs that came later, prospering by marketing goods and services to Black consumers, Hamilton accumulated his fortune as a shrewd financial dealmaker. But for all his success on Wall Street, Hamilton is essentially an unknown figure. 

In general, Black leaders of the era viewed Hamilton’s financial scheming and insensitivity to the black community shameful. After Hamilton gained notoriety for his Haitian counterfeiting scheme, the country’s first black newspaper, New York’s Freedom’s Journal, rooted for his capture.

Hamilton left no papers behind after his death. There are no portraits of him; not a single portrait or monument of him exists, adding to the mystery of the obscure Black broker. 

The existence of a super-rich Black financier excelling on Wall Street in the 19th century, at the height of slavery, seems about as unlikely as the color-blind world of Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton, especially since there is so little physical evidence to mark Hamilton’s existence. Fortunately, two sources of information, newspapers and court records, document many of Hamilton’s exploits.

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Image source: The New York Herald, August 05, 1843

By all accounts, Jeremiah G. Hamilton was no role model. He was a ruthless, avaricious businessman. In an era when Wall Street functioned essentially as an unregulated casino, Hamilton built his wealth through real estate speculation and insurance fraud, using bankruptcy to shield his assets whenever his schemes fell through. Ethics played no role in his investment decisions, but by the standards of 19th-century Wall Street, Hamilton’s behavior was hardly an outlier. 

Hamilton rose to prominence in 1828 as the mastermind of a bold counterfeit coin scheme. Representing a group of prominent New York merchants, the twenty-one-year-old Hamilton ran the illicit coins from Canada through New York and ultimately to Haiti. But the deal went south, forcing him to flee Haiti after hiding out for 12 days in Port-au-Prince harbor with the help of local fishermen. Haitian authorities confiscated the Ann Eliza Jane, a ship chartered by Hamilton. The government sentenced him in absentia to be shot for the crime of counterfeiting, an offense punishable in Haiti at the time by death.

A decade later, Hamilton engaged in a profiteering scheme after New York City’s Great Fire of 1835, pocketing nearly $5 million in today’s dollars. Months later, he capitalized on New York’s real estate boom, purchasing 47 properties in present-day Astoria and several docks, piers, and parcels of land in upstate Poughkeepsie.

Jeremiah G. Hamilton was such an audacious player in 19th-century finance he even dared to take on shipping and railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, vying for control of Nicaragua’s Accessory Transit Company. Even “The Commodore,” as Vanderbilt was known, came to respect Hamilton as a worthy adversary. The day after his death in 1877, the National Republican ran Vanderbilt’s obituary on its front page. Interestingly, it acknowledged Hamilton by name (but omitted the fact that Hamilton was Black): “There was only one man who ever fought the Commodore to the end, and that was Jeremiah Hamilton.”

Although he achieved success on Wall Street, Hamilton’s Black contemporaries did not consider him a hero. In an 1852 letter to Frederick Douglass, Black intellectual James McCune Smith criticized Hamilton, who he referred to as “the only black millionaire in New York,” for what he perceived as Hamilton’s crass and inappropriate pursuit of wealth. In general, most Black leaders viewed Hamilton’s financial scheming and insensitivity to the Black community as shameful. After Hamilton gained notoriety for his Haitian counterfeiting scheme, the country’s first black newspaper, New York’s Freedom’s Journal, rooted for Hamilton’s capture

Many black citizens saw Haiti — established by former slaves in 1804 — as a beacon of promise, its hoped-for success a way to refute the notion of black inferiority. That Hamilton sought to defraud the country was no small insult. In 1852, Frederick Douglass’s newspaper published a series of essays on whether becoming wealthy would dispel prejudice against blacks. James McCune Smith, a leading black intellectual, took the opportunity to make a swipe at Hamilton: “Compare Sam Ward” — an admired black antislavery activist — “with the only black millionaire in New York, I mean Jerry Hamilton; and it is plain that manhood is a ‘nobler idea’ than money.”

It seems the disdain was mutual. Hamilton avoided relationships with Blacks in favor of whites. He did not contribute to Black causes and ignored racial taboos of the day by marrying Eliza Jane Morris, a white teenager nearly half his age. Hamilton was unmoved by the plight of the enslaved, focused only on making a profit. In the 1830s, he purchased $2.5 million worth of sugar and coffee — produced on the backs of enslaved Africans in Cuba.

But for all his financial success, Jeremiah G. Hamilton could not escape racism. His white contemporaries on Wall Street despised his exploits, branding him with the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” Newspapers referred to him with an even more disparaging moniker: “Nigger Hamilton.” Away from Wall Street, Hamilton was just another Black man in pre-Civil War America. During the Draft Riots of 1863, white mobs turned on New York’s Black citizens. According to Shane White, author of Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, city archives show that rioters deliberately targeted Hamilton’s home.

Ironically, wealthy white New Yorkers were more interested in the color of Hamilton’s money than that of his skin. In the 1860s, Hamilton managed an “investment pool” similar to the hedge funds of today. Whatever their racist feelings towards him, white investors eagerly gave Hamilton complete discretion over the pool’s investments.

Potential investors were so enthusiastic about investing with Hamilton, many resorted to providing him with gifts to increase their chances of gaining access to his investment pool. Hamilton reportedly advised one would-be investor to pony up 600 cigars and a “basket of champagne” for entry into his investment pool.

Although Jeremiah G. Hamilton is an obscure figure in the annals of Black history, he may yet have the last laugh. In 2017, actor Don Cheadle acquired the film and television rights to White’s Prince of Darkness. Soon, the world may learn Hamilton’s story — complements of Hollywood.