Madame C. J. Walker and William Alexander Leidesdorff

Most of the time, when the name of Madame C. J. Walker, the legendary business tycoon, the first black female millionaire and the first self-made American female millionaire of any color, is mentioned, a few general facts come to mind. Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867, but did you know on the SAME plantation where General Ulysses S. Grant planned the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg? You know that she was a great philanthropist and businesswoman, but did you know she had a throwdown (well it wasn’t physical, but it WAS intense and unpleasant due to rudeness on Washington’s part) with Booker T. Washington at his National Negro Business League Convention? That if Annie Turnbo Malone’s business empire had not collapsed from mismanagement she could have been the SECOND self made American female millionaire/black female millionaire instead of the first?

While most people envision Madame C.J. Walker living splendidly in Villa Lewaro (not far from John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould and designed by Vertner Tandy, the first African-American architect to be registered in New York) when she wasn’t running her business empire, she was involved in political causes, even going to the white house in 1917 to protest lynching. Labeled a “negro subversive” she was put under surveillance by a War Department spy.* Her doctors had warned her that her fast-paced life was a danger to her health but she paid no heed and in 1919 she died of hypertension. Madame C. J. Walker was a successful businesswoman in her own right, but what made her even more remarkable was the fact that she created economic opportunities for so many other women at a time when there were few options for women of color. (*On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madame C.J. Walker, A’lelia Bundles.)

William Alexander Leidesdorff – the first black millionaire in the United States of America.

He was born in the Virgin Islands, the son of a Danish sugar planter and a native born woman of African heritage. As a young man he went to New Orleans to make money in the shipping business. Eventually he became a master of vessels traveling between New Orleans and New York. He eventually sold all of his possessions in New Orleans and purchased a 106 foot schooner, the “Julia Ann” and sailed west. He settled in Yerba Buena and participated in several business ventures there, including launching the first steamboat on the San Francisco Bay. He was active in local politics and was known to keep one of the most beautiful homes in the area. He was appointed Vice Consul to Mexico, served as a member of the town’s first council, town treasurer and one of the three members of the school board who were charged with construction of the first school for the town’s children. He died in 1848, but later that year, gold was found on his property, which elevated its value to one million dollars. (Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco)

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