The First Black American Millionaire

In 1841, in New Orleans, William Alexander Leidesdorff passed as a white man. (His father was Jewish and his mother was Black.) When his fiancée learned his secret and called off their engagement, William sold everything he owned and bought a ship. He traveled to California to start a new life. 

On the West Coast, William lived openly as a mixed-race man. He also started an import-export company. He went on to build many more businesses, including San Francisco’s first hotel. He became the biggest landowner in the area, and later became the treasurer of California.

After he died, William’s estate was worth millions—but his estranged mother was tricked into signing his fortune over for a fraction of that sum. Learn more about the inspiring and frustrating stories of William and five other revolutionary Black American millionaires in our Instaread on Black Fortunes.

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