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tv   Shomari Wills Black Fortunes  CSPAN  February 19, 2019 12:40am-1:27am EST

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>> hey, everybody. we are excited to host tonight's event presenting the book black fortunes the stories of african americans who survived slavery and became millionaires and we will be talking with samuel freedman and you are in for a great night. before i turn things over to them if you could silence or turn off your cell phone, that would be great we have books for sale at the register and we will be signing over here afterwards and we also have flyers for upcoming events at the register. our interviewer for this evening is sam freedman and award-winning author, columnist
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and professor. he's a professor at columbia and used to write for "the new york times" and is the author of eight acclaimed books and is currently at work on his mind which will be about hubert humphrey and he will be speaking with our featured author journalist has worked for cnn and good morning america and contributed to the new york news and columbia journalism review. he was named dave fellow at columbia university and she lives in brooklyn. his new book recounts the lives of six individuals who survived slavery and achieved unprecedented financial success. it was between 1830 to 1927 when the last generation of black people born into slavery was reaching maturity of the small group of trailblazers emerged that included land owners, scientific innovators and very
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often they use their largess to provide new opportunities for their fellow african-americans. with this volume, there are layers for understanding the blood test and its implications for the american president. so, we'll be reading from the book and then sam will join in the conversation and you will have the chance to ask questions after that. please join me in welcoming to the stage. [applause] >> hello, everybody. can everybody hear me? thanks everybody for coming out tonight. and thank you for the introduction. for the excerpt i'm going to read from the book is about robert reed church was born into slavery in the mississippi delta in the high part of the cotton trade. his mother was a plantation
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slave, and his father was essentially a carbon -- cotton shipper -- did everybody get that? said the excerpt i'm going to read today, welcoming thank you for the introductiowelcome and u didn't get that part. the excerpt i'm going to read today is about robert reed church, was one of the eventual millionaires in my book. and i think he's actually one of the most interesting stories, not just of the millionaires but actually that i've ever heard. so, robert reed church was born into slavery in the mississippi delta. his father was basically a cotton shipper and his mother and father was a slave comes he grew up on a plantation until he was a young boy and his father died than his father kind of came and took him away and put him to work on the ships shipping cost an cost in atlant, mississippi.
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when the civil war broke out, the confederacy was in desperate need of ships, so they actually commandeered his father's ship with him aboard it so he has a black man as a slave, he faced this terrible fate of having to work for the confederacy. so the excerpt i'm going to read talks about kind of how he got out of that. and it takes place during the battle of memphis continental during the civil war where the union navy basically stormed memphis and battled the confederate navy right outside thof the city on the mississippi and basically took it over and the citput the city under uniong and liberated the people there. let me adjust the microphone a little bit. can everybody hear me? near daybreak on june 6, 1862, the sun was rising over the mississippi river.
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robert reed church was on the bacdeck of the css victoria. the ship was floating just outside of the memphis looking out onto a fleet of confederate ships further out on the river waiting for a coming battle. the union navy was approaching to invade and conquer memphis. roberts stood on the deck with crewmembers and confederate soldiers watching the approaching fleet draw closer filling both uncertainty and excitement. the union ships with perhaps bring freedom if they were victorious, but they could also bring death if they sink his ship. there were eight confederate ships in the river guarding the city. each of them have cotton hills stacks like bricks on all four sides of the structures to protect against white artillery. the client for tele- was poorly armed in total the rebel ships had eight cannons. the union fleet was twice the size of the confederate and in 17 if they were simple
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battlelines moving down the river, the exterior classifier and armed with guns and cannons. in another line were nine ram boats with 6-foot long knifelike structures on the front end. they would punctured the holes when smashed into them flooding and sending them. in the early morning within 500 made their way from their home to the edge of the river to watch the battle. they stood in groups on the bluffs 20 feet up. the union fleet stopped 200 feet from the city, then they are excluded wit for the steady drof gunfire. at about 5 a.m. the bragg came up and opened fire at confederate soldier later reported it was answered by us instantly. the fleets exchanged fire for more than an hour with neither side taking much damage. i think they were done the river was covered with smoke and the air spelled like gunpowder.
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the two union ram boats came charging towards the confederate ships sinking one and they damaged several others puncturing the holes. the confederate ships came scrambling the union gunboat sailed into deadly rains of the confederate ships and opened fire. the union ships bridged one after another. on the plus the citizens of memphis who heard the gunfight fell silent. after the union navy sank the confederate ships, the confederate flotilla is rendered. when the battle was over, the union ship begiunion ships began robert's ship, the css victoria. something inside told him to flee. he followed his instincts. he walked to the edge of the boat, gathered his nerve and jumped. with a splash, he disappeared into the mississippi as the sun came up over memphis. in the hours after the battle of memphis, the river was turning
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and muddy. as gunn spoke cleared scraps of wood, cotton and metal littered the surface of the water down the river he paddled and kicked towards the shores of memphis. he slammed to the bank and pulled himself up on the land as he collected himself on solid ground, his hair stuck to his face and scalp. insulting wet and muddy, his clothing clung onto his frame. what was he at that moment, a slave, a free man, a deserter? whom did he belong to, the confederacy, the union, his father, himself? there was only one way to be sure. he collected himself and headed towards the city dripping water as though he'd just been baptized. he was unafraid of whatever awaited him and he survived the second flirtation with a water grave. slavery and brushes with death had run out whatever fear he'd been born with from his breast.
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in memphis, robert found men both black-and-white wearing blue union uniforms and carrying guns stationed on corners patrolling the town. i am the sky he could see the union flag flying over city hall. after the battle of memphis, the mayor surrendered the city to the suspending slavery in the town. at that moment, robert dared to think that he was freed. [applause] first of all, can you hear? personally would like to thank green lights bookstore. i've known jessica, one of the cofounders since the first of
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this amazing story and it's one of the success stories of bookselling in the whole country and so many other independent bookstores which were always tremendous friends to the writers like myself, so it's great to be here. second thing, we are delighted to have c-span book tv here making video of the talk. and you can go to their part of the c-span website and check out the schedule and find out when it's going to be on. tell all of your friends to watch it and then come here and buy copies. the last thing i'd like to do is introduce a special friend of mine who's in the audience here, the reverend is the pastor of the baptist church into previously at st. paul community baptist church in new york and one of the extraordinary theologians and congregational leaders of any color and any
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faith in this country, so delighted to have my pastor in the house. she knows i'm not out making trouble because he can see me. [laughter] first, that was so beautifully read and written, really incredible to hear it. but i also wanted -- i'm curious how this book even came about. sometimes the ball writers want to write wha that hasn't been written yet, and black fortune definitely is such a book but then how do you even know what it is you want to write about, what do you know is waiting to be filled, so what puts you on the trail to the six post: millionaires? >> it was kin >> it was kind of a dialogue between me and you. [laughter] >> that's more than i remember.
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>> i remember i went to jamaica when i was working for the newspaper here and i had found out about the first millionaire in jamaica and i remember i was at columbia journalism school at the time and sam has a famous book writing class. i wanted to get in the class and i pitched this idea about writing a book about the first jamaican millionaire and he said that might be hard to do two report from the united case on something in jamaica. why don't you look into maybe doing something about folks here. i was shocked at what i found that there was this incredible history of black millionaires and folks that were not really commonly known my great, great
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uncle john was one of the first black millionaires in philadelphia. he owned a trolley line and started one of the first in philadelphia. basically he lived in a mixed race suburban philadelphia may be about half black and there was no way for folks to get to philadelphia or take it to work so he bought the bus and started driving it himself and it just expanded and it grew and grew and he basically ended up selling it to forget the name oe of the company but it ended up
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what made the philadelphia transport systems he took that money, put it into the stock market and did very well in the 20s in the stock market and pulled the money out in time. >> host: you read beautifully but there are six primary individuals in the book so i wonder if you can tell us briefly through our some of the other main figures? >> is eight total that i touch on in the book so i go through those in chronological order. he was basically in early california pioneer and went out when it was still part of mexico as a merchant and a importer,
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exporter ended up getting his hands through the politicking with the mexican government on a large swath of land and basically all he owned about and of course when the gold rush started, gold was discovered on the lancet was infinitely valuable. he died shortly after that and his family ended up being swindled out of the land which was a whole another story. after that, there's mary ellen who also made her money in the west that she was born in philadelphia and was kind of raised in massachusetts. she went out to the gold rush and got into all sorts of businesses out there. extremely savvy having grown up sort of in nantucket this was analogous to new bedford during the boom we all read about in moby dick. she kind of grew up in this booming towns and she's really savvy when she went out to the
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west coast during the gold rush and she got into moneylending, hospitality, laundries, all sorts of businesses that were needed and she made a lot of money doing it. she gave john brown about $50,000. i don't remember where exactly, but it's in the high six figur figures. >> i didn't mean to take you off track i was just curious. >> she gave him a lot of money which is a controversial thing to do. there was a group of white men who gave him money and they were fearful for their life, one of them actually had to leave the country, so giving john brown money was a pretty dangerous thing.
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of course robert reed church who i mentioned was born a slave and ended up escaping. he ends up going to memphis and becoming a, you know, basically a jack of all trades but his main thing was real estate and the interesting thing about memphis is that's where the ku klux klan was founded as well as blues music so a lot of things happened in memphis but basically he was doing very well in real estate buying up properties at different events but also dealing with an incredibly racist backlash. there was a race riot in 1856 where dozens of black people were killed in the churches and homes were burned. he was actually there was an assassination attempt on him he was shot in the head and survived miraculously that he
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battled all of his life with kind of basically the clan in memphis but he continued developing real estate and buying up property. also he was very influential in politics eventually became sort of friends or associates with roosevelt. after that, you have jeremiah hamilton here from new york city. he was the first black broker on wall street and he did battle with the vanderbilts. just a really ruthless broker, ruthless trader like a wolf of wall street if you build and he was unique because he was the only black broker on wall street and the civil rights era of new york. there was a lynching attempt on him which he is survived by just basically running away.
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so you know, he was an interesting character. the difference between him and some of the other characters in the book is can't get into it too much in depth but he kind of ran away from his blackness in ways others didn't. and then of course the two may be a little more well known are annie malone who started the first eight black hair brand and she employed a woman named sarah who went on to become madame cj walker another big brand. and i don't know if folks are familiar with black wall street but he basically built black wall street. stev..
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>> at the time and what kind of efforts did you make what
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type of materials did you have to locate to reincarnate these amazing people? most of them left some sort of biographical document but they were not memoirs. so that became the source material and probably six pages. and then to combine the characters in the one book and one of the things that i did that you suggested was have a report around it with the
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really rich picture what was going on at the time and to flesh out the life stories. >> whether they were born into it or self-made in their own wealth to have all of what life has to offer all the comforts and excesses. and not to think about the larger aside. [laughter] the most if not all that we write about is a real commitment to the struggle and
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what form does that take and for the most part they kept that connection? that that's their problem. >> i thought that was interesting the majority one way or another most were not during slavery. they were free but they had to worry so for most of them who had an awareness with the limitations on their lives regardless of how much money they had but one character that was interesting to go through the process that i forgot to mention who lived in manhattan who was the mistress of a white millionaire who basically transferred his
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wealth to her and she became a millionaire that way. she battled with her rich. she tried to pass as white for many years then eventually when the affair was revealed with the white millionaire there were riots outside her house she was hauled off to jail after she got out of that it was an awakening she moved uptown to harlem to help with the migration of african-americans. she was a great representation with the fact with their resources were during that period still had to deal with that society they were living in an most realize that from the circumstances of their
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lives whether funding john brown or black colleges or whatever the case may have been buffer some of them it was an awakening. >> we want to make sure we have plenty of time for your questions. >> one of my personal rules to be a moderator. to talk about white supremacy ideology but with the civil war within fairly recent memory easily within living memory black self-determination was in a credit line - - incredible affront to the doctrine of
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white supremacy to be disenfranchised right to vote to basically demolish the wealth of the financial sources of those individuals and what do they have to endure even physical challenges and assassination attempts. >> the two biggest challenges they faced were basically folks trying to swindle their wealth because while blacks were supposedly guaranteed equal rights with the 14th amendment or you didn't have to honor a contract with a black person so a lot of them had a tough time holding on to their wealth.
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i mention sacramento the family of the legacy and they were limited by the fact that blacks could not testify in court so maryellen pleasant struggled with that as well where she had a white business partner that she did a lot of business transactions with who was a silver barrett in california and after he died she was not left money she did not want any she did not want that backlash but his air is blue through everything so then they came after what she had.
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she ended up in court almost to the day that she died so that was one issue folks had to deal with that plunder their wealth away but the other aspect was physical threats. to be assassinated or those attempts were made on his life. and jeremiah hamilton assassination attempts on his life. there were riots outside her house. they certainly had those physical threats and also slander almost all of them were slandered at some point when that is one thing that was interesting during the research process and how to figure out the slender from
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the facts one - - the slander from the facts and then making its way into the academic research it is said to be a pimp because he was a commercial real estate where there were brothels and strip joints and bordellos so people dismissed him as a black pimp but really he was a real estate developer but that is what really - - wall street was at the time the same thing with maryellen pleasant she was made out to be a voodoo queen that she was practicing voodoo with another very unpleasant nickname dealing
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with slander or worse. >> did and he has a wealth of the families persist into the 2h century? >> not necessarily but that's just because they didn't have errors on - - errors to leave it to. >> that yes he has living relatives he is the only one throughout research he may have had a great niece that recently passed away and then
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the majority of the others that the children actually died. they didn't have anyone to pass the wealth. >> [inaudible conversations] >> i will restate that quickly. beyond the six millionaires , how broad was the foundation
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of blackwell coming out? particularly to say you have a record high number of officials in higher education that was rounded about. >> around five or 10 percent there were a lot of folks in the trades that pay well such as catering with medical doctors and lawyers, mortician
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lawyers, morticians, insurance,e insurance was a big one but the majority of black people the poverty rate was close to 80 percent. that is the unfortunate part about slavery with the transition the freedmen's bureau tried to help but most worked as sharecroppers. maybe it was 5 percent during reconstruction but one of the things they provided the infrastructure, housing, jobs, infrastructure, housing, jobs, y started banks so the wealth class provided the infrastructure for the black community after emancipation especially when reconstruction
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came and was pretty much the only resource from african-americans. >> [inaudible conversations] >> great question. how do you get the word out of their history so it's as much as the vanderbilts or the morgans? any ideas? >> i don't know that is one of the reasons i wanted to write the book. that we expand to include in black history that is not the
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same half a dozen people that folks are taught about every year in school and especially to include more women one of the things that i was happy about is there were so many african-american women during this period to be successful entrepreneurs and i just think trying to get it out there and to give a platform maryellen pleasant i was really happy to see her obituary she didn't have a gravestone for many years. and she was such a huge contributor to history after having been forgotten all those years with a little bit of recognition gives me some
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hope. >> right you want them to become a part of the pantheon in the book is a big contribution but to the school's business from the mostly white business world have they reached out and shown an interest to know about these people and how their graduate students learn about them? >> surprisingly the business community has almost reached out more than the academic community. bloomberg reached out i think that is one of their suggested books for employees to read this summer and on the j.p. morgan summer reading list. i am surprised those in the business community have responded to the book in the way that they have.
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>> let's take one more question or to have the book inscribed if you buy it. >> to macau it is the accumulation of wealth compared to the vanderbilts or the morgans how is that affected by the imperative importance with how wealthy they were?
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>> i don't think they were quite as rich as america's richest family but jeremiah hamilton who was a black broker on wall street during the slavery days he got into a big scrum with the vanderbilts over a railroad in long island that they were trying to take over. he was fearless. he did not fear the almighty vanderbilts. or like the rockefellers but most of them were coming to have full rights in society but in terms of how they protected their wealth what is interesting is they did have to conceal it a little bit in
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some regard that maryellen presents on - - pleasant had a light proxy finally she bought a house and let him live in it everybody thought she was his mate and left her alone. or just robert read church at the time he was shot he used it a couple times. i don't know any other way to put it. [laughter] >> [inaudible conversations]
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>> 2008? i don't know. i think one of the great ironies of 2008 with the lehman crisis that lehman brothers, i find it interesting that it has its beginning that they collapsed into the economy with them. >> also with the subprime crisis and the targeting to get them in over their heads
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with those mortgages then basically claw that back in the first place. >> absolutely. >> we thank you. [applause] please pick up a copy of the book get it signed and spread the word to friends and coworkers and those in your church during black history month and beyond. thank you. [applause] [inaudible conversations]
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>> what scares me right now is not the diplomacy will fai fail, there is a pretty good chance of that. it's worth a try but what scares me that trump especially has personalize this nuclear confrontation in a way that our feet with the chemistry. on the one side this appears to be done in the name of a national interest and on the
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us side it's not at all clear based on the calculation so it feels pretty rushed this is especially problematic because trumps views on north korea are not widely shared in washington which matters for the durability and continuity and it's not clear that majority of americans supports what he says and does a north korea. that is not the choice of the issue the alternative to war if you are not in a stable situation to rely on the whims of individual leaders to avoid something like nuclear war. that that's where we find ourselves.
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trump can return to fire and fury at a moments notice because the underlying nuclear situation is no different or no better than it was in 2017. similarly to be incredibly threatened with the attack to the same degree with the same level of confidence today as he could on november 28 of 2018. [inaudible conversations] >> ladies and gentlemen help me welcome to the stage our gas.

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