5 Famous Black Male Entrepreneurs of the 18th Century Who Helped Shaped American Society

Written by Tinaya Sallie

These are the stories of 5 of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs of the 18th century.

James Forten

James Forten, a sailmaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, invented a sail-making device that allowed him establish a very profitable business. By the 1930s, Forten’s net worth was estimated at $100,000, which today, would be equal to about $2.5 million dollars. He utilized his acquired wealth to invest in numerous abolitionist initiatives. He also served as the vice president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Samuel T. Wilcox

Samuel T. Wilcox was a wholesale and retail grocer in Cincinnati, Ohio, who also established a pickling and preserving business. He was one of the first individuals to establish high-quality grocery stores that offered only the best and fanciest brands of dried fruits, soaps, hams, and other products. Due to the high level of quality of the products he stocked in his grocery stores, the majority of his customers were wealthy patrons. This is what likely contributed to his amount of annual sales eventually reaching $140,000 per year, which today, would be equal to about $4.2 million dollars.

Paul Cuffee/Paul Cuffe

Paul Cuffee was the son of a Ghanaian Ashanti man and an Aquinnah Wampanoag woman. He was a successful businessman and sea captain in the 1800s. He had all-black crews that served the Atlantic Coast and they sailed to both Europe and Africa. After the American Revolution took place, Cuffee also aided in the British effort to help resettle freed slaves.

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith was an indentured servant in Pennsylvania. Thomas Boude assigned him to work in the lumberyards at a young age. Boude’s wealth had stemmed from his highly extensive business in the lumber industry. Smith bought his own freedom for $50 at age 21. He then continued working in the lumberyards until 1822, when he established his own lumber industry business, and also began dealing coal. He eventually began grossing $100,000 in sales each year by the 1950s. By 1957, he was worth $500,000, which today, would be around $13.5 million dollars. Smith was also a minister and he served the black abolitionist organization as a chairman in Columbia, Pennsylvania.

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. was one of the earliest and most successful American men of mixed-race. He became a prominent figure within the trade industry when he established a successful lumberyard, shipyard and ship chandlery shop. Leidesdorff built the very first hotel in San Francisco, California, and also became the first treasurer of the city. Leidesdorff is noted as the first millionaire of black descent in America. In 1856, he had an estate that was worth over $1.4 million dollars, which today, would be about $20 million dollars.


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Tinaya Sallie

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