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Color of Money: Four myths about black wealth

Michelle Singletary on

The stories of the entrepreneurs who achieved great wealth facing incredible obstacles are inspiring. And, as an added bonus, "Black Fortunes" shatters some myths.

Myth No. 1: Blacks are inherently bad with money.

No, we cannot get over that slavery thing. Racial discrimination has contributed -- and still does -- to the wealth gap. And as Wills points out, racism both then and now has impacted African-Americans' ability to achieve economic stability.

"In the modern history of America, spanning the Jim Crow era to present day, blacks are often smeared as financially inept and incapable of providing for themselves," Wills writes. "Disparities in wealth and income are stubborn problems in the United States, but the higher rates of poverty among blacks are often distorted to create the perception that poverty is ubiquitous among African-Americans."

Myth No. 2: Madam C. J. Walker was the first black millionaire.

Walker was an amazing businesswoman and is often touted as the first black millionaire. But she wasn't the first, according to Wills.

"She was one of the first African-Americans to flaunt and claim her wealth openly and fearlessly," he writes.

But it was William Alexander Leidesdorff, the offspring of a Danish sailor and a Caribbean woman, who first earned the title. He built an import-export business, and at his death in 1848, his estate was worth more than $1.4 million. That would be $38 million in today's dollars, Wills estimates.

Myth No. 3: Money equalizes everything.

A consistent thread in Will's research is how often 19th and early 20th century black entrepreneurs had to use white people to conduct business. Despite their financial acumen, they needed proxies to execute certain transactions.

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