America’s first black millionaire was both brilliant and ruthless

The name Hamilton has perhaps never been more prominent, especially on Wall Street, thanks in large part to the acclaimed Broadway musical about the Founding Father who essentially created the nation’s financial system as the first secretary of the Treasury. Alexander Hamilton is undeniably a figure of global historical import, but even history buffs may be surprised to learn of another American of that name who also broke ground in the world of finance in centuries past, living a life that was far more complex and dramatic than is typically seen in textbooks.

Jeremiah Hamilton was America’s first black millionaire, accomplishing that feat around the time of the Civil War, when most among New York City’s population of African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens or worse. He made his fortune on Wall Street, through a canny knowledge — and skillful, perhaps illegal, manipulation — of the insurance and real-estate markets, as well as through services that are the forerunners to modern-day asset management and hedge funds.

At one point, he was a major shareholder in railroad companies — railroads he was not allowed to ride due to the color of his skin.

For a variety of reasons — including his own private tendencies and the biases of popular history, which have tended to minimize the contributions of minorities, particularly people this controversial and contradictory — the story of this Hamilton’s life is little known today. However, it provides great insight not just into the history of race relations in America but also into American finance as an industry. If you think Wall Street is cutthroat now, imagine what it was like nearly 200 years ago, when a lack of regulation and organization made it a veritable, and violent, free-for-all.

MarketWatch recently spoke with Shane White, the author of “Prince of Darkness,” the first-ever biography of Jeremiah Hamilton, which was recently optioned by the actor Don Cheadle, who, White reported, would be making it into a miniseries for HBO. He discussed what made Hamilton such a unique figure of his time, how Wall Street has changed since his era, and the ways it hasn’t.

MarketWatch: Jeremiah Hamilton occupies a unique place in American history, but I had never heard of him, and you write that most people haven’t. How did you first come across his story?

Shane White: I first saw the name when doing research for another book and was reading through old newspapers. There…

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