In the Black: A Brief History of Early Black Women Investors

Moving fluidly from the change purse to the bank vault, Banking on Freedom offers the first full accounting of the financial sector, womanhood, and Afro-America simultaneously transformed. Rich and brilliant.

~ N. D. B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida

Black women have historically played a role in Wall Street, and up until now, their story has remained hidden from the public. In today’s Women’s History Month post, Shennette Garrett-Scott walks us through the complicated history of Black women in the U.S. finance industry.

Shennette Garrett-Scott is the author of Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal. You can enter our Women’s History Month drawing for a chance to win a copy of her book.

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In the hilarious Showtime series Black Monday, set in the late 1980s, Dawn Towner (played by Regina Hall in gloriously shimmering peacock shades of eye shadow) is the only female head trader on Wall Street. Towner holds a small stake in the investment firm Jammer Group, owned by Maurice “Mo” Monroe (played by Don Cheadle). Black Monday’s characters seldom remark on the fact that Towner is likely the only African American woman on Wall Street.

Regina Hall as Dawn Towner in the Showtime series Black Monday. (Image: Showtime)

On the one hand, the quiet around her race and gender naturalizes her brilliance and ambition. Her character is exceptional not because she is Black and female but because she has a sharp, talented financial mind. On the other hand, pretending that race and gender do not matter distorts the structural racism and sexism that define and shape not only Wall Street but also the history of U.S. finance. Black women’s participation in the elite sectors of finance reveals their efforts to carve out possibilities in U.S. capitalism and society.

Free Black women had to work and be self-sufficient; in some states, if they became reliant on charity, they could be sold back into slavery.

Black women have historically played a role on Wall Street. In 1953, Lilla St. John was the first Black woman to pass the New York Stock Exchange licensing exam; she worked as an investment counselor with Oppenheimer & Company. In the early 1970s, Gail Pankey-Albert was the first Black woman and one of only a handful of women working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2018, Lauren Simmons became the youngest woman and the only Black woman working as a full-time stockbroker on the NYSE floor. Beyond the trading floor, Black women find it more difficult to get promoted in Wall Street firms. They face an industry that continues to be overwhelmingly white and male.

These examples highlight the intersecting racial and sexual discrimination that Black women face in the elite sectors of U.S. finance. They hide, too, the long experience of Black women as investors beyond the granite facades of Wall Street. It is important to the explore Black women’s complicated historical relationship to U.S. finance, particularly speculation in the stock market.

Slaveholding Black women held slaves to keep families together because some laws required freed slaves to leave the state, but they also enslaved other Black people to provide labor and to create wealth for themselves.

During slavery, free Black women included stock investments as part of their efforts to build financial security. Safe investments that assured modest growth were important, perhaps more so for Black women than white women. Free Black women had to work and be self-sufficient; in some states, if they became reliant on charity, they could be sold back into slavery. Many also hoped to free loved ones or to keep loved ones free after the women’s deaths.

Free Black women speculated in the market for another reason: They wanted to get rich. Eulalie “CeeCee” d’Mandeville Macarty of New Orleans operated a successful wholesale store and invested in stocks, amassing a fortune that relatives of her longtime white companion tried to seize after his death in 1845. Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant made much of her fortune in mining stocks during and after the California Gold Rush. In early 1860, Margaret Mitchell Harris, a South Carolina rice-plantation owner, sold her slaves and invested the proceeds in stocks and bonds.

Fantastic headlines during her lifetime and historical memory reduce Mary Ellen Pleasant to a mammy and Voodoo Queen, detracting from her long-record of civil rights activism and from her financial acumen. (Source: San Francisco Chronicle)

The reason we do not know more about the broad range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Black women’s economic strategies might be that people feel uneasy acknowledging them as slaveholders. Slaveholding Black women held slaves to keep families together because some laws required freed slaves to leave the state, but they also enslaved other Black people to provide labor and to create wealth for themselves. These economic activities also remain hidden because of a limited historical memory. For example, the lurid fascination with sex scandals and her reputation as a “Voodoo Queen” draw attention away from Mary Ellen Pleasant’s shrewd financial skills.

Ad for the National Negro Finance Corporation, 1925. (Source: New York Amsterdam News)

In freedom, Black women also gambled in the stock market. Finding the traces of individual Black women investors in the archive presents a challenge. The politics of the archive have left Black women’s archival record fragmented. Many aspects of their lives are not included or preserved. In addition, some historians prefer to interrogate diaries, personal correspondence, and other sources even when financial records are available. Surviving records of companies such as the short-lived National Negro Finance Corporation (1924–1929) reveal individual women as investors committed to what Maggie Lena Walker, a Black female banker  described as “the commercial emancipation” of the Negro.

Black women’s association lives provide rich clues to women’s investing choices and strategies. During World War I, Black women’s clubs and societies responded enthusiastically to campaigns encouraging investment in war loans and bonds. They raised millions of dollars for Liberty Loans and, after the war, for Victory Bonds. Julia Ott notes in her book When Wall Street Met Main Street that Black women’s participation in loan and bond campaigns represented a push for “civic inclusion, political rights, and the destruction of Jim Crow.”

Black women’s association lives provide rich clues to women’s investing choices and strategies.

Secret societies that managed insurance programs, such as the Grand Court of Calanthe in Texas and the Independent Order of St. Luke in Virginia, invested their profits in stocks and bonds. Trustees stayed abreast of financial markets and investment trends to make critical decisions about where and how to invest their orders’ money. They also had to balance regulators’ requirements that tried to limit their range of investments. In addition to the stock market, they invested in businesses on Black Wall Streets. Regulators typically judged investments in Black companies risky ventures. For these women, investment was not just a matter of making money work but of making money work for their broader, long-term, collective interests.

Black women used investment to carve out possibilities within U.S. capitalism and society. As they individually and collectively invested in the market, they forged their own definitions of economic opportunity and citizenship. These definitions refuted stereotypes about Blacks’ lack of intellect and self-control as well as assumptions about women’s ability to assume and manage economic risk. Black women’s complicated entanglements with U.S. finance reveal how race and gender mutually reinforce each other as categories of exclusion and difference— and inclusion and participation—in U.S. capitalism.

Liberty Bond campaigns used images of Whites and made appeals to manhood. Despite the racial and gendered rhetoric, Black women raised millions of dollars to invest in the cause of U.S. victory in World War I. (Source: William Peters, Missouri History Museum)

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