America's Forgotten First Black Millionaire And Inventor of San Francisco
Danish, Jewish, Caribbean, Black: This American success story was all of these and more.
One hundred seventy years ago, President James Knox Polk appointed a new American Vice Consul to a Mexican outpost in California. The representative was a dark-skinned, industrious, somewhat mysterious, occasionally tempestuous, but usually friendly 35-year-old. When this bachelor died of brain fever three years later on May 18, 1848, he was San Francisco’s wealthiest man. His land holdings alone were worth at least $1.5 million—more than $30 million today. Today, William Leidesdorff, Jr., if remembered, is honored as America’s first black millionaire, the first African-American diplomat, one of California’s black founding fathers. Actually, although he claimed to be from the Caribbean, born on St. Croix in the Danish West Indies, Leidesdorff may have been born Wolf Leidesdorfer of Szathmar, Hungary, making him also Danish, white, and Jewish.
Of course, 19th century America’s reductionist, racist legal regime defined anyone with even a black great-grandparent as black. And Leidesdorff was coy. More recently, the half-white, half-black Barry Soetoro wavered before defining himself as a black man, and eventually became Barack Obama, the first black president. By contrast, the golfer Tiger Woods told Oprah Winfrey it “bothered” him when people praised him as the first African-American Masters’ winner, golf’s Jackie Robinson. He calls himself “Cablinasian,” his own word blending Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian. (Many blacks saw this distancing as delusional. The olive-skinned Colin Powell said, “In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you’re black.”)
Leidesdorff’s achievements qualify him for the African-American pantheon. In the 1950s’ uplifting, self-justifying language, the black educator Sue Bailey Thurman wrote in her 1952 book Pioneers of Negro Origin in California: “No nationality or racial minority migrating to the state could wish to have a more distinguished antecedent.” But Leisdesdorff was also one of America’s multiculti pioneers, reflecting what J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in 1783 called that “promiscuous breed,” the new “intermixed” American. Similarly, today’s America is becoming a creatively-mixed creole nation more than one perennially polarized as black versus white.
With someone so enigmatic, litigation over his estate persisted for decades. So it’s no wonder historians are confused too. Most believe Leidesdorff was born on March 26, 1810 in today’s US Virgin Islands, after a Danish sugar planation manager named Wilhelm Alexander Leidesdorff impregnated a mulatto Caribbean Ann Spark. Some sources say Leidesdorff senior was a Jew, descending from Altona, Hamburg, who converted to Lutheranism to escape anti-Semitism. The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1906. however, suggests Leidesdorff, Jr., was born in Hungary in 1802, with relatives in Central Europe telling stories of their 15-year-old cousin who left home and had “gone to America” and “become a great man.”
Regardless, Leidesdorff rose with an American combination of hard work, great skill, and quite literally, good fortune. Drifting toward the booming port of New Orleans in the 1820s, he worked as a cotton broker and in maritime trade, becoming “captain of the port.” Some sources suggest a prominent family vetoed his marriage to a New Orleans belle, when, just before the wedding, he admitted being born out of wedlock. Of course, a status-conscious family might have blocked a wedding to a Jew, too.
In 1841, this brokenhearted young man heeded the classic American call by going west. He migrated to Yerba Buena, another port city, in Mexican-ruled California. That village of 30 families became San Francisco.
The enterprising Leidesdorff found “the innumerable demands of a community experiencing birth pains completely to his liking,” as Sue Bailey Thurman stiffly and patriotically put it. He would establish the town’s first hotel, the “City Hotel,” open a general store and a lumberyard, and run the first steamboat in San Francisco Bay. He built the first cargo warehouse on what became Leidesdorff Street off the Embarcadero and built a magnificent house with the city’s first flower garden. In 1969, it became the site of the Bank of America tower, today’s 52-story 555 California Street.
When Leidesdorff took Mexican citizenship and converted to Catholicism in 1844, Mexico rewarded him with a 35,500-acre land grant. His ranch Rio De Los Americanos neighbored the legendary tract belonging to the Gold Rush King, John Sutter.
The civic-minded Leidesdorff joined the first town council. He became town treasurer, and served on the school board that built California’s first public school – on land he donated, from among his impressive downtown land holdings.
As Vice Consul, he conspired, er, cooperated, with the U.S. during the Mexican-American War, another smart bet. On July 4, 1846, the Declaration of Independence was read dramatically from his veranda just before American troops raised the flag over the town, renamed San Francisco as of January 30, 1847.
Leidesdorff’s sudden death united San Francisco’s one thousand or so settlers in mass mourning. He was buried behind the landmark church of the Mission Dolores.
His death without a will prompted a decades-long, unresolved series of court cases. Reflecting his murky origins and anticipating America’s litigious future, supposed relatives from the black Caribbean and Jewish Europe both claimed his inheritance, under American, Mexican, and Danish laws.
Today, the black educator Dr. Michael L. Lomax celebrates Leidesdorff’s life as “the kind of African-American success story that deserves its proper place in history.” Lomax correctly notes, “Young people, both Black and White, need to know that even during the era of slavery, African-Americans were leaders among the pioneers.” Equally correctly, John F. Rothmann, a fourth generation San Franciscan and radio talk show host, uses Leidesdorff’s story in local history tours to hail an American “who was black, a Jew, and a remarkable symbol of the openness of early San Francisco.”
Multicultural America is expansive enough so that unlike Leidesdorff’s dueling “heirs,” we need not pit “blackpast.org” versus Encyclopaedia Judaica. We can celebrate this remarkable tale that reinforces America’s oldest and newest national myths.
The American dream works. America has been the land of opportunity for millions. Even during the dark days of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, William Leidesdorff’s story demonstrates that violent class conflict has been rare in America. Inspiring stories like this one of the “swarthy” immigrant who made good, teach that anyone, no matter how disadvantaged, can prosper. This black Jewish Caribbean American millionaire pioneer validates each subgroup that claims him while offering another unifying hero for our new multicultural America aborning.
True diversity transcends narrow categories of definition, celebrating a rainbow of backgrounds, skin colors, ideas, approaches. True diversity can be volatile. But it also facilitates creative syncretism, be it Leidesdorff’s civic and financial entrepreneurship, jazz, or high tech’s modern magic. That is the poetry of America, illustrated today by Leidesdorff’s greatest achievement: kooky, colorful, creative, hustling, bustling San Francisco.