Black aristocracy is being spotlighted in HBO’s “The Gilded Age” but there is more to the story than the The Scott family’s plot.
The second season of HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Gilded Age premiered on Oct. 29, and fans were excited to see the return of The Scotts, a Black wealthy family depicted as societal equals to their white peers during a period in American history celebrated for its economic growth and prosperity. Though the character’s lives are fictional, Insider reported that the story of the Black aristocracy in the 19th century is not.
Groups of enterprising Black people began to use their newfound freedom—the Emancipation Proclamation was signed only a few years before the Gilded Age began—to create wealth for themselves and their communities.
“They begin to take their places in every pursuit about town and country, and as their thoughts and sympathies partake of their varied and independent occupations, they naturally form an active and efficient business class. I call it an ARISTOCRACY,” a person identified as “Ethiop” wrote in the April 22, 1852 issue of the Frederick Douglass Papers.
Well-dressed and highly educated, Black entrepreneurs made their mark on society by owning everything from pharmacies to retail stores and restaurants, Insider reported.
“The Black elite of the Gilded Age signaled that we, too, have taste. We, too, have education. We are like other citizens,” said Carla Peterson, historian and author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City.
One such entrepreneur, Thomas Downing, is regarded as the man responsible for introducing oysters to the upper class and would go on to open the Thomas Downing Oyster House. The son of two formerly enslaved people was nicknamed the “New York Oyster King” due to the popularity of his restaurant, and he remained one of the city’s most wealthy residents until his death in 1866.
Black women also benefitted greatly during the Gilded Age, with many acquiring financial and social power. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who used advice she overheard while working as a maid, became a self-made millionaire and used her wealth to buy boarding houses, laundromats, and restaurants, as well as shares in Wells Fargo Bank.
Still, not all was well for Black people in the Gilded Age, as systemic inequities remained present. “Even exceptional Blacks were considered inferior to whites,” historian Willard B. Gatewood said.
Source: Black Enterprise