Eight of Florida's first African-American millionaires
A brief story of eight African Americans who became millionaires in Florida before desegregation.
Joseph Haygood Blodgett (1858-1934)
Blodgett is a name that many in Jacksonville today likely associate with the former 654-unit Blodgett Homes public housing complex just northwest of Downtown Jacksonville. Constructed in the early 1940s and named in honor of Joseph Haygood Blodgett, for many years the public housing complex was once the city’s largest. As for Blodgett himself, his life and works are a quintessential example of a local rags to riches story. Philadelphia merchant John Wannamaker was astonished that a black man could accumulate such a fortune in the South without capital and a formal education.
Born into slavery in Augusta, Georgia, Joseph Haygood Blodgett moved to Jacksonville during the 1890s with one paper dollar and one thin dime to his name. Initially working for the railroad for a dollar a day, Blodgett went on to start a drayage business, a woodyard, a farm and a restaurant before becoming a building contractor around 1898.
Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901 changed the fortunes of Blodgett. With the city’s black population rapidly increasing during the rebuilding boom, Blodgett not only designed and built 258 houses, he kept 199 to rent, which eventually made him one of the city’s first black millionaires. Blodgett Villa, his own residence where famed guests such as Booker T. Washington visited, was said to be one of the finest owned by an African American anywhere.
Leon Dunkins Claxton (1902-1967)
The son of a drummer who played in W.C. Handy’s band, Leon Dunkins Claxton was born in Memphis in 1902. Part of a well-known vaudeville family, he became a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus water boy for elephants at an early age. By the age of 16, he had already found success as a contortionist and had been featured in vaudeville shows in Chicago during the 1920s.
By the early 1930s, he was well on his way to becoming Tampa’s first black millionaire producing his own shows featuring African American entertainers. Headquartered in Tampa and incorporating music, dancing and comedy, his “Harlem In Havana” black and cuban variety shows became the main feature of the Royal American Shows, which toured throughout the United States and Canada. For decades, they were the only live entertainment available to black people at the Florida State Fair. In Tampa, he was known for his charity work and as the owner of the Claxton Manor hotel where African American athletes, business people and performers would stay when visiting town.
Dana Albert Dorsey (1872-1940)
The son of former enslaved couple from Quitman, Georgia, Dana Albert Dorsey was the first child in his family not born into slavery. Despite only having a fourth grade level of formal education, Dorsey had migrated to northeast Florida, residing in Palatka with new wife Rosa Campbell and son Ezekiel in 1895. At the time, an important railroad junction situated on the St. Johns River, Palatka was a booming city that was home to the second largest cypress mill in the world. However, the city was devastated by the Great Freeze of 1894 and 1895 and negatively impacted by the growing economic dominance of nearby Jacksonville.
A year later, employed as a carpenter with Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad, Dorsey arrived widowed and living alone in Miami. With housing shortages for black workers, he started purchasing one parcel at a time, designing and constructing a rental dwelling on each parcel. He then reinvested his rental income to expand his holdings. Some of his earliest purchases were small properties in Coconut Grove and Colored Town, now known as Overtown. Eventually, his holdings extended as far north as Fort Lauderdale.
One of the properties was Fisher Island. In 1919, he sold this barrier island to the developer of Miami Beach, Carl G. Fisher. Prior to the sale, he had considered developing the island as a high-class resort for African-Americans. In return for a 200-foot yacht, Fisher traded a portion of the island to William Kissam Vanderbilt. Today, Fisher Island is one of the wealthiest and most exclusive enclaves in south Florida. As Miami’s first black millionaire, he helped organize south Florida’s first black-owned bank, the Mutual Industrial Benefit and Saving Association, opened the first-black owned hotel in Miami and owned a financial institution known as the Negro Savings Bank. Like other early African American millionaires, Dorsey donated significant money and land for black schools and parks during the height of Jim Crow segregation. 15 days before his death, he donated land for a public library that ended up being named after him.
Of interesting note, Dorsey’s long lost son Ezekiel “Zeke” Dorsey resurfaced after his death. Born in Palatka, the younger Dorsey ran away from home at the age of 12 and had lived the life of a poor migrant farm worker named Zeke Campbell. After a Miami court ruled he was Dorsey’s son in 1952, Zeke lived out the rest of his life enjoying what he considered luxuries…living in a big house, eating candy and drinking soda.
Stepin Fetchit (left) and Chubby Johnson in Bend of the River (1952)?. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was born in 1902 in Key West to a cigar maker from Jamaica and a seamstress from Nassau, Bahamas. The family moved to Tampa in 1910. He would end up running away from home at the age of 12 to join a carnival to get away from his mother’s push for him to be a dentist. To make a living he became a singer, tap dancer and comic character actor during his teenage years. During his stint as a vaudeville artist he won money on a racehorse called “Step and Fetch It”. He would later combine the names to become his professional name, Stephen Fetchit. Appearing in 44 films between 1927 and 1939, Fetchit had become the first black actor to become a millionaire by the mid-1930s.