In 1996, Kent Anderson Leslie wrote "Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege," a biography of the richest black woman in the 19th century, Amanda America Dickson, Showtime later aired a 2000 movie based on the biography, "A House Divided." Her story shed a light on American race relations, which occasionally became very intimate.
While her wealth was inherited, she had to fight to get the money.
Her story began in 1849, when cotton plantation owner David Dickson impregnated a 12-year-old slave, Julia Frances Lewis Dickson, who gave birth to Amanda America Dickson on November 21, 1849. This posed a problem. Custom held that the child would be raised as a slave by its slave mother, however given more domestic duties. However, the last thing a man in his position could do was acknowledge the existence of a black daughter.
But at 43, Dickson took his fatherhood seriously and he and his mother raised Amanda in their home. Amanda's mother then joined the household and the couple continued to have marital relations, although they had no more children, His mother taught Amanda to read and write and play piano, as if she were a white Southern belle.
He was considered a progressive cotton planter who was among the first southerners to use guano as a fertilizer. He also was meticulous in seed selection. As for his slaves, he was not as cruel as his contemporaries, which is faint praise.
However, slavery did tear at him. He told himself that it would be crueler to simply emancipate his slaves. The Civil War solved this problem for him, and his 17,000-acre plantation replaced slavery with tenant farming.
Amanda meanwhile married a white cousin, had two children,and became a widow at 23, when she returned home. Her father sent her to what is now Clark-Atlanta University. This advanced education prepared her for his death on February 18, 1885, at age 75. He left her everything. The entire estate. And his codicils made it clear that if she remarried, she would still control the estate.
His 79 white relatives sued, but the Georgia State Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling that the will was the will, and the estate was hers: "rights of each race are controlled and governed by the same enactments or principles of law."
By that time she had bought a mansion at 452 Telfair Street, in the wealthiest section of the then-integrated city of Augusta. However, she died at 43 on on July 11, 1893.
Race relations in America are complicated and at times shameful, but rarely as black-and-white as they seem.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.