Abraham Lincoln Lewis (1865-1947)

Left: A.L. Lewis, Right: The Afro-American Life Insurance Company at 101 East Union Street.

Born in 1865, Abraham Lincoln Lewis was the son of a blacksmith who moved from Madison, Florida to Jacksonville in 1876. Struggling to overcome poverty, Lewis dropped out of grammar school to gain employment at a lumber mill. In 1901, Lewis was one of seven founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Initially serving as the company’s treasurer, Lewis was elected to become the president in 1919.

Abraham Lincoln Lewis Residence at 504 8th Street was said to be designed and built by Joseph Haygood Blodgett. Courtesy of The Crisis Magazine in 1942.

With the company serving as a significant anchor of the rich cultural fabric of black Jacksonville, Lewis became one of Florida’s earliest black millionaires. A human rights pioneer, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and philanthropist fighting racial inequities, Lewis founded Florida’s first black-owned bottling company, 50-50 Bottling, a black golf and country club, several cemeteries for Jacksonville’s black community and financially supported several HBCUs. In 1935, along with the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, he established the resort community of American Beach in Nassau County. At its height, American Beach was a nationally known black beach resort attracting celebrities such as folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Joe Louis, Ossie Davis, Hank Aaron and Billy Eckstein.

John Gilmore Riley (1857-1954)

John Gilmore Riley was born during slavery in 1857. Despite not being formally educated, Riley became the principal of Lincoln Academy, Tallahassee’s first high school for African Americans in 1892. At the time, Lincoln was one of three freedmen schools in Florida to provide higher education for the former enslaved and their descendants. Lincoln Academy would later become known as Lincoln High School.

Riley also served as the Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons of Florida fraternal organization. However, be became a millionaire by saving his money, fixing up houses and renting them to families who could not afford to buy. He ended up owning several properties in and around Downtown Tallahassee, including the present site of the Department of Natural Resource and Bryant Building and the parking lot of the Florida State University Law School. In 1996, his 19th century house became the John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History and Culture.

John Sunday, Jr. (1838-1925)

The son of a Dutch cattleman and his biracial enslaved wife Jinny, John Sunday Jr. was born in Pensacola in 1838. Raised as a free man, Sunday worked as an apprentice to a cabinet maker and at the Naval Yard until enlisting in the Union army. Following the Civil War, Sunday emerged as an influential Pensacola businessman, being elected to the state Legislature in 1873, serving as city alderman for three years and owning several businesses and properties during the late 19th century. Sunday also became of successful building contractor who constructed hundreds of homes throughout Pensacola.

Also a philanthropist, he helped build Pensacola’s Belmont-Devilliers neighborhood as a center of black commerce, as a result of black owned businesses being forced out of downtown during the implementation of Jim Crow. At the time of his retirement, he was said to be the wealthiest colored man in that section of the state. In 1907, Booker T. Washington estimated Sunday’s worth to be at least $125,000, which is more than $3 million in today’s money.

Eartha Mary Magdalene White (1876-1974)

Eartha White (front row, second from right) sitting with residents of the Old Folks Home.

Born in Jacksonville in 1876, Eartha Mary Magdalene White followed her former enslaved mother’s example by dedicating her life to improving living conditions for the city’s poor and poverty stricken. After attending Madam Hall Beauty School and the National Conservatory of Music, she toured in John W. Isham’s Oriental America show throughout the United States and Europe as a lyric soprano. The Oriental America Opera Company was the first African American opera company in the United States.

Following the death of her fiancé in 1896, she remained single and spent little money on her self, becoming widely known for the founding of the Clara White Mission. However, nicknamed the “Angel of Mercy”, White was much more than a humanitarian, philanthropist and civil rights activist. She was also a prominent businesswoman during the height of segregation. A charter member of the National Negro Business League and Jacksonville Business League, she established a tuberculosis hospital, a nursing home, boy’s improvement club and the first park for African Americans in the city.

In addition, her list of businesses included a taxi company, dry goods store, and employment and housecleaning bureau. In her spare time, she also became a licensed real estate broker and the first woman employee of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. She even owned an industrial laundry, the Service Laundry Company with its motto being “Put your duds in our suds, we wash anything but a dirty conscience”.

When asked why she remained single, she responded, “I never married. I was too busy - What man would put up with me running around the way I do?” Although it is estimated that she became a millionaire, she donated most of her wealth to finance her humanitarian work.

Eartha White and employees in front of her Service Laundry Company.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com.