Robert Gordon, the Black Coalman Who Outsmarted White Merchants to Dominate the Coal Industry

Robert GordonRobert Gordon (????-1884)

  1. Born an enslaved man in Richmond, Va., Robert Gordon served a rich yachtsman who owned a coal yard. Gordon maintained the yard so faithfully, his master eventually gave him full control over the handling and selling of the coal.
  2. He sold the coal to local manufacturers and blacksmiths, accumulating thousands of dollars in the course of just a few years.
  3. With his wealth, Gordon was finally able to buy his freedom in 1846.
  4. In 1847, he moved to Cincinnati and invested $15,000 in a coal yard there. He employed bookkeepers, built his own docks on the river and purchased coal by the boatload.
  5. White coal dealers weren’t too fond of Gordon, however, and attempted to price him out of the market — a market the freedman had already dominated.
  6. Gordon outsmarted his critics, hiring mulattoes to purchase the dirt cheap coal sold by whites and then selling it a higher price once the white dealers had limited coal left in their reserves. Even larger profits came rolling in.
  7. The entrepreneur retired from the coal business in 1865, later investing his money in U.S. bonds.
  8. When the bonds were called in, Gordon invested in real estate in Walnut Hills, Cincinnati.
  9. The famed businessman died in 1884.
  10. At the time of his death, his estate was worth $200,000 (about $5,000,000 by today’s standards)

Robert Gordon is part of our Black Success series for Black History Month.


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