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‘The Gilded Age’ gives viewers a rare glimpse into the 19th-century Black elite

The new HBO period drama highlights a time when African Americans did more than just escape to New York to seize their freedom — they made history.

In HBO’s new series “The Gilded Age,” a frequently glossed-over aspect of African American history is put in the spotlight. School textbooks documenting this time in history would have you believe that the era’s rapid economic and social growth can be credited solely to the likes of Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In truth, people of color also made significant contributions to the American economy of the 19th century and its vast accumulation of wealth. With its small lineup of impressive African American characters, “The Gilded Age” highlights a time in history when African Americans did more than just escape to New York to seize their freedom — they made history.

Episode four of the new series (brought to life by "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes) dives deeper into this overlooked aspect of history by way of the character Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). The episode takes us to Peggy’s borough of New York, away from the gold-lacquered neighborhood where the white elites live, and to the thriving African American community where her family lives. Peggy’s parents own a beautiful brownstone (complete with staff) and are educated and business-minded. They are an example of their environment, where African American men and women formed social clubs, threw opulent celebrations, and flourished. Peggy’s father, Arthur (John Douglas Thompson), owns a pharmacy and her mother, Dorothy (Audra McDonald), is a pianist.

Real life American journalist Timothy Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) appears alongside fictional character Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) in HBO series "The Gilded Age."
Real life American journalist Timothy Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) appears alongside fictional character Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) in HBO series "The Gilded Age." HBO

In many ways, the Scott family's appearance in the new series works to challenge previously instilled lessons of what African Americans accomplished during this time. Speaking to TODAY, Benton explained that the show brought on a new understanding of people of color during this time. “There’s so many limiting perspectives for Black people and Black artists, what we take in from the media, from our history books about what we can and can’t be," Benton said. "The idea of being the first is kind of this illusion that keeps you cut off from your power and from your history. I always dealt with not quite feeling like I belonged. Then I saw Peggy and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve always existed.’”

Audra McDonald is Dorothy Scott, Peggy Scott's mother.
Audra McDonald is Dorothy Scott, Peggy Scott's mother. HBO

While watching Peggy pursue her passions in writing, it’s hard not to think of the well-rounded African American women who inspired her storylines. Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist, immediately comes to mind. According to The Los Angeles Times, Wells and other Black female trailblazers inspired Peggy’s role in the new series. Julia C. Collins (who became the first African American woman to publish a novel with her book “The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride”) and Susan McKinney Steward (New York State’s first African American woman doctor) also contributed to what the show’s creators had in mind for Peggy. Like these women, Frances E. W. Harper, an abolitionist, teacher, and writer, has often been overlooked for her part in shaping the American literary landscape, being passed up for white male novelists like Mark Twain or Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1896, Harper helped to establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which continues to work to grant scholarships to women of color and protect their rights.

Actor John Douglas Thompson portrays Arthur Scott, Peggy Scott's father.
Actor John Douglas Thompson portrays Arthur Scott, Peggy Scott's father.HBO

Key to establishing the Gilded Age’s elite class was the belief and attitude that members of the upper class had amassed their large fortunes due to their superior skill and intelligence. Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a Rutgers University-New Brunswick historian and served as series co-executive producer for “The Gilded Age.” Speaking to The Los Angeles Times, Dunbar said that she aimed “to create a Black elite that respected and centered things like education, thrift, religious piety — things that would perhaps add to the arsenal to protect themselves from racial discrimination.” During this time, the percentage of Black professionals was narrow, and those who worked as school teachers were considered to have had high-status occupations. As such, women like Wells, Collins, McKinney Steward, and Harper would have been held with high regard and admired amongst their community. Still, others climbed to even higher echelons of society that influenced American history.

Take, for instance, Mary Ellen Pleasant. Like George Russell (Morgan Spector) in "The Gilded Age," Pleasant was a self-made millionaire with significant political and financial power. Like many African Americans drawn to the California Gold Rush, Pleasant acquired her wealth by diving headfirst into the bid for opportunity by moving to San Francisco. From there, Pleasant began working as a live-in domestic and listened in on the information the wealthy men she worked for exchanged with one another to learn how to make the proper investments and manage her money. Pleasant learned to invest in businesses by eavesdropping and eventually snapped up boarding houses, laundries, restaurants, and Wells Fargo Bank shares. Writer W.E.B. Du Bois described Pleasant in his 1924 book “The Gift of Black Folk” as a “trusted confidante of many of the California pioneers such as Ralston, Mills and Booth, and for years was a power in San Francisco affairs.” Those words meant something, especially because it was Du Bois, a known African American intellectual elite himself, who said them.

Of humble beginnings, Du Bois rose through the ranks of society, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, and eventually became a widely published scholar and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For his part in the NAACP’s endeavor to further the rights and standard of living of African American people, Du Bois set out to end the practice of lynching by making it widely known through his writing.

The number of African American elite who existed during this time and shaped American history goes on. 

Similar to some African Americans at the time, Arthur Scott works in medicine.
Similar to some African Americans at the time, Arthur Scott works in medicine.HBO

Among this cohort of elites were Blanche Bruce, Josephine Willson, Mary Church Terrell, and Timothy Thomas Fortune. There was also Daniel Murray, a man whose life can be seen as a metaphor for the rise and fall of the 19th century America’s Black elite. Murray became an assistant librarian at the Library of Congress and a widely known socialite and member of the Black aristocracy. Author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor detailed Murray’s life in her book “The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era” how wealthy African Americans experienced a “brief taste of nearly equal citizenship in the nation’s capital in the late 1880s.”

While “The Gilded Age” is a television series, there is no denying that the show accurately portrays how a population of African Americans thrived during this era. Speaking about this upper-class group, Benton touched on her hopes of seeing the show afford viewers an appreciation for how the world was built. “I want Black people to see that kind of freedom and access to what the story that’s always been there is and always will be," Benton added. "I want the United States at large to really just take ownership of the true diversity that has made up this nation, and that the story that we see doesn’t exist without every type of person existing on every level."

For their part in history, African American aristocracy shaped the landscape of modern America. During an era that experienced record rates of inequality and modernization, African Americans of the upper class carved a place for themselves in a world that worked to cage them in and paint them as inferior. They used the freedom they'd fought for to push for equal rights, education, and better wages. In seeing opportunity during this era, Black elites took the reality of their bleak circumstances and spun them into prosperity, respectability, and the very best that they could offer society as a whole.