He was a former slave turned coal magnate, churchman turned philanthropist, and wealthy Ohioan. In fact, at the time of his death, Robert Gordon was described as Ohio’s wealthiest Black man, having left a $200,000 estate (equivalent to nearly $5.7 million today).
A Cincinnati Black businessman, he amassed his fortune during slavery by dealing in coal while outwitting his white counterparts. After all, he was well-versed in the coal industry.
Born into slavery near Richmond, Virginia, around 1812, his owner, a Virginia coal merchant, and yachtsman, ran a coal yard where Gordon worked. Gordon ran the business over time and learned how to make extra money from the “slack”—leftover coal dust—that his owner allowed him to collect.
He saved money by selling the slack. Gordon bargained with his owner and bought his freedom in 1846 when he was 34 years old. He traveled to Cincinnati in 1847 after hearing that his fellow Blacks were doing well there. A year later, he purchased property along the Miami Canal on which to live and work. According to some historians, he spent $15,000 on a coal yard and hired bookkeepers. Gordon built his own river docks and bought coal by boatload. At the same time, he married Eliza Jane Cressup, a 24-year-old freeborn Black woman, and they had a daughter together.
As Gordon rose to prominence as a well-known coal dealer in Cincinnati, his white colleagues in the industry attempted to undercut him by lowering their prices.
Gordon devised a solution. He hired biracial men who could pass for white to purchase cheaper coal from his competitors. Gordon’s coal reserves remained when his competitors were unable to obtain more coal due to freezing weather.
Gordon later retired from the coal business in 1865, moved to the affluent neighborhood of Walnut Hills, and transferred the majority of his investments to real estate. He died in 1884 and is remembered today in Cincinnati for his philanthropy. According to records, he donated coal to Cincinnati’s Military Hospital during the Civil War. Gordon’s estate established a home for elderly Black women in Cincinnati as well as an asylum for “colored orphans.” He also built several Black schools and served on the Cincinnati Board of Education.
Overall, Goeff Sutton of the Walnut Hills Historical Society writes, “…the most striking thing about Gordon & Co. (Gordon’s coal business) was that it thrived for nearly twenty years, organically growing from small beginnings to larger premises and prominence, and passing to Black successors.”