April 17, 2021

Mark Rene DeMortie – Sassafras Oil Factory & Retail Businessman

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American man named Mark Rene DeMortie became a very influential business man owning a retail and tailoring business while supplying for the needs of many African Americans and White workers in his huge Sassafras Oil factory.


Mark Rene DeMortie was born in Virginia in 1829 to a biracial woman named Francis DeMortie who was from Fredericksbury, Virginia and passed away on September 23, 1863 of a tumor. Her father’s name was John Brown, and according to the New England Historic Genealogical Society[1], he was from Ireland.

Not much is known about Mark Rene DeMortie’s upbringing, but in 1855, he was living in Boston along with his mother. He was 26 years old and worked as a Boot Maker[2] in his own shoe shop. It was a very successful business and it showed his entrepreneurial thought process from the very beginning. This was the start of him becoming a serial entrepreneur.

In 1870, DeMortie married a woman named Cordelia Downing (De Mortie) who was the daughter of a well known businessman, a restaurateur who owned a restaurant under the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., named George Thomas Downing. They married on May 14, 1870 at George Downing’s house, Capitol Hill. It was recorded in the Daily Evening Express as being a “brilliant affair”.

There was 100 guest who were mainly African American, and the talk of the toilets were popularized in many papers. It wasn’t common to see wonderful toilets with plumbing as in the 20th and 21st centuries. Most only had outhouses, so when grand toilets were displayed for people to relieve themselves over the course of the evening, this became the talk of the town.

“the toilets were superb, the display of diamonds and costly satins and laces being as elegant as at any fashionable event ever witnessed in Washington.[3]

The Daily Evening Express (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) 20 May 1870, Fri Page 2

Sassafras Oil Factory in Virginia

Mark Rene Demortie founded as Sassafras Oil Factory along with his partner New Jersey born Benjamin DeShields. The factory was named DeMortie & Co[4], and it was huge. It was his biggest business venture it was lauded by the media.

“They occupy a large framed building, and have an engine and boiler of about sixteen-horse power, and an improved cutting-machine of their own design made by H.M. Smith & Co., of this city and a styll holding 3200 gallons.”

Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) 25 Feb 1871, Sat Page 1

DeMortie & Co. was able to employ both Black and White employees, allowing many to make a living in their area. As far as the business workings, the stomp and roots of the Sassafras tree was used to make the oil, and DeMortie & Co’s oil was 10 to 12 degrees purer than all the other manufacturers, setting an example to all the other manufactures of oil in the North.

“These enterprising colored men have set an example in the way of manufacturers which we would like to see followed, not by only their own race, but by more of our white population.”

Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) 25 Feb 1871, Sat Page 1

Mark Rene DeMortie closed DeMortie & Co. in 1872 but continued to pay cash for Sassafras Roots and Stumps at 300 Dock Street, Richmond, Virginia[5].

In 1880, he was still in the Sassafrass business while in Haytokah, Nottoway, Virginia. He and his wife by this time had two daughters, 9 year old Louise J and 7 year old Corndelia, named after her mother.

Co-founder of the Crispus Attucks Club

DeMortie co-founded the Crispus Attucks Club with a group of prominent Black men when they met at the Young’s Hotel. He ended up elected to the executive committee[6].

He is also said to have given of his money freely to African American soldiers of the 54th regimen who went off to fight during the Civil War but were paid nothing from the government. Over the course of two years, he spent about 14 thousand dollars, giving to each and ever Black soldier enlisted. 14 thousand dollars is equivalent to about $300,000 in 2020.[7]

Death

Mark Rene DeMortie passed away on March 1, 1917[8].


Sources

[1]New England Historic Genealogical Society; Boston, Massachusetts; Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840???1911

[2]Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, U.S., State Census, 1855 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

[3]The Daily Evening Express (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) 20 May 1870, Fri Page 2

[4]Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) 25 Feb 1871, Sat Page 1

[5]The Daily State Journal (Alexandria, Virginia)12 Feb 1872, Mon Page 4

[6]The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)06 Mar 1890, Thu Page 5

[7]Museum of African American History

[8]Ancestry.com. New York, New York, Index to Death Certificates, 1862-1948 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT: 2020.