April 14, 2024

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John “Don Juan” Knight – Formerly Enslaved to a Mahogany and Gold Mine Owning Millionaire of the 1800s

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived an African American man named John “Don Juan” Knight who was born enslaved in the state of Alabama who went on to become a millionaire Black businessman in the country of Guatemala while being called the “financial ruler of Central American states” and the “Black Vanderbilt”[1].

John “Don Juan” Knight’s Early Life

John Knight was born in the United States in the southern state of Alabama in 1844 or 1845, and his birth name was John Knight. He was born enslaved on a plantation, and his father is unknown due to his parents being separated from one another during a slave auction. His mother was still pregnant with him at the time of this separation.

An Alabama tobacco grower and slaver named David Upton had his mother enslaved, and she was a part of about six other enslaved on his estate. David Upton’s wife was a school teacher, and took particular attention to young John Knight by teaching him how to read and write in the evening, despite it being illegal to teach enslaved. Prior to him learning how to read and write, however, he was working in the fields with his mother during the day. By the time he was sixteen years of age, he was well known in Tallapoosa County for being well educated, however, it was in 1860 that John Knight was sold off on the slave auction block because his slaver Upton passed away.

From there, John Knight ended up on a cotton plantation in Central Alabama, and when his new slaver entered into the Confedrate Army, he was left in charge of a portion of the plantation, assuring the cotton that was gathered got to New Orleans and got the best market price until the war ended.

Once the Civil War Ended, he and the rest of the enslaved were free. From there, he walked to the city of New Orleans and worked for a firm as a wharf laborer, handling fruits from Central America. He saved all the money he earned from this line of work, and while continuously doing his duties well, his employer sent him to Yucatan which is located in Central America, in order to manage the packing and shipping of fruits to New Orleans.

This is the start of where John Knight’s life went from worker to millionaire.

Businessman John “Don Juan” Knight’s Millionaire Career in Central America

Once John moved and got to work, there was a revolution going on in which there as a new leader being established in Guatemala, therefore he set his eyes on gaining favor of the new administration. Therefore, he proposed that for a concession of 50 thousand acres of land suitable for pineapples and bananas, he would go to New Orleans and convince the wholesale fruit dealers, who dominated the markets in the USA at that time, to agree to purchase 400,000 monetary British pounds of Guatemalan fruits. The Guatemalan government accepted, and the deal was made in New Orleans, creating the trade of millions of pounds annually.

John “Don Juan” Knight got more concessions after that because he’d demonstrated the success in profit for the market in the USA as the shipping business to NY and San Francisco, California boomed. It was by 1871 that John “Don Juan” Knight was the largest employer of labor in Northern Guatemala. Not only was John “Don Juan” Knight a Black business owner now, but because of his race, he knew how to treat the natives, and they were more enthusiastic to work for him than the white men, who had quit in their attempts at getting the natives to work. John was once an enslaved person himself, and he had also at one time been placed in charge of a portion of a plantation, so he knew both sides and knew how to treat native people. He had become famous for the “zeal he imparted to all who labored[2]” in his business.

It was after that in about the year 1878 that he succeeded in getting New England capital to start up his coffee-growing business in Guatemala. He also invested his own money in the industry. Now, because he had already impressed the government with how he brought money into their economy, the Guatemalan government didn’t hesitate to give him advantages in shipping concessions. His coffee farms proved financially successful, and all of John’s investments after that was felt all over Guatemala and in Central American, commercially and financially. The government never ceased to gain advice from him in all areas as he became their top consultant.

John “Don Juan” Knight even opened a bank in Guatemala City in the 1890s, and it was the most sound bank in the land. He had become known as the most honest businessman in Guatemala. His businesses also included banana plantations, vanilla bean farms, gold mines, steamboat stocks, vast mahogany forests, wharf investments – and even the government of Guatemala borrowed funds from Knight to the the tune of 100,000 British pounds. Knight’s wealth was estimated at the most $10 million.

It was in 1886 that his gold mines paid off considerably, and provided work for about 100 men over the course of 12 years. His gold mines yielded more gold than most all other gold mines in Central America. His yield came in third to those of Honduras and Costa Rica. Knight was also an inventor, having invented machinery for crushing the ore from his mines and created his own system of tramways, making ore easier for workers to haul. Not only that, Knight was responsible for raising the money for the then new railway that stretched across Guatemala[3].

John “Don Juan” Knight – The Man, His Family & His Home

Upon living in Guatemala in his earlier years working, he’d learned to speak Spanish and changed his own name to Don Juan Knight, which Juan is the Spanish version of John. Not only that, he married a native woman in 1872, and it was this bond that secured more trust in him from the people, and thus was a great boost to his fortunes. He and his wife had seven children, and all received an education in the USA. Knight was said to be a generous giver to various charities and to the national hospital while he loved living good. He loved to live so good in fact that his home in Guatemala City was a travel-must-see for visitors into the country as it was like royalty.

Knight’s home was a 35 room, two stories home and each room was large. The dining room was the main attraction and cost a fortune as the entire room was finished in polished mahogany and plate glass mirrors. Even the floor was made of the rarest hardwoods of Central America, and there was not another floor made like it in all of the Western world. The home stood on three acres of beautifully designed land with marble French and Italian statues[1].

Knight was a very superstitious man, and he didn’t allow any photos of himself to be taken at all amongst other things[3]. Knight would visit the place where he grew up many times, and several people in the state of Alabama remembered him when he would go. Upon visiting in 1888, he met the son of his first slaver, Daniel Upton. He ended up employing his son in Guatemala, and when he saw that the widow of his old enslaver, Mrs. Upton was sick and elderly, he remembered how she taught him how to read and write. Because of those childhood memories of her teaching him, he invested a portion of his own money to keep her comfortable in her dying days because she was broke.


  1. The Pittsburgh Press, Nov. 08, 1899 Page 5
  2. Daily Examiner, Sept 6, 1898, Page 3 Grafton, New South Wales, Australia
  3. Virginian-Pilot, Dec. 24, 1899 Page 15 Norfolk, Virginia