A Monument to African American Achievement Gets New Lift

In honor of Black History Month, Ogee is highlighting a project in North Carolina, which is a landmark in US industrial history and African American History. Read on to learn more.

Located in Concord, North Carolina, just northeast of Charlotte, Coleman Mill is a true landmark in African American History that was often-overlooked until it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

Founded by Warren C. Coleman, the textile mill became the first mill solely owned and operated by African Americans. Coleman was born a slave in 1849 and always had an entrepreneurial spirit: He began making shoes for the Confederacy during the Civil War and, afterward, built a general store, barbershop, and real estate business in Concord. By the 1890s, he had become North Carolina's wealthiest African American.

At the end of the 19th century, the textile industry was flourishing in North Carolina, but textile mills, unlike tobacco factories, rarely offered production positions to black workers. The discriminatory practice, rooted in social custom, was codified in laws mandating racial separation in industrial spaces-- which prevailed until the 1960s. In spite of this, Coleman was determined to establish the first textile mill owned and operated by African Americans.

Coleman sought advice from leading African American businessmen and activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington as he contemplated opening the textile mill. He announced his plan in 1896 in local and national publications. In these articles, Coleman promoted the industrious nature of black workers as an incentive for investors to support his enterprise and in an attempt to assuage concerns that African Americans could not effectively and profitably operate a cotton mill.

Construction on the mill began in 1898 and it was completed in 1901. The mill received international attention when W.E.B. Du Bois organized the Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and exhibited photos and a description of the mill as an illustration of African American progress in the United States. At the height of the mill's operations, it employed more than 300 African American workers and has assets worth $100,000. However, soon after opening, the mill began to have financial troubles, mostly due to the high price of cotton, which in turn reduced profits for manufacturers. Unable to remain afloat, the mill was sold to Washington Duke of Durham in 1904, who resold it in 1906. The mill went on to serve various manufacturing concerns, such as Franklin Cotton and Fairfield Cannon.

Despite the short-lived success of the mill, it still stands as a testament to the pioneering entrepreneurship of Warren C. Coleman. The town of Concord recognized Coleman's legacy by naming the section of Highway 601 South near the mill "Warren C. Coleman Boulevard." After years multi-use rental space, the mill will soon undergo renovation to become much-needed affordable housing for the surrounding community. We're truly honored to be part of its revitalization.

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