The stories of our region’s larger mills from the early 20th century and their redevelopment are well documented – the Atherton Mill in south Charlotte, the Loray Mill in Gastonia, the Cannon Mills in Kannapolis.
But the history of Concord’s Warren Clay Coleman Mill is not so well known. It was one of the most significant because it was the nation’s first African-American owned and operated textile mill, and this year it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the outside, the three-story, 96,000-square-foot Coleman Mill looks like most large, brick factories of its day. But its beginning is so very different.
“It was built as part of a noble experiment. It harbored a dream that a textile mill could be built and operated by persons of color,” said Cabarrus County Superior Court Judge Clarence Horton in a local cable program on the mill and its founder, Warren C. Coleman.
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A former slave, Coleman delved into the industry as an owner at a time when slavery had ended only 35 years earlier and African-Americans were rarely even hired in factories.
“Frederick Douglas suggested they form black textile mills, so efforts were made in two or three places,” Horton said. “Booker T. Washington tried in the mid-1890s in Huntsville, Alabama, but they didn’t get off the ground. There was one in Houston. ... All (of) these experiments had failed, but he felt he could make one succeed in North Carolina.”
Coleman was a determined man and built the mill with hardwood floors, bricks made on-site and floor-to-ceiling hard pinewood beams that are still sturdy today. At its height, the mill employed just over 300 African-Americans to make yarn. But Coleman also envisioned a school, mill village housing and other businesses on-site.
“He put about every cent he had of his own into the enterprise because he was determined to make it succeed,” Horton said.
Newspapers praised his entrepreneurial prowess. They credited his can-do spirit partly to the years he served as an indentured servant to a white Concord attorney after the Civil War, who taught Coleman the ins and outs of business. By 1871, at age 22, he opened a general store downtown.
“That was unusual in that day and time, but he always had very good relationships with white customers and his store grew,” Horton said.
At a funeral wake, the Rev. Donald Anthony talked with members about a display they had on Coleman on a bulletin board at Price Memorial AME Zion Church, which Coleman also built. Anthony chairs the Historical Association of Concord. He says after Coleman opened his store, he took business classes at Howard University, later branched out into real estate and built more than 100 rental homes. With his wealth in hand, Coleman persuaded other African-Americans to invest in the mill.
“What he seemed to want to do was to gather the people together of the community and create a resource where individuals of the black community could take care of themselves,” Anthony said. “It reflected a desire in that day of African-Americans coming together and changing their own economic situation.”
It wasn’t easy. Although Coleman was respected by many whites – a few invested in the mill – Judge Horton says he also faced racism.
“There were several local textile papers in those days (that) sometimes ran articles not completely friendly to a black-owned textile mill notion,” Horton said. “They weren’t sure it could succeed. Some were concerned that wages would come down and job considerations. There were several of his buildings burned. The papers reported a faulty flue. No one is quite sure to this day.”
Coleman wanted the mill to be operated by African-Americans, but he had to bring in a few whites because insurance companies would not sell policies to black-owned businesses. The mill’s equipment was refurbished and required lots of maintenance because Coleman could not secure loans for new machinery. But even with setbacks, the mill opened in 1901.
“It was a game-changer for the African-American community because they had no place to be gainfully employed, except in homes of some (white) people. They were not used to paying blacks. They were their former slaves, so this (the mill) represented that dream for blacks to be able to purchase land, a business and be self-sustaining,” Anthony said.
But soon the mill faced hard times because of high cotton prices. Coleman sold a lot of his real estate to keep it afloat, but fell ill suddenly in 1904 and died. Some suspect foul play. The mill closed shortly afterward and was sold in a foreclosure sale.
Its legacy, Horton says, is that it opened doors for African-Americans.
“In 1913, we had a hosiery factory, and those folks employed black seamstresses and workers in that and became more accepting. He’d (Coleman) laid the foundation for that and started people on that road to change,” Horton said.
The mill became part of the Cannon Mills Co. for some years. Today it is home to businesses, such as several specialty auto body and auto parts shops, a pool company and a distillery. Current owner Bill Bryant ran a large printing operation out of it for a time and leases a large portion of the mill.
“Right now I’m on my way to show space to somebody who rebuilds motorcycles and again to somebody else later who restores printing presses for sale,” Bryant said. “Every now and then I’m approached by people who want to do this and that with it and I would listen to any worthy business plan, but right now I’m comfortable where it is.”
There’s a plaque at the mill honoring Coleman. But the mill’s historical significance is not well known. Even some of Coleman’s relatives in Concord never heard about it until they were grown, such as Rodney Smith. He’d never gone inside the building until last month.
“I’m impressed. This really is amazing,” Smith said as he tapped the pinewood beams. “Wow, that’s real wood that lasted over 100 years, wow.”
Smith and his brother Michael Smith say they didn’t know the Coleman Mill once was African-American owned and operated until they saw a local public television report on Coleman.
“I think I was 18 or 19, and my grandfather said, ‘That’s my great uncle and Rodney, that’s your great-great-great uncle,’” Rodney Smith said. “A cotton mill? We always thought it was just the Cannons making fabric that people all over used. This a big honor to know.”
Michael Smith is proud of Coleman as well but has a somewhat different take on the mill.
“I’m more frustrated that he didn’t get in the history books,” Michael Smith said. “It should be in textbooks, articles and we should be learning in American history that this black man accomplished this during that time and broke barriers.”
The Coleman Mill has received more attention in recent years. A section of U.S. 601 was named Warren C. Coleman Boulevard in 2001. And this year came recognition from the National Register of Historic Places.
“Every time I drive on WC Coleman, I feel a sense of pride for what he accomplished and bestowed on the Concord area,” Rodney Smith said. “My children have seen pictures of him, and the Carolina Mall has a picture of him hanging. Every time my kids go by it, especially my son, he says, ‘That’s my uncle.’”
“Hopefully being on the national register (the mill) won’t be torn down and the mill will be there for people to go and see. And the national register will make sure it’s always recognized,” Michael Smith said.
Not to worry, says owner Bill Bryant.
“I’m not going to demolish it. My children are aware of the property and know what it stands for, and before they inherit it, I’m sure I’ll have documentation that explores my vision for the property and what it means,” Bryant said.
There’s talk of possibly putting an African-American museum in the mill. Bryant says he’s open to that as long as it does not interfere with his current tenants’ businesses.
WFAE is a member of the Charlotte News Alliance.