The New Century Cotton Mill, located in Dallas, was an early twentieth-century mill promoted as an African-American-owned-and-operated business but actually managed by white businessmen who backed it with significant investment capital. In early October 1900 African-American attorney and real estate investor Joseph E. Wiley was among a group of local leaders who greeted Booker T. Washington at the train station when he arrived in Dallas to speak at the Texas State Fair’s Colored People’s Day. Wiley and Fort Worth merchant H. W. Scott shared their plans with Washington about opening a Negro mill in Dallas. Washington was impressed with the concept and connected Wiley with white businessmen wool merchant Richard Hallowell and investment broker Henry Lee Higginson. Both men were natives of Boston and helped raise $30,000 venture capital among area investors. Washington normally rejected pleas to lend his public support to specific business ventures with the visible exception of cotton mills, so he encouraged the Tuskegee Institute board to invest $2,000 in bonds for the Dallas mill project. Wiley and Washington imagined New Century as a practical experiment that would demonstrate African Americans’ potential to organize and manage an industry in the South.
In February 1901 the consultants persuaded the Dallas Commercial Club, a precursor of the city’s chamber of commerce, to conduct an extensive analysis of the project; the group pronounced it as feasible and potentially profitable. Commercial Club president Charles Steinmann publicly endorsed the project as an important vehicle for developing black labor in the city.
Initially, the mill had a few investors, but later dozens of successful Dallas-area businesses and business owners contributed the minimum investment of $100, though eight invested $500 or more. Four African Americans also invested in the mill: Dock Rowen, inventor, grocer, and real estate investor; Alexander Stephens Jackson, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church; Curtis V. Roman, physician and future Meharry Medical College professor; and William Sanford, a saloon owner.
From February to April 1901, Wiley stayed in the Boston area to observe first-hand operations and management at a working textile mill such as learning to order equipment, interview potential superintendents, and help raise additional money for New Century.
In early July 1901 the Texas secretary of state approved New Century’s charter. Although promoted as an all-Negro endeavor, the mill’s 1901 charter included Wiley as the only African American. New Century’s executive management consisted of a number of prominent Texas businessmen, including Philip Sanger, co-owner of Sanger Brothers, the largest department store chain in the state; Edward H. R. Green, railroad owner, millionaire, and son of Hetty Howland Green, known as the “Witch of Wall Street”; Stephen I. Munger, co-owner of Continental Gin Company, the largest cotton gin manufacturing company in the nation; rancher Christopher Columbus Slaughter, the largest landowner and highest taxpayer in the state; and Arnold B. Sanford, Boston businessman and president of the American Cotton Exchange.
Sanford was a strategic addition to the mill’s charter and leveraged the $30,000 in initial funds raised by Washington’s two Boston contacts to secure an additional loan for $55,000. The terms of the deal required local Dallas businessmen to raise an additional $10,000 by July 30, 1901. Northeastern investors questioned Wiley’s chances of getting financial support from Southern businessmen after he and the consultants had trouble raising additional funds.
In August 1901 preparations for the mill kicked into high gear. The cornerstone dedication for the mill’s main building was a very public ceremony with a parade led by the Twenty-fifth United States Colored Infantry, Company A, and the Texas Grand Lodge of Colored Masons.
The land for the mill was located in a predominately African-American section of town between Flora Street, Juliette Street, and the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad located two blocks from the Colored High School. The mill was constructed with African-American labor—skilled tradesmen who built every facet of it, including the energy plant, factory wiring, and installation of all machinery. All of the factory’s employees were African American except mill superintendent, F. G. Fischer, a white native of Boston.
Seven buildings were spread over the four-acre complex (which was also the fair grounds of the North Texas Colored Fair and Tri-Centennial Exposition), including a 10,000-square-foot main building with a two-story addition, boiler room, engine room storage facility, warehouse and office. In late 1901 eleven box cars delivered brand new, state-of-the-industry equipment including a 125-horsepower (HP) Corliss engine and a 75-HP High Speed Buckeye engine. A 10,000-gallon water tank supplied a 130-HP Manning Boiler. A side track directly connected the mill with the H&TC.
The New Century Cotton Mill opened for business on January 3, 1902, and had little cash or credit for operations. Wiley sought small loans from local banks and Philip and Alexander Sanger to shore up operations. Six months after opening, the mill borrowed $40,000 from the Texas Savings and Trust Company, secured by the mill’s primary assets of land, buildings, and machinery, resulting in a strong financial footing with a paid-in capital investment of more than $90,000. Only one interest payment was made in its four years of operation.
The inner workings of the mill provided a glimpse into the motivations of Dallas’s white businesses and the African-American community’s participation in an interracial venture that was openly promoted as “built, operated, and owned exclusively” by African Americans. To outsiders, the claims of exclusive black ownership appeared justified because Wiley, not the white investors or officers, was the mill’s public face. These aspects alone constituted a valid claim for many that the New Century was a “colored mill.” The Dallas African-American civic and business elite deemed the mill a solution for the lack of jobs for African Americans in the city and proof that they could be part of industrialization in the region.
White support for the mill was complex as most of the Northern investors embraced it as an entrepreneurial project with far-reaching civic and philanthropic benefits, but they also acknowledged that the “experiment” still needed to make a profit and provide a return on investment. New Century Mill hinted at the provocative potential for a union between Northern capital and the South’s natural resources and textile manufacturing capacity. Most unions discriminated against an all-African-American labor force because they effectively diminished the problem of organizing a textile union. African-American labor also equated to low wages, which increased investors’ bottom lines. Local Dallas investors, like Philip and Alexander Sanger, probably supported the mill out of a combination of philanthropic good will and a way to minimize African-American competition with white laborers. Alexander Sanger served as president of the mill when Philip died suddenly in 1902.
The seventy or more black mill operators employed by New Century produced about 3,000 pounds of warp yarn a day. Approximately two-thirds of the mill’s employees were women and girls. The mill ran into production problems early on when it operated with only 3,000 spindles and ranked next to last in production among other mills in the state. Only the Hillsboro Mill had fewer spindles (2,500). New Century was not in the same league as the Dallas Cotton Mill, the second largest mill in the state, which operated with four times as many spindles.
Despite the leadership of Dallas’ business elite on the board of directors, the mill’s success was short-lived and by 1906 was on the verge of bankruptcy. No business records have survived, so one can only speculate about the reasons for its demise. Alexander Sanger filed a lawsuit against the mill for failure to repay at least one small loan he had made in 1902. James Hallowell, whose father Richard was a bondholder and recently deceased, offered to donate the mill’s machinery to Tuskegee Institute, perhaps to establish a textile mill training program or to produce thread for profit.
In early 1907 the Texas Savings and Trust Company filed a petition seeking bankruptcy and permission to sell the mill’s remaining inventory, machinery, and even its railroad switch, which it claimed were all subject to the deed of trust the mill’s board had given the bank in June 1902. The mill’s equipment was sold to repay creditors in May 1907. The New Century property was sold in 1913 to make way for a Union Station depot. At the time of the mill’s formal sale, the land and improvements were appraised for $170,000.