Joseph Edwin Wiley, Sr., African-American attorney, urban industrialist, real estate investor, and general manager of the New Century Cotton Mill of Dallas, Texas, was born in Albany, Ohio, on July 28, 1862. His parents, Israel and Susan Wiley, were farmers from Virginia who came to Ohio sometime between 1855 and 1857. Joseph, who was the fourth of eight children and the oldest surviving son, worked in the fields with his father before enrolling at Oberlin College in 1882. From Oberlin he went on to attend Union College of Law in Chicago, which is now Northwestern University School of Law. In 1885 Wiley graduated from Union College and moved to Dallas, Texas. For many years it was believed that Wiley was the first Black lawyer in Dallas, but this honor should be reserved for S. H. Scott, who briefly practiced in the city in 1881. However, Wiley still holds the distinction of being the first formally-educated Black lawyer in Texas.
From the mid-1880s to 1900, Wiley worked as an attorney, real estate agent, and notary, with offices located on Elm Street. On August 14, 1888, he married native Texan Ruby C. Banks, and together they raised four children—sons Joseph Jr. and Laverne, and daughters Ruby and Mabel. During the late 1880s he apparently also served as editor of a local newspaper, the Dallas Enterprise, but he retired from that position in 1889. Wiley’s other associations included membership in the Texas Colored Press Association, the Young Men’s Mystic Club, and the Dallas County Republican Party. He was also elected to represent Dallas at the Colored Men’s State Convention (see BLACK STATE CONVENTIONS) in Waco in 1889. At a time when there were fewer than 500 Black lawyers nationwide, he was a close mentor to future attorney John L. Turner, Sr., for whom the J. L. Turner Legal Association is named. In 1898 Wiley had taken Turner in as his law partner after Turner had arrived in Dallas.
Throughout his career in Dallas, Wiley was a constant proponent of education for African Americans and was a popular speaker for the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas as well as the Lincoln Library Association, which lobbied for the construction of a library for Dallas’s Black community. Wiley later (in 1911) personally petitioned the Carnegie Foundation to help him build the library and even offered to provide and maintain a suitable building, but he was denied funding despite the absence of a reading room in every one of Dallas’s six colored schools.
In 1900 Wiley turned his attention towards industrialization. He firmly believed that African Americans needed to develop a thriving business culture in order to establish economic and political efficacy while also proving that Black industrial workers were equal in value to their white counterparts. Wiley believed that the most lucrative opportunities for Blacks would be in the textile industry. This was especially true in Texas, a state that produced one-fifth of the world’s cotton, but possessed few cotton mills.
With this in mind, Wiley joined J. G. Griffin, William Sanford, Dock Rowen, and H. W. Scott to organize and promote the first ever North Texas Colored Fair & Tri-Centennial Exposition in September 1900. Since African Americans were virtually excluded from participating in the Texas State Fair, the North Texas Colored Fair offered an opportunity to instill civic pride, provide entertainment and educational exhibits, and hopefully attract investment in African-American business ventures. Shortly afterward, on October 8, 1900, Wiley met with the visiting Booker T. Washington, who supported his idea of founding a cotton mill and who subsequently introduced Wiley to several eager investors in New England.
The proposed mill was promoted as an all-Black business enterprise. This marketing strategy was meant to attract progressive investors and encourage Black entrepreneurialism in Black communities. In reality, however, it was almost entirely owned and managed by whites. Most of the $95,000 in capital needed to open the mill was provided by northern industrialists, including Bostonians Richard Hallowell and Henry Lee Higginson. The remainder was invested by some of Texas’s most prominent white businessmen, such as Edward H. R. Green, Christopher C. Slaughter, and the Sanger brothers. The only investments from Dallas’s African-American community came in the form of four $100 contributions from physician Curtis V. Roman, saloon owner William Sanford, pharmacist Dock Rowen, and New Hope Baptist Church minister Alexander S. Jackson. To complement this, the Tuskegee Institute donated $2,000, and Wiley contributed several city lots to flesh out a favorable building site.
In January 1902 Wiley’s ambitions were realized, and the New Century Cotton Mill of Dallas went into business. The campus consisted of seven buildings spread across four acres between Flora and Juliette streets, with a track connecting the mill directly to the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. Wiley’s intention was to encourage Dallas’s Black youth to aspire to become skilled workers. Accordingly, the mill site was located just two blocks from the Dallas Colored High School and included a small technical training school as well as a community gymnasium.
At the height of operations the mill had about 100 African American employees—mostly young women and girls. Optimism was palpable in the community, and Wiley presented his project to the National Negro Business League as a promising prototype for the future development of Black industrialism. However, the enthusiasm was short-lived, and the New Century Cotton Mill soon began to encounter significant financial trouble. With a mere 3,000 spindles, the mill was one of the smallest in the state. Likewise, it was capable of producing 3,000 pounds of warp yarn per day but had no looms to process this product into marketable goods. Additionally, the nonunionized workers were underpaid, and absenteeism ran rampant during the seasonal cotton harvest when wages for temporary field workers were substantially higher.
By 1906 the mill was practically bankrupt, and in 1907 the venture was totally abandoned. For a time, the owners considered donating the mill’s machinery to the Tuskegee Institute, but instead the equipment was sold in order to help pay off the substantial debt. Wiley was pressed into court by various creditors, and eventually the property was sold off to allow for the construction of a rail depot.
In 1908 Wiley decided to try again. This time he had a more ambitious vision—an inclusive African-American industrial community called “Mill City” that would provide cheap housing, good schools, and self-government for an all-Black workforce. Armed with the proper looming equipment, those workers could then produce finished, market-ready merchandise for sale directly to local buyers. To that end, he bought a large tract of unincorporated land 1.5 miles east of the Dallas city limits near Buzzard Springs and then procured the necessary machinery from the defunct New Albany Woolen Mills Co. of New Albany, Indiana. Regrettably, Wiley failed to garner enough support in Dallas to complete the Mill City project. After three decades of close involvement with Dallas’s African-American community he decided to pursue his vision elsewhere.
In 1913 he was at the reigns of a new venture named Mill City Cotton Mills in New Albany, Indiana, which produced retail-ready rugs and mops. Like the New Century Cotton Mill, this mill was promoted as an all-Black business, the majority of the workforce was female, and the majority of the stakeholders were white men. During that same time he was also named to the board of directors of the American Banking Association in Chicago, which was created to help finance Black entrepreneurs. Aside from this, very little is known about Joseph E. Wiley, Sr., after he left Texas. He does not appear in any census after 1910, and his obituary, if extant, is yet to be discovered. To this day, Wiley’s name is remembered by many in the Dallas legal community. Likewise a street in modern downtown Dallas bears his name, and the Dallas Housing Authority recognized his presence in the city when it constructed the Frazier Court housing project on the site intended for Mill City. However, very little has been written about his life, and much is left to be uncovered.