In the decades following the Civil War, many white southern landowners, entrepreneurs, and journalists campaigned for the creation of a “New South” economy that would emphasize modern industrial development. With the plantation system no longer dominating the southern economy, the South could build its own factories to turn raw materials into finished products: cotton into cloth, tobacco into cigarettes, coal and iron ore into steel. White southern leaders were not the only ones who argued that industrialization was the key to future Southern progress. A small group of black businessmen and landowners, who had taken advantage of the opportunities open to African Americans during Reconstruction, also supported the ideal of a New South based on industrial growth. In the following 1896 statement, Warren C. Coleman, a black North Carolina businessman, called on his fellow black Southerners to support his plan to build a cotton mill that would be operated by black workers.
Please allow me to call the attention of the public to the fact that a movement is on foot to erect a cotton mill at Concord to be operated by colored labor. The colored citizens of the United States have had no opportunity to utilize their talents along this line. Since North Carolina has fairly and justly won for herself in the Centennial at the World Fair at Chicago and at the Atlanta Exposition the honored name of being “the foremost of the States,” she will further evidence the fact if she is the first to have a cotton mill to be operated principally by the colored people. We are proud of the spirit and energy of the white people in encouraging and assisting the enterprise and will our colored people not catch the spark of the new industrial life and take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to engage in the enterprise that will prove to the world our ability as operatives in the mills thereby solving the great problem “can the Negroes be employed in cotton mills to any advantage”? And now that the opportunity is before us, experience alone will determine the question and it behooves us to better ourselves and do something, and as one man . . . [make] the effort that is to win for us a name and place us before the world as industrious and enterprising citizens.
Don’t think for a moment that this desireable and enviable position can be obtained by merely a few of our people, but on the other hand, it will require the united effort of the race. Then when the people of the white race who are our friends clearly see that we are surely coming, they will “come over into Macedonia and help us.” The enterprise will be just what we make of it. There is nothing to gain but everything to lose by allowing the enterprise to prove a failure.
In case of a failure, it will be due to mere neglect. If it proves a success, it will be to the honor and glory of the race. If racial weakness is set forth, it will only strengthen the sentiment already expressed about us. We cansee the finger of Providence directing our cause, for we believe that God helps only those who help themselves. If we show no desire to succeed in this, and in all the enterprises designed for the industrial and financial development of the race, then it can be proven that our Liberty is a failure. We cannot afford to be idle or lukewarm in this matter. There is too much connected with it that would not let our conscience rest if we did not make the effort to carry out the plan. Can there be any among us who do not wish to see the moral, intellectual, religious and industrial character of our people elevated to a higher and broader plan[e] of civilization and true usefulness? There is no middle ground. We are either going forward or backward. The watchword is onward and upward, and if we ever expect to attain the heights of industrial usefulness, we must fall in line and march shoulder to shoulder in one solid phalanx along the road that leads to fortune and fame.
When we grasp the opportunities offered for the betterment of our condition, we are performing the great task which will at last determine our future position in the ranks of the great nations of the world. The markets of Madagascar, Zanzibar and other tropical regions where there are millions of inhabitants are open for all goods that can be produced in the mills.
Let us not be discouraged but move onward with the enterprise, with that spirit and determination that makes all things possible for those who strive in real earnest.
Source: Paul D. Escott and David R. Goldfield, eds., Major Problems in the History of the American South, Volume II: The New South (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990), 80–81.