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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Coleman, Warren Clay

by Marvin Krieger, 1979; Revised by Alyssa Putt, NC Government & Heritage Library, August 2022

March 28, 1849 - March 31, 1904

A photograph of Warren Clay Coleman circa 1899. Image from the Library of Congress.Warren Clay Coleman, merchant, businessman, and manufacturer, was born into slavery as the son of Roxanna "Roxie" Coleman, a woman enslaved by Daniel Coleman, Sr., of Concord, and Rufus Clay Barringer. Roxie later married John F. Young, an enslaved man and blacksmith. Often when enslaved people married, the man's enslaver purchased the woman from her enslaver. Contrary to this usual practice, Roxie's husband was enslaved on the Coleman estate, and Roxie and John's family, including Warren, remained there as a unit.

Coleman's first twenty-one years were consumed by enslavement, farm work, and apprenticeship that constrained his highly motivated personality. During the Civil War, he worked for the Confederacy, making boots and shoes. Following emancipation, he was bound to William M. Coleman, a Cabarrus planter and lawyer who later became North Carolina's attorney general. Coleman educated and trained young Warren until March 28, 1870, when Warren was released. Warren went to Alabama for a year, seeking economic opportunity. He returned to Concord in 1871 and began his business career, starting as a collector of rags, bones, and junk and becoming one of Concord's richest merchants. From 1873 to 1874 he attended Howard University as a student in the Model School, preparing himself for business opportunities.

Coleman's first business was a combination barber shop and cake and candy store. Under Rufus Barringer's guidance, he bought land in the black areas of Concord and erected cheap frame rental houses. Between 1875 and 1904 he developed nearly one hundred rentals; he purchased four farms and a substantial number of city lots, thereby becoming one of Cabarrus County's largest property owners and most influential citizens.

On December 30, 1873, Coleman married Jane E. Jones, daughter of Joseph and Caroline Loyd of Alabama. On Warren and Jane Coleman's marriage certificate, both are identified as "yellow."

In 1879 he combined his two shops into a large general store that became one of Concord's major retail establishments. A proud and frugal man who sought wealth and fame, he extended his influence into North Carolina's Black community. He was a member of the North Carolina Industrial Association, an African-American group seeking to develop African-American-owned businesses and a long-time advocate for the North Carolina Colored Industrial Association Fair. He served as North Carolina Industrial Association's vice-president, treasurer, and president.

His success was not without challenges, however. In September of 1885, his business burned for the third time without fire insurance. 

By 1895, Coleman was considered one of the South's richest African-Americans. He helped found the National Negro Protective Association and assisted African-American education at Howard University, Livingstone College, and Shaw University. He supported the North Carolina Oxford Orphans' Home and aided Professor R. M. Alexander in developing the Coleman School in Welford, S.C. His philanthropy extended to the Zion Hill Church and Price Memorial Temple in Concord.

In mid-June 1896, Coleman tested the climate for a African-American-owned mill. Prominent white textile leaders, spearheaded by Washington Duke, supported his efforts. Coleman initially sought to raise $50,00 in stock subscriptions from African-American supporters, but they lacked the economic base to sustain such a venture, and he was forced to borrow from the Duke family. In February of 1897, Coleman announced that he was going to open the first Black-owned cotton mill in the United States. The cornerstone for his Coleman Manufacturing Company was laid in February of 1898 and the mill began production in June 1901. Coleman Manufacturing was the nation's first African-American-owned and operated textile factory. Initially, Coleman's venture enjoyed some success, but financial frailties and external market conditions overwhelmed the mill. The mill was underfinanced and opened with secondhand machinery, and in December of 1903, Coleman resigned as director of the mill. Only three months later, Coleman died suddenly on March 31, 1904 in Concord at the age of 55.

Dr. W.H. Goler, President of Livingstone College, led Coleman's funeral which was well-attended. Coleman was buried in a graveyard that he and other trustees of the Zion Hill AME Zion Church began when they acquired the seventeen-acres now known as the Old Campground Cemetery in Concord. His mother, Roxie Young, died three weeks later on April 24, 1906. His wife, Jane E. Coleman, died two years later at the age of 70. The couple had no children. 

At the time of his death, Coleman owned more than 100 unencumbered houses -- some newspapers reported as many as 350 houses -- and 57 parcels of land across the North Carolina piedmont. Forty-nine of these parcels were in Cabarrus county, with additional properties located in Rowan, Union, Forsyth, Guilford, and Stanly counties.

References:

Burgess, Allen E. "Tar Heel Blacks and the New South Dream: The Coleman Manufacturing Company, 1896–1904" (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1977).

The Dupuyer Acantha. (Dupuyer, Mont.), 03 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84036266/1899-08-03/ed-1/seq-3/ (accessed August 26, 2022). 

Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 31 March 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1904-03-31/ed-1/seq-7/ (accessed August 26, 2022). 

Krieger, Marvin. "Warren Clay Coleman" (M.A. thesis, Wake Forest University, 1969).

McCullough Norman J. 2020. Warren Clay Coleman : The Leader of the First Black Textile Mill in America : A Clear Unsung Example of Black Enterprise. United States: Xlibris. 

North Carolina Gazette. (Raleigh, N.C.), 26 Sept. 1885. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92073076/1885-09-26/ed-1/seq-2/ (accessed August 26, 2022).

North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Records, 1741-2011. North Carolina County Registers of Deeds. Microfilm. Record Group 048. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC.

Rouse, J. K. The Noble Experiment of Warren C. Coleman. Charlotte, N.C. : Crabtree Press, 1972.

Additional Resources:

Rouse, J. K. The Noble Experiment of Warren C. Coleman. Charlotte, N.C. : Crabtree Press, 1972. https://www.worldcat.org/title/1517430

McCullough Norman J. 2020. Warren Clay Coleman : The Leader of the First Black Textile Mill in America : A Clear Unsung Example of Black Enterprise. United States: Xlibris. https://www.worldcat.org/title/1143431650

Quick, William Harvey. Negro stars in all ages of the world. Henderson, N.C.: D. E. Aycock, printer. 1890. 115- 120. https://archive.org/stream/negrostarsinalla00quic#page/114/mode/2up/ (accessed January 13, 2014).

Ingham, John N. and Feldman, Lynne B.  "Coleman, Warren Clay (March 28, 1849– March 31, 1904." African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. 1994. 151-167. http://books.google.com/books?id=TTha3NavN-sC&pg=PA151#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed March 22, 2013).

"Historic mill open for tenants: Concord's W.C. Coleman Mill was nation's first black-owned and black-operated textile factory." Cabarrus News. June 19, 2011.  http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/community/cabarrus/article90...  (accessed January 13, 2014).

Image Credits:

"Warren C. Coleman, of Coleman Manufacturing Co., Concord, N.C.". Photograph. [1899?]. LOT 11308. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002695673/ (accessed January 13, 2014).

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