By the close of the nineteenth century, the concentration of textile factories in the upstate manufacturing centers of Greenville and Spartanburg caused manufacturers to become concerned about supplies of local cotton and labor. Spartanburg mill owner John Montgomery and New York commission merchant Seth Milliken ventured far afield in 1899 with a controversial purchase of a mill in Charleston, which the partners intended to operate with African American labor.
Montgomery and Milliken purchased the Charleston Cotton Mills not long after the National Union of Textile Workers launched an organizational campaign in South Carolina. The experiment with African American labor in Charleston also occurred at a time when mill owners and industrial boosters were responding to critics who voiced concerns about the “cotton mill problem.”
The Charleston Cotton Mills had failed in 1898 after a period of labor unrest between former white employees and the African American operatives who replaced them. Montgomery and Milliken acquired the property at auction for $100,000 in 1899 and renamed it Vesta Mills. Montgomery’s correspondence does not reveal the extent of his financial involvement in the “coon mill” in Charleston, but he did identify Milliken as the “back bone” of the acquisition.
At the outset of operations Vesta Mills did not employ African American labor throughout the mill. Approximately forty white operatives worked in the weave room, but Montgomery was convinced that in time blacks would be employed in all departments. Managerial problems, rather than the operatives, were a major concern to Montgomery, who on more than one occasion complained to the mill’s manager about the cost of production.
At a meeting of Vesta’s stockholders in autumn 1900, there was discussion and contention about the mill’s future. A decision was postponed, and Montgomery advised Milliken, “I would rather lose fifteen thousand dollars invested somewhere else than to have that mill fail.” The stockholders’ decision to close the mill in January 1901 chilled relations between Montgomery and Milliken. Public comment in the press generally attributed the mill’s closing to failure of the African American labor, but Montgomery would likely have concurred with the view of William Bird, a Charleston businessman and Vesta stockholder, who faulted Milliken, accusing him of taking “every means to show the colored labor unprofitable. Those negro women could tie a knot at a spindle as well as white women could.”
Stokes, Allen H. “Black and White Labor and the Development of the Southern Textile Industry, 1800–1920.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1977.
———. “John H. Montgomery: A Pioneer Southern Industrialist.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1967.