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New South apostle Henry W. Grady’s invitation to speak on “Texas Day” at the 1888 Texas State Fair in Dallas had come at the last minute. A group of young businessmen pressed fair organizers to extend an invitation to Grady about a month before opening day. The persistent, ambitious young men recruited the prestigious Dallas Commercial Club to their cause and after some prodding the fair organizers finally extended an invitation to Grady. The editor of the Atlanta Constitution had made a name for himself throughout the United States by stressing a new economic direction for the South. Combining fiery rhetoric and dynamic oratory, Grady advocated increased industrialization and scientific agriculture as a way to rebuild the war-ravaged South and to modernize the southern economy. He imagined a peaceful—and profitable—reconciliation with the South’s northern neighbors and between whites and former slaves. On an unusually spring-like day in late October 1888, nearly ten thousand fairgoers crowded the State Fair grandstand. Amid waning streams of “Dixie,” Grady stepped to the podium.1 Grady began his speech by commending Texas on having come further than most of its southern sisters in throwing off the yoke of provincialism [End Page 139] to focus squarely on the two most pressing problems facing the New South: industrialization and the Negro. Grady felt that the future prosperity of the South and the future of blacks in the region were intimately connected. He stressed that blacks, particularly those of the “better classes,” had to know and remain in their place in a Jim Crow society—that is, to remain subordinate to whites. Under such terms, Grady cast blacks in a small, largely supportive role in the dramatic industrial development that would redeem the South.2
Twelve years later in 1900, Booker T. Washington spoke at the Texas State Fair as the featured speaker for Colored People’s Day. The “Wizard of Tuskegee” had risen to national prominence after a momentous speech delivered at another fair five years earlier: the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. Washington broke Grady’s record, drawing crowds in excess of 15,000. No full text of his speech survives, but, coming off the success of the first National Negro Business League (NNBL) meeting in Boston only two weeks earlier, he likely touched on the same themes he shared with delegates at that inaugural meeting. Washington saw business as the surest avenue to progress for the race. Like Grady, he promoted racial cooperation along business lines and racial separation along most others as an essential condition of success in the New South. In his vision, however, blacks lay at the center rather than the periphery. Under the leadership of “Negro captains of industry,” the entire race would gain those civic virtues of thrift, independence, and moral temperance that would win it the respect and admiration of whites and eventual inclusion in every area of American society.3
Black businessmen throughout Texas organized a “colored businessmen’s conference” on the morning of Colored People’s Day. Washington attended the small conference and heard businesspeople and professionals from across the state speak of their successes and challenges in uplifting the race through enterprise. Attorney Joseph E. Wiley Sr. and merchant H. W. Scott spoke at length with him about their intentions to open a cotton mill financed, built, and run by blacks in Dallas called the New Century Cotton Mill. Washington would go on to play a small but important role in turning the mill project into reality.4 [End Page 140]
This article considers the paradox of business and race in the New South by exploring the challenges of financing and operating the New...