Thomas Benton Fitzgerald was born on August 23, 1840, in Halifax County and was the son of Alfred B. Fitzgerald and his first wife, Theodosia Lipscomb Fitzgerald. He attended a local school and then began an apprenticeship under his father, who was a building contractor. After Virginia, Fitzgerald enlisted on May 31, 1861, in Pittsylvania County in Company A of the 38th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He served less than five months before being sent to a hospital on October 24. Issued a surgeon’s certificate of disability, he was discharged from Confederate service on October 28. By September 1865 Fitzgerald had become a merchant in Pittsylvania County and received a license to sell wine and liquor. On January 14, 1868, in Danville he married Martha Jane Hall. Of their seven children, three daughters and two sons lived to adulthood. His wife died on February 26, 1917.
By 1872 Fitzgerald and a partner had opened the Danville brick-making and construction business of T. B. Fitzgerald and Co., which they incorporated in 1885. Their construction ventures included erecting industrial facilities, such as warehouses and factory buildings, as well as some of the city’s most notable churches and houses. Branching out into other businesses, Fitzgerald acquired water-power rights along the Dan River. He helped found the Riverside Cotton Mills, incorporated in August 1882, and became its largest stockholder. Fitzgerald served as its first president but did not receive a salary. His compensation came through contracts awarded to his construction company for the Riverside Cotton Mills’ new building and expansion projects. Robert A. Schoolfield, the treasurer and secretary, managed the mills’ daily operations.
Both the Riverside Cotton Mills and Danville itself grew tremendously during Fitzgerald’s leadership of the company. What was initially one mill producing yarn and cloth on 2,240 spindles and 100 looms in April 1883 expanded with the building of two new mills and the acquisition of a rival company in 1890. By the following year, four mills operated 36,432 spindles and 1,246 looms. The company’s expansion helped fuel Danville’s population growth from 7,526 in 1880 to 10,305 in 1890, the year the General Assembly incorporated it as a city. Fitzgerald also helped foster the city’s cultural and economic growth during this period. In 1883 he served as a vice president on a board that established the Danville College for Young Ladies, and three years later he formed the Danville Street Car Company. Venturing into land development and real estate acquisition, he established the Danville Industrial and Land Improvement Company in 1889 and the Riverside Development Company of North Danville the following year. In 1901 Fitzgerald deeded his house, valued at $20,000, to the Danville Orphanage. The next year he served as a director of the Danville Lumber and Manufacturing Company.
With the increasing success of the Riverside Cotton Mills, Fitzgerald became frustrated by his lack of salary and demanded a fixed annual sum. He resigned and returned to the presidency on two separate occasions. In response to Fitzgerald’s first resignation in January 1890, the board gave him a lump sum of $1,500 for previous supervisory work and agreed to an annual salary of $1,000. Fitzgerald resigned a second time in April 1891 but was persuaded to resume his office shortly thereafter. In 1893 the board set his annual compensation at $7,500, which included $2,500 for construction management.
Lewis Hines’s Photographs of Cotton Mill Workers in Danville
Two girls carrying dinner baskets to mill workers at the Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills in Danville pose beneath an umbrella for a photographic portrait by Lewis Hine. One of the girls, donning a straw hat, walks barefoot along the dirt pathway. According to Hine, "the Sup[erintendent] of Schools and teachers in Danville said that many children toted dinners and did nothing else, not even attending school." Hine, a photographer working for the National Child Labor Committee in the 1910s, visited the mills in June 1911, as part of his photographic investigation into child labor in United States industry.
A group of young spinners and doffers gathers for a portrait by photographer Lewis Hine at the Riverside Cotton Mills in Danville in June 1911. Spinners were girls who tended to the whirling spools of thread, mending any breaks in them. Doffers were boys—often barefoot, like the ones shown here—who ran in and out of the mill removing full bobbins and replacing them with empty ones. This could be a dangerous task. At one factory the photographer reported that "A twelve-year-old doffer boy fell into a spinning machine and the unprotected gearing tore out two of his fingers …" In the 1910s, Hines traveled across the United States for the National Child Labor Committee, photographing child laborers in the industrial workplace. His photographs became a powerful tool in the movement to reform child labor laws.
Fitzgerald remained on the board of the Riverside Cotton Mills for the rest of his life and was still serving as a director when the Riverside Cotton Mills and the Dan River Power and Manufacturing Company merged in 1909 to form the Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills, Incorporated. With 230,000 spindles and 7,362 looms, the company became one of the largest mills in the South. His son H. R. Fitzgerald became president in 1918.
The Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills thrived through most of the twentieth century. It became Dan River Mills, Inc., in 1946 and Dan River Inc. in 1970 and remained the city’s largest employer. The influx of cheaper foreign fabrics began to erode company profits, however, and after bankruptcies in 2004 and 2008, Dan River Inc. stopped production. The Riverside Division of the company, site of the former Riverside Cotton Mills constructed by Fitzgerald, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Ailing from pneumonia and influenza, Fitzgerald died on January 5, 1929, in his Danville home. He was buried at Leemont Cemetery.