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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Race and gender in the workplace in cotton textile mills

Mitchell continues his discussion about his 1915/1916 research trip throughout the South. In documenting the establishment of the cotton textile industry in the South during the post-Civil War years, Mitchell was interested in the dynamics between workers in the workplace and between workers and their employers. Here, he emphasizes a sense of white solidarity in many mill villages, as white workers saw themselves as a group in competition with black workers. He argues that the employment of African American workers occurred gradually and he points to some of the difficulties and aspects of discrimination that characterized that transition. In addition, he asserts that women and children, at least initially, far outnumbered men in the cotton textile mills because men who were accustomed to intensive farm labor lacked the dexterity for the kind of machine work that dominated the industry.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
How did the men you interviewed, these men who were members of the first generation of industrialists, view their workers at the time you were talking to them? In more detail than that what they were doing by setting up a cotton mill was a philanthropic effort, but how did they rationalize or think about child labor?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
I can't answer that specifically, because I don't recall.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was it something they didn't think about?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
I tried to talk with them about as many aspects of the development as I could, and in my little book about it later I treated first the origins of the enterprise and then how they collected capital and their labor relations and their relations with the local community and everything. Those that I would regard as the abler and more conscienceful ones took this attitude about the isolation of the mill villages and about the paternalism of it, that they were in a position of giving a beneficial tutelage in a transition period from agriculture to industry; that the workers who came to the mills at first had nothing; they hadn't experience, they hadn't skill, they hadn't any money, they had just a few sticks of furniture and a farm wagon which they had brought to the mill village that was being erected; and that they had to give them houses, schools, fuel, morals, as well as employment. And sometimes the wages took the form of furnish at the company store. It began with many marks of agriculture and of slavery persisting. It was a master-servant, a master . . . I hesitate to say a slave relationship; it wasn't that. One thing that saved it from being a master-slave relationship was that there was a strong prejudice against Negroes and opposition to giving Negroes employment in the cotton factories, so that there was a strong alliance, though an unworthy one in many respects, between the owners of the mills and the white work force. The white work force was exploited, but at the same time the white workers had a certain bond with their employers because they were all in opposition to the blacks. I talked, I remember, with one cotton mill president particularly about the support of the churches in his mill village, that the company had built the churches in the first place and contributed to the salaries of the pastors and so on. I talked to the pastors themselves in the churches. And the consensus was that this was a service and that the dominance of the company was necessary if they were to have these facilities at all. The people on the whole in the beginning were very grateful for being able to move in from little tenant farms to a comfortable cottage in the mill village where they had companionship and some social life. And they put up with a great many restrictions and limitations, because this was the open door to something better for them, in spite of the fact that the work force was made up in great part of women and children. The men who had been farmers, typically, didn't have the digital dexterity necessary for work in the factory, not in the spinning departments, at any rate. Some of them were employed around the mill in various capacities, but it was known as the city of the dinner pail, the fathers bringing lunch to the children and sitting around and chatting and then going back to the house while the women and children did the work in the mills. Aside from the attitude of the cotton mill officials, historically it was an excusable thing because by some such means and only some such means, I think, could an agricultural community graft on industry with all the entirely new resources that were necessary for that purpose: capital and machinery and technical skill and engineering of power plants and everything that went with it. I afterwards knew Frank Tannenbaum, who was a professor at Columbia for a good many years and who had written an article called "The South Buries Its Anglo-Saxons." And he condemned this exploitation of the southern population, saying that it was being swallowed up in this industrial maw. Well, he was right; that did happen. But probably there was no other way of opening opportunity. It was a high cost that the workers paid and that southern industrial morals paid, really. And it ought not to have persisted after the southern textile industry was well developed and had gone on from cotton factories to add rayon mills and woollen mills and finishing and marketing and the whole complex was developed. But it did, and, as you well know, to this day it hasn't been possible to accomplish widespread unionism among southern textile workers. And recently there's been in the newspapers the Stevens plant at Roanoke Rapids. My youngest brother George tried to help with the Committee for Industrial Development, CIO industrial organization, in their campaign, which was called Operation Dixie, to organize mills, and he wrote a dissertation which Chapel Hill published on southern unionism. And he detailed the discouragements that there were, but he was hopeful of a development that has never occurred. I knew the man who was placed in charge of the Operation Dixie by the CIO. This must have been before the union of the AFL-CIO. And they sent organizers to the South, in many cases college students or recent graduates, who were idealistic and who were southerners, and every approach was studied and made. But the resistance on the part of employers and the lack of knowledge and experience on the part of workers has prevented . . . There were many studies in this period of the industry. Mine, I think, was among the earlier ones. There had been some of a different sort earlier. Mr. Copeland at Harvard had written a book on American cotton manufacture, and he knew something about the South. I enjoyed studying his book before I started my project. And Mr. August Kohn in Columbia, South Carolina, who was a newspaperman turned real estate operator and became a man of means had visited many of the cotton mills in South Carolina and had written a book reciting the particulars of individual mills. That was published, I think, in articles in the News and Courier, of which he was a correspondent at that time. And there were some others like that. There was a man whom I later knew at the University of West Virginia, who was President of the University of West Virginia. His name escapes me; he wrote a book called From Cotton Field to Cotton Mill. I think his was before mine.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Right. Holland?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Holland Thompson, that's right. And there were others. You speak of the exclusion of blacks from the cotton mill employment . . . [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 3, SIDE A]
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
This man was the son of a prominent white man in the community who set his mulatto son up in a cotton mill. It didn't succeed for a number of reasons. Also, blacks were employed in cotton factories in Charleston, but the experience of the employers was not good. I talked with them. It was because the workers were unaccustomed to the rigors of long hours and confinement in a mill and that kind of thing, and they were accustomed to a different kind of life. And in strawberry time, many would leave [laughter] the mills, and when they went oystering they would have a high absent rate.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
A lot of the same problems they face with white workers, though.
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Yes, I'm sure. I know that. But I was going on to say that the employment of blacks developed gradually. I remember seeing in a mill in Charlotte staircases built on the outside of the factory so that the blacks could get up to the floor where they worked without passing by the white workers in the other departments of the mill. It's been fascinating to see how industrial practice has filtered into a very different society in the South, and to see prejudice diminishing due to many causes. But southern industry generally, I think - or the textile industry, anyway - is a refuge for employers running away from union participation.