The ghost of slavery haunts the transformation of an Alabama cotton mill – Update Alaba

PRATTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — There’s no painless way to explain the history of a massive brick structure being renovated into apartments in this central Alabama city — a factory that played a key role in the expansion of slavery before the Civil War.

Dating back to the 1830s, the labor of enslaved blacks made it the world’s largest manufacturer of cotton gins, an innovation that increased the demand for many more enslaved people to pick cotton, which could be quickly processed in far greater quantities than ever before before, historians claim to say.

A project to convert five historic factory buildings into 127 luxury homes has many in the town of nearly 40,000 excited that the local landmark will be saved from demolition. The new residents moving in early next year will only help the shops and restaurants on Main Street.

But with a nation debating how to teach history, the multimillion-dollar project also shows how difficult it is to tell a place’s complicated story in a way that honors the past and doesn’t cause an uproar over an “awakening” in a deeply conservative community. .

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The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, and slavery was on the decline before Eli Whitney invented the labor-saving gin that separated white cotton fibers from the seeds. The demand for unpaid labor soared and thousands were sold to the plantations where the gins made cotton growing more profitable than ever.

Prattville’s namesake, Daniel Pratt, became Alabama’s first major industrialist in this context when he moved south from New Hampshire a few years later and started a gin business.

Pratt designed his company town about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of the state Capitol to resemble the New England communities of his past. With a physical arrangement to match an ethos built on work, education and faith, he had workers build a church, schools and shops near the factory. His grave rests on a hill overlooking the city where he is celebrated as a paragon of virtue.

Slavery was always part of the operation, according to “Daniel Pratt of Prattville: Northern Industrialist and Southern Town,” the definitive history written by Curt John Evans.

Pratt used four enslaved mechanics in 1837 as collateral for a $2,000 bank loan to buy 2,000 acres along Autauga Creek for what became Prattville, and then used more slave labor to clear swampy land, according to the book.

Pratt aimed to teach poor white Southerners the value of manual labor, which was generally considered the work of enslaved blacks before the industrialization of the South, and the majority of the factory workforce was white in the 1850s. But when production lagged, Pratt replaced overseers and bought skilled slaves to do vital work that whites would not do. Evans wrote that by 1860 Pratt owned 107 enslaved people. He equipped an entire Confederate cavalry unit during the Civil War and was elected to the secessionist Alabama legislature.

Much of this history was included in the documentation that led to the Daniel Pratt Historic District being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Yet the new development’s website mentions only snippets of the story — and nothing about slavery — and the factory’s ties to slavery are rarely discussed in the town, which is 75 percent white and tends to vote Republican.

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Some people in Prattville complained about its name – The Mill at Prattville – saying it was a factory, not a mill. Others argue that its conversion to apartments is almost demeaning to its history as a leading manufacturer of cotton washing machines.

His history of racial oppression is harder to address than any of these things.

Bill Gillespie Jr., 64, is both a lifelong Prattville resident and mayor, but it took a Discovery TV show that aired a few years ago called “Mysteries of the Abandoned” for him to understand the connection between the gin and slavery. , which the show spread with a video of an abandoned plant.

“I didn’t even make that connection until I saw it,” said Gillespie, who is white.

Deborah Taylor Robinson, who is black and had a father and other relatives who worked at the factory, said many in the black community are aware of the factory’s ties to slavery, even though the topic has not been much talked about over the years.

“I think people are still not comfortable talking about it,” she said. “People get tense and nervous when they talk about it.

Across the bridge from the buildings where workers are now installing walls and plumbing, the Prattaugan Museum — named after a combination of “Prattville” and the county’s name, Autauga — contains a wealth of information about Pratt, the buildings and gin-making. But it focuses less on the ordinary people, black and white, who worked in the factory.

Betty Sharon Reed, who is black and taught history in the city for years before retiring in 2005, said Daniel Pratt deserves credit, but credit goes to the enslaved people and other workers who formed the backbone of his business empire, and the importance the factory for America’s bloody fracture during the Civil War should be better known.

“More than one historian has said that if it hadn’t been for the creation of the cotton mill, slavery would have died out. As that happened, they needed more people to process the cotton. So what did they do? They got more slaves.” ,” she said. “A lot of people (today) say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was my ancestors.’ But that’s what happened.”

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Gov. Kay Ivey, campaigning for re-election in a nine-candidate Republican primary that pushed her to the right this year, has made it clear where she stands on adding new context about race and history to education.

“We don’t teach our kids hate,” Ivey said in a TV spot that called her “Trumpian.”

Ivey’s re-election with nearly 67% of the vote suggests how difficult it could be to integrate enslavement into a more complete narrative of the buildings’ history, where the three-bedroom unit will rent for $2,140 a month. Residents will likely include state and federal workers from Montgomery, and if the demographics of the area are any guide, most of them will be white.

Despite a troubled history that includes the birthplace of the Confederacy, white supremacy, Ku Klux Klan bombings and the four-term election of segregationist Governor George C. Wallace, Alabama is considered a leader in promoting black history. and civil rights tourism, according to historian Brent Leggs.

Nationally, few, if any, commercial sites with ties to the institution of slavery commemorate that aspect of history, said Leggs, senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and executive director of its African American Heritage Action Fund. Some old plantations are open for tours and events, yet they make little effort to acknowledge the enslaved people who live and work there.

Combined with the Alabama Human Rights Sites and the National Lynching Memorial in nearby Montgomery, this project could achieve something unique by embracing a broader perspective, Leggs said: “This development team and community have an opportunity to innovate and set new examples for the rest of the world.” nation.”

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Prattville’s mayor is among those who believe the factory’s story needs to be told, even if it’s politically tricky. Race is always a touchy subject, and some locals complained about the content of the TV show, which Gillespie said opened his eyes. “I don’t think we can judge the past by the present,” he said.

The project’s developers, Envolve Communities LLC, intend to display some historical documents, photographs and possibly equipment from the mill’s past, but it’s unclear whether they will address slavery or race, said Ashley Stoddart, community manager of The Mill in Prattville.

Stoddart, a Prattville native whose grandmother once worked at the plant, said their focus so far has been to save the structure, which closed for good in 2012 after the last owner outsourced the work to India. “It had animals living in it and trees growing out of the roof,” she said.

Deborah Robinson’s husband, Robert Lee Robinson, who is Black and once worked in the factory, hopes residents will have a chance to learn more than just about the man who founded the town and owned the slaves who worked there.

“They always talk about Daniel Pratt and what he accomplished, but how did he accomplish it? Whose back did he accomplish it? Whose shoulders did he stand on?” Robinson said.

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Reeves is a member of the AP Race and Ethnicity Team.

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