Above, Jordan Whiteley outside the old Proximity Print Works plant, photographed by Lisa Scheer. The picture appears in an exhibition now hanging at the Greensboro Historical Museum, and also runs with my newspaper column this morning, which you can read after the jump.
Capturing mill village history
By Edward Cone
News & Record
The history of Greensboro, at least the considerable chunk of it that involves the textile industry, seems to be the history of Big Things: enormous brick buildings that took in cotton by the railcar and churned out acres of fabric; great fortunes made by men with large mustaches; and huge crowds of mill workers, generation upon generation, from the dawn of the New South to the final decades of the 20th Century.
The history of Big Things is accurate as far as it goes, but it swallows up life at human scale. The mill workers, especially, lose their individuality in this version of events. Old photographs show throngs at a company picnic before World War I, or tiny figures standing in the distance at looms on the vast floor of the White Oak mill, but the names and personal stories of the people are not included. They are identified, if at all, by their occupations and the neighborhoods in which they lived.
Now, as the textile economy fades away, an effort is under way to capture those names and stories, to flesh out the history of this place and the people who made it. Institutions such as the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee and Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill have been doing this for some time, but there is a fresh sense of urgency in the air. Several recent and ongoing projects aim to document and celebrate the lives of mill workers, often in their own words.
UNCG professor Benjamin Filene and his graduate students, for example, are creating an oral history project about the Cone Mill villages, complete with a "memory map" of the area on which people can write their own recollections. "This is our way to try and fill in the gaps in the historical record," Filene told the News & Record's Donald Patterson. "Who are these people?"
One way of answering that question is through art. Asheboro poet Barbara Presnell, the daughter of a mill worker, collaborated with the Touring Theater of North Carolina to create a play based on her book, "Piece Work." It ran last weekend at the Greensboro Historical Museum as part of the ArtBeat festival. Another component of ArtBeat is a photography show called The Mill Village Project, which will hang at the Historical Museum through the end of May. The exhibition was created by my wife, Lisa Scheer, so I'm not an unbiased observer, but on opening night it seemed clear that she had tapped into something powerful.
The show includes original photos of five families with deep roots in the mill villages of northeast Greensboro, along with their own scrapbook pictures and text panels based on interviews with family members. The old photos go back almost a century, revealing the everyday lives of people who often felt overlooked because of the jobs they held and the places they lived. The transcribed memories describe hard work and close-knit communities.
At the opening reception, Debbie Westmoreland Murray held court by her prom picture from 1970, telling visitors how she made her curfew before heading back out again. Jordan Whiteley, 14, stood near a portrait of himself in front of the shuttered Print Works plant. Other families in the exhibition -- the Davises, the Dixons, the Weavers and the Fryes -- found friends and relatives in old photos. People gathered around Filene's memory map, swapping stories and adding their own. Paul Sams urged people to turn out for the latest in a series of reunions he has organized for the old Proximity Junior High School.
It was clear from the photos and the conversation that the mill villages really had been villages -- small, self-contained places where neighbors knew and cared for each other -- well into the 20th century. That's not to sentimentalize either the work or the workers; both existed in the real world, not Mayberry. And village life probably was doomed even if the mills had survived, given the mobility of American culture and the urbanization of the county. What will remain are the names and the faces and the stories of the people who made Greensboro what it was, and what it is.