The Legacy of a Cotton Culture

How we got to this point is a complicated — and sometimes tragic — story. However, understanding where we’ve been is critical to understanding where we can go.

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Editor’s Note: Larry Lee is the director of the Center for Rural Alabama. Over the next three Fridays, Larry will write about development in his home state — why some places succeed and others fall behind. This is a story about Alabama, but the lessons Larry Lee has learned hold true for most of rural America.

In a state where University of Alabama coach Nick Saban is rapidly approaching sainthood, it is fitting that we turn to football to describe the state of affairs in rural comunities.

It is third and long. We’re midway through the fourth quarter and trailing on the scoreboard.

How we got to this point is a complicated — and sometimes tragic — story.  However, understanding where we’ve been is critical to understanding where we can go.

It was 1949.  Harry Truman was in the White House and I was in the first grade at Church Street School in Andalusia. Every day at noon the whistle blew at the “shirt factory” eight blocks away.

While the whistle let workers know it was lunch time, in reality it was telling the world that Alabama’s cotton culture was alive and well.  Now in looking back over six decades I know the whistle could also have been a lamentation about the vise-like grip cotton had on the state, a grip that still lingers.

To understand the extent of this culture, let’s look at 1950. Cotton was grown in every county, a total of 1.3 million acres.  Covington County had 18,500 acres, some of them on my grandfather’s farm near Red Level.  And every county, except Bibb, had people working in either textile mills or apparel plants.  There were more women (1,274) running sewing machines in Covington County than in any other Alabama county.  Some 67 percent of all females with manufacturing jobs in the county worked in apparel.  

In the state’s Piedmont, cotton mills dominated the economy.  Nearly 90 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Chambers County were in a mill.  In neighboring Tallapoosa County the figure was 78 percent.

Cotton was the life blood of rural Alabama.

By 1860, Alabama was one of the nation’s most important cotton-producing states.
 But this relationship was hardly newfound in 1950; it started even before Alabama became a state in 1819.  Two things set the love affair in motion. The first was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793.  The second was the defeat of the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend by Andrew Jackson in 1814.  

Whitney’s invention paved the way for significant increases in cotton acreage, while Jackson’s victory opened Alabama to settlers from Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. With “Alabama Fever” in full bloom, the state’s population increased more than 1,000 percent from 1810 to 1820. 

Half of all U.S. cotton exports went through the port at Mobile in 1839. By 1840 Alabama had 253,532 slaves. We produced 564,000 bales of cotton in 1850.

Our first cotton mill was built near Huntsville on the Flint River around 1820.  By 1832, the Bell Factory, with 3,000 spindles and 100 looms, was operating in Madison County.  And in 1899, Alabama produced $22 million worth of cotton products, ranking us ninth in the country.

In his book, Cotton and Race in the Making of America, Gene Dattel writes, “In many ways, cotton had been the oil of the nineteenth century.”  Alabama did its part to see that this was the case, not only in the nineteenth century, but through at least the first half of the twentieth century.

But not without paying a price.

In 1949 the good citizens of Andalusia thought the factory whistle would blow until Gabriel blew his horn.  But it fell silent 20 years ago.  Today across Alabama, buildings where workers once breathed cotton dust and risked arms and hands, stand empty only to be visited by the occasional school boy hurling rocks to break out another window.  And low-slung buildings where sewing machines once whirred watch as kudzu creeps across empty parking lots.

Today there are 23 counties where unemployment is 14 percent or higher.  All are rural.

They had 19,000 textile jobs in 1950 and 334,300 acres of cotton.

For decades, the future was no farther than getting to the end of the next cotton row or putting the mule in the barn as sun set.  The children of sharecroppers were far more likely to hear the rasp of a cotton pick sack being dragged on sandy soil than the ringing of a school bell.

There is comfort in continuity, and change is threatening.  So for more than 100 years, rural Alabama planted cotton in the spring, chopped it in the summer and picked it by hand in the fall.

We did not diversify our economy—or our children’s opportunities by stressing to them the value of education.

The Alabama State Planning Commission published a booklet, “Industrial Opportunity in Alabama,” in December 1944, which stated: “At present Alabama possesses what may be termed low-grade industries; that is, industries which require considerable unskilled labor, and which pay low wages.”

The writer of this passage was astute because “unskilled” is simply a synonym for not well educated.  

Dr. James Cobb is the Spaulding Professor of History at the University of Georgia and has written extensively about the South’s effort to improve its economy.  Here’s how he describes what went on in rural areas for decades:

(W)e might take a quick glance at the places where, a half-century or more ago, local leaders had decided to mortgage their town’s social and institutional future by wooing footloose northern industries with promises of cheap labor, construction subsidies, tax exemptions and guarantees of protection from unions and higher wage competition.

These days, a great many—probably most—such communities have long since bade goodbye to their one-time industrial benefactors who skipped town in a hurry once they heard about the even warmer hospitality awaiting them in places like Honduras or Bangladesh.  In the wake of their departures, meanwhile, their former hosts are enjoying little success in bringing in new employers for relatively high-wage (by global standards) labor with only low-wage skills.  Such are the fruits of trying to achieve a developed economy at the expense of a developed society.

President Franklin Roosevelt described the South as “the nation’s number one economic problem” in 1938.  This statement was met with righteous indignation across the region.  After all, Atlanta newspaperman Henry Grady had proclaimed a “New South” 50 years earlier and Southern leaders had worked feverishly to make Grady’s dream a reality.

For the most part this meant we looked toward New England and chanted, “Cheap labor, cheap land, low taxes.”

In 1897 the state of Alabama passed a law exempting anyone who invested $50,000 in a textile mill from all state, county and municipal taxes for 10 years.  By 1900 we had 31 textile mills.  That same year the average annual wage of a male working in manufacturing in Alabama was $309, while his counterpart in Massachusetts made $527.

And in Elmore, Chambers and Talladega counties, more than 20 percent of the manufacturing labor force consisted of children.

Children who worked at a textile mill in Pell City, Alabama, in 1910.

As Wayne Flynt states in his book Alabama in the Twentieth Century, “Alabama became one of the four leading textile states.  But the sector of that industry that relocated to the South from New England was the least profitable, used the least skilled labor, and thrived on a family wage system that required women and children to work in order to provide families a bare living.”

Truth is most of Alabama never really fit the stereotype of an endless landscape of antebellum mansions, horse-drawn carriages and legions of docile servants. In 1860 only 1.3 percent of the state’s 50,064 farms had more than 1,000 acres, while 68 percent were less than 100 acres.  

My family was typical of the yeomen farmers spread across Alabama. My great-great-great grandfather, William Greenberry Lee, left Putnam County, Georgia, in 1823, traveled across the Indian territory of east Alabama and settled in south Butler County.  As daddy used to say, “He was poor when he left Georgia and when he got to Alabama, he stayed that way.”

One of Greenberry’s great-grandsons was daddy’s daddy who was one of Alabama’s 166,000 tenant farmers in 1930.

Larry Lee
Other southern states followed the same development strategy as Alabama. Here is a kudzu-covered factory, long abandoned, in South Carolina.
 Looking back now I realize when I was at Church Street School that our pride that our wages were lower than in Massachusetts was misplaced, and our strategy of giving incentives to out-of-state factories was a mistake. At the time, Alabama was only spending 56 percent per pupil of the national average to provide my schooling. The state was sowing the seeds of a crop that rural Alabama has been harvesting for the last four decades.

Daddy spent his time in World War II in the Azores Islands glued to a radar screen helping airplanes land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  He stayed in the Air Force, but hundreds of thousands of his comrades came home and made use of the G.I. Bill to go to college.  The rate of college enrollment in Alabama went up 92 percent from 1940 to 1950.

And as the first Baby Boomers finished high school, the rate of college enrollment jumped 100 percent from 1960 to 1970.

This is when our blind allegiance to the cotton culture began subtly to impact the future of rural Alabama in a way no one had ever considered.  It was as if we were the rat and put the cheese in our own trap.

(Read Part II in Larry Lee’s story of rural prosperity in the Daily Yonder next Friday.)

 

 

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