The Legacy of a Cotton Culture

[imgbelt img=with-grandpa528.jpg]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.


Lewis Hine

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.