The transformation of the Alabama cotton gin factory is haunted by the ghost of slavery

By JAY REEVES Associated Press

PRATTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — There’s no painless way to explain the history of a massive brick structure that was 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 black people helped make it the world’s largest manufacturer of cotton gins, an innovation that increased the demand for many more enslaved people to pick cotton that was quickly used in much larger quantities than could ever be processed before, historians say.

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

But as the nation debates how history should be taught, the multimillion-dollar project also demonstrates the difficulty of telling a place’s complicated story in a way that both honors the past and doesn’t invoke hacks about “waking up” in a very conservative community. .

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The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808 and slavery was in decline before Eli Whitney invented the labour-saving gin to separate white cotton fibers from seeds. The demand for unpaid labor skyrocketed and thousands of people were sold to plantations, where the gins made cotton farming more profitable than ever.

Prattville’s namesake, Daniel Pratt, became Alabama’s first major industrialist against this background. He moved south from New Hampshire and a few years later started a business producing gins.

Pratt designed his company town about 15 miles northwest of the Capitol to resemble the New England communities of his past. With a physical layout befitting an ethos based on labor, education, and faith, he had workers build a church, schools, and shops near the factory. His tomb rests atop 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: A Northern Industrialist and a Southern Town,” a definitive history written by Curt John Evans.

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

Pratt aimed to teach poor, white Southerners the value of manual labor, which was generally regarded as the work of enslaved black people before the South industrialized, and most of the factory’s workforce was in the s 1850 blank. But as production fell, Pratt changed supervisors and bought skilled slaves to do the vital work that whites wouldn’t do. Evans wrote that in 1860 Pratt owned 107 enslaved people. During the Civil War, he equipped an entire Confederate cavalry unit and was elected to the Alabama breakaway legislature.

Much of that 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 only snippets of the story—and nothing about slavery—are mentioned on the new development’s website, and the factory’s ties to slavery are rarely discussed in the town, which is about 75% white and tends to be Republican. to vote.

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Some people in Prattville have complained about the name – The Mill at Prattville – saying it was a factory, not a mill. Others argue that turning it into apartments is almost demeaning to its history as the leading maker of cotton gins.

The history of racial oppression is harder to deal with than anything else.

Bill Gillespie Jr., 64, is both a lifelong resident of Prattville and the mayor, but it took a Discovery Television show that aired a few years ago called “Mysteries of the Abandoned” to unravel the link between the gin factory and Understanding Slavery, which the show made up using video of the abandoned plant.

“Until I saw that, I hadn’t even made that connection,” 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 subject has not been discussed over the years. much openly discussed.

“I think people still don’t like to talk about it,” she said. “People get tense and tense when they talk about it.”

Across a bridge from the buildings where workers now install walls and plumbing, the Prattaugan Museum—named after a combination of “Prattville” and the name of the county, Autauga—contains much information about Pratt, the buildings, and gin production. But it focuses less on the common people, both 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 accolades, but credit is also due to the enslaved people and other workers who were the backbone of its business empire, and the factory’s importance to America’s bloody fracture during the Civil War should be more widely known.

“More than one historian has stated that had it not been for the cotton gin, slavery would have died out. Coincidentally, they needed more people to work the cotton. So what did they do? They have more slaves,” she said. “A lot of people say (nowadays), ‘It wasn’t me, it was my ancestors.’ But that’s what happened.”

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Gov. Kay Ivey campaigned for reelection in a nine-candidate Republican primary that pushed her to the right this year, making clear where she stands when it comes to adding a new context about race and history to education.

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

Ivey’s re-election with nearly 67% of the vote suggests how difficult it might be to include slavery in a fuller account of the history of buildings where a three-bedroom unit can be rented for $2,140 a month. Residents will likely be Montgomery state and federal workers, and if the area’s demographics are any guide, most will be white.

Despite a troubled history, including the birthplace of the Confederacy, white supremacist rule, Ku Klux Klan bombings, and the election of segregationist Governor George C. Wallace to four terms, 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, a senior vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Some old plantations are open for tours and events, but do little to acknowledge the enslaved people who live and work there.

Combined with Alabama’s civil rights sites and the National Lynch Memorial in nearby Montgomery, this project could accomplish something unique by embracing a broader view, Leggs said: “This development team and community have an opportunity to innovate and set new examples for the rest of the nation.”

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

The developers of the project at Envolve Communities LLC plan to show some historical documents, photos and perhaps furniture from the factory’s past, but it’s unclear if they’ll address slavery or race, said Ashley Stoddart, community manager for The Mill in Pratville.

Stoddart, a Prattville resident whose grandmother once worked at the factory, said the focus so far has been on saving the structure, which closed for good in 2012 after its last owner outsourced work to India. “Animals lived in it and trees grew out of the roof,” she said.

Robert Lee Robinson, the husband of Deborah Robinson, who is black and once worked at the factory, hopes residents will have the opportunity to learn more about the man who founded the town and had the slaves who worked there.

“They always talk about Daniel Pratt and what he’s achieved, but how did he achieve that? Whose back did he do that on? Whose shoulders did he stand on?” Robinson said.

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Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

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