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Disability in the family? New questions about the Southern Mill village.

While social historians, as Peter Stearns asserts, "mean to leave nothing out" in their retelling of the past, few have included disability issues as an integral part of their thinking and writing. (1) Rereading classic social history texts can help historians explore the potential value of including questions about disability experiences in their work. The Federal Writers' Project's, These Are Our Lives (1939), a product of the New Deal's WPA arts projects, and Jacquelyn Hall, et al's., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Canon Mill World (1987) are widely acclaimed examples of the use of oral history in studying ordinary southerners in the late 19th and early 20th century. (2) Despite the almost half-a-century that separates the two works, some similar issues and categories dominate the conceptualization of the topics both books address. Neither the FWP, nor Jacquelyn Hall and her colleagues, could imagine disability as an important aspect of life in the past, a subject worthy of extended historical inv estigation. Nevertheless, material on disability relevant to the understanding of southern textile mill workers and to the construction of disability history is included not only in both studies, but also in the numerous oral history interviews on which both books are based. (3)

In dealing with textile workers, both the FWP interviewers and the interviewers for the Like A Family study were concerned with the transformation from a rural agrarian to an industrial mill village way of life, with the quality of life in the mill village, and with employee/employer relations. Both studies celebrated the democratic populist possibilities of oral history. W. T. Couch, the director of the FWP's southern life history project, talked about how "all the people, must be known ... must be heard... must be given voice and allowed to speak," while the scholars that produced Like a Family emphasized sharing interpretive authority. (4) In neither case, did the interviewers imagine that all the people included disabled people, with disability seen as integral to identity. Perhaps most of the interviewees did not see themselves in those terms either. Nevertheless, disability is an important topic in many of these interviews.

Keeping disability issues in mind, new questions and different ways of thinking about the cotton mill villages become apparent. During both interview projects, the narrators made references to disability related experiences, and some of the information about these experiences are revealed in both These Are Our Lives and Like a Family. However, in both cases no effort was made to explore the meaning of the disability stories in the context of the lives of textile mill workers or in relationship to the traditional historiographic issues surrounding textile workers.

Although disability experiences are included in the personal narratives of mill workers, social historians have not discovered how to use these stories in their analysis of the past. And this is surprising when one considers that textile workers, mill owners, and students of the subject all agree that a strong sense of family, community sharing, and reciprocal care were central characteristics of mill village life. It is time for historians to begin to consider how examining disability in the family can contribute to a greater understanding of the southern mill village. The purpose of this paper is to suggest some ways of using disability stories in order to enrich our understanding of textile mill history, while also helping to establish the foundation for a new field of historical inquiry, disability history.

One should not overstate the historiographical continuity between the FWP southern life history program that led to the publication of These Are Our Lives and the University of North Carolina Southern Oral History Program's Piedmont Social History Project that led to the publication of Like A Family. As the authors of Like A Family, put it, they have been influenced "by the questions and tools of [their] own academic generation." (5) The changing discourse about southern textile workers that these two projects addressed accounts for differences in interpretive strategy, in cultural politics, in dominant metaphors, and in interviewing techniques in each collection of interviews. In neither case, however, is disability regarded as an important category of historical concern. The FWP approach suggests little that is helpful toward conceptualizing disability as part of the history of textile work. Although Like A Family also ignores disability issues, the interpretive framework developed by the authors of that st udy suggests many ways in which an examination of disability among textile workers might have been used to illuminate or test their assumptions about the significance of the family metaphor in the mill village world and the nature of an ethos of mutuality and reciprocal obligation that they think was central to the history of mill workers. Paradoxically, a sampling of the interviews done for these two projects indicates that the Piedmont Social History Project has less to offer regarding disability than do the FWP interviews.

From a review of both projects, historians can learn ways to enable disabled individuals to talk about their lives and ways to historicize disability, to treat disability as a socially constructed condition that can change over time and not simply as a medical condition, a fixed natural fact that has no history. (6) In the process of constructing disability history, historians will derive not only a deeper understanding of the history of textile workers, but also of many topics of recent historical concern.

By 1938, when the FWP commenced its work, writings about the southern textile industry had been following well-defined grooves for some time. Couch saw personal testimony as a way to overturn stereotypical discussions of mill workers that then dominated public discourse. In the 1930s arguments about the character and culture of mill workers, although already old, were still part of a contemporary political discourse about an industry where labor strife was rampant. Couch thought the southern life history project interviews with textile workers, tenant farmers, and other ordinary southerners could influence current events. Questions about industrial working conditions, mill village life, the alleged beneficence or greed of mill management, and the alleged passivity or militant class consciousness of textile workers were still being hotly debated in the 1930s. (7)

Couch wanted to give ordinary southerners an opportunity to participate in longstanding discussions about the nature of southern poverty and the southern poor. Images of poor-whites have been a staple of American culture from William Byrd's colonial description of "Lubberland" to Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and beyond. The debate has been over the character of the subject, and the terms are only vaguely sociological. Character is ascribed to the poor, in this case textile workers, either on the basis of a hasty and condescending impressionism or simply on what has been gleaned from other books. Southern mill workers, one scholar had insisted, behaved docilely because they came from an agrarian background. Another had claimed they were fiercely independent for the same reason. A reformer had contended that diversified farming would make for a less boring lifestyle than cotton culture and thus eliminate behaviors he found repugnant. Much of this Couch hoped to push aside. (8)

In his desire to refute the widespread negative view of the character of textile workers, Couch stressed the significance of interviews with poor hard working southerners coping with an unjust social order not of their own making. Reviews of These Are Our Lives indicate Couch had succeeded in putting together a volume of life histories that convincingly illustrated this point. (9) At the same time, Couch's emphasis on individuals of strong character trying to do their best in trying circumstances allowed little room for examining the role of culture and community in the lives of southern textile workers. (10) One might assume that this approach would have silenced a discussion of disability among textile workers. That, however, proved not to be the case.

Numerous textile workers and tenant farmers interviewed by the FWP discussed the importance of disability in their lives and in that of their families. It is probably not possible to arrive at any meaningful statistics from these interviews. While it would be important to have data that gave some quantitative sense of the numbers of various types of disabilities found among mill workers and their families, and of the percentage of families coping with disability, that information will have to come from material other than the FWP interviews. The FWP interviews, however, are important sources about the qualitative, if not quantitative, aspects of disability history. They provide information about underlying ideological and cultural attitudes regarding disability as it affected southern textile workers in the early twentieth century. Individual narratives reveal deeply held, and perhaps regionally pervasive, assumptions about disability. Close readings of these narratives provide a key to both the practical imp lications of disability in the lives of individual textile workers, their families, and their community and the socially constructed dimension of the disability experience in the world of the textile worker.

Textile workers drew connections between disability and the development of the textile mills, disability and the treatment of individual textile workers, individual disability and the decisions families had to make, and the search for both individual and collective ways of coping with disability. Textile worker Joseph Michaels recalls evidence suggesting that mills recruited not only tenant farm families headed by widows, but perhaps also those with disabled family members: Long hours and low wages made it hard for mills to get hands, and to keep them. Most mills had labor agents, they called them, slave dealers would have suited better, and these labor agents traveled through the surrounding country searching for tenant families that were in hard luck. If a bad crop year had caught them, or if death or sickness had struck. (11)

Michaels puts more emphasis on widows than on sickness and death, but he nevertheless points to the possibility of families moving to the mills because of the disabilities of individual, probably male, family members. This possibility has received very little attention in the literature about the mill village, although Holland Thompson raised the subject in his 1906 study, From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill: A Study of the Industrial Transition in North Carolina. Despite the fact that Thompson asserts that his unsubstantiated middle class prejudices are patent facts, the thoughtful reader will find much that is useful in the writing of an historian who was also an eyewitness to the early development of the mill village. Thompson included the disabled among the five classes that he argued were moving to the mills. He was not altogether certain that the disabled who moved to the mills were not malingering: "those suffering from some physical disability, real or imaginary. They are, or fancy they are, inca pacitated for the hard work of the farm and the necessary exposure to the weather." Thompson approved of "the honest man ambitious for his children," who moved to the mills. He ignored the gross structural inequities in the tenant farm system and wrote patronizingly about "the incapable or the shiftless, the man who lacks the mental qualifications necessary for success in an independent capacity." He thought the mills offered widows "the only refuge." (12)

It is clear that Thompson gives highest status to ambitious men (that is, men having ambitions that reflect Thompson's values), treats women as helpless victims, views failed farmers with contempt, and questions the honesty of the disabled. To what extent mill management, and perhaps, even mill workers shared Thompson's value system has yet to be adequately studied. Thompson's social prejudices and individual initiative/hard work value system are not hard to decipher. The status of the disabled, in his view, is either ambiguous or closer to that of the shiftless and incompetent than to that of the ambitious. Where Michaels uses slavery as a metaphor for exploitation, Thompson sees mill owners offering workers opportunity and refuge. From Thompson's time to ours any relationship between the movement of rural southerners to the mill village and the phenomenon of disability has received little analysis. The authors of Like A Family broach, but never actually examine the topic in their study. Renewed attention to the testimony of the textile workers who talked to FWP interviewers might help historians rethink the movement to the mill village. (13)

Textile workers had no doubt that employment in the mills could lead to disability and that having a disability could affect their employment opportunities in the mills, although they may have rejected being identified as disabled. When Edwin Massengill interviewed Ed Rutledge in Burlington, North Carolina in 1939, he foreshadowed a theme of the interview in the contextualizing remarks he offered at the beginning of Rutledge's story: "a, well-dressed, bespectacled young fellow, was standing on a street corner when I asked him for a history of his life." Rutledge's decision to seek employment in a knitting mill had been a turning point in his life. He took some evident pride in recounting the skills required of a good knitter: "its not so easy as it looks. For one thing, it is hard on the eyes; for another it's exacting." Knitting, according to Rutledge, not only required good eyes, but also damaged them--it produced disability. The industry favored the young: "They prefer young fellows under twenty, just out of high school. I imagine a knitter would have to have very good eyes to last ten years." (14)

The mills did little, if anything, Rutledge revealed, to prevent producing "bespectacled young men" and worse disabilities: "If a man had daylight to work under it wouldn't be so bad, but that can't always be. Most of the mills around here run three shifts, and some are naturally dark and require artificial light even at midday." Nevertheless, Rutledge is happy to be employed in what he sees as a high paying job in a thriving industry. (15) How did Rutledge balance what he describes as almost inevitable disability against the pay offered and the limited opportunities he saw in the world around him? Were job related disabilities accepted as an unavoidable fact of the textile worker's life? Could textile workers imagine challenging management on this point? The FWP interviewer never explored these questions. It is time that historians did. In doing so they will learn more about mill workers and about the socially constructed cultural dimensions of disability.

In the FWP interviews, mill workers testify that individual disabilities affected whole families and required family decisions and strategies to cope with the situation of a disabled family member. How common were decisions like that made by one man who decided to move to a mill in Asheville, North Carolina because "the doctors advised a mountain climate for [his wife] Evelyn"? (16) To what extent did the move from farm to mill reflect and aid in the spreading influence of the medical establishment and a declining reliance on traditional home remedies? Stories, like this one, should lead historians to address questions that had not previously occurred to them.

The impact of a disability could affect gender roles and the division of labor in a family. It also changed the family's relationship to the mill village community and the textile company's managers. The reaction of a family to an individual family member's disability can also highlight religious values. John Morland in his study The Millways of Kent argued that millworkers were adaptable, but also had low expectations of life, and often took a passive and fatalistic view of their situation. Morland barely mentioned disability. An examination of disability in the family could provide a way of examining his thesis. When are adaptability, resourcefulness, and low expectations fatalism and when are they actively creative responses to a sound assessment of reality? (17)

Lucy Pace explained to FWP interviewer Robert O. King what it had been like for her to have been, what King termed, "the sole breadwinner of her family for the past six years." Her husband's "throat ailment" had become "so bad he had to quit work." The doctors, Pace explains "don't seem to know what's the matter with him." The history of the family's welfare is clearly divided into the period of before and after, her husband's health deteriorated: "My first child, Dorothy, was born in 1917, and of course I had to quit work and take care of her. Otho [her husband] was in good health and he never lost a day for anything in those days." Throughout the interview, Pace and King describe without questioning the impact of disability on gender roles that they take for granted as natural facts in their culture. (18)

Compounding the Pace family's problems were the two strokes Otho's stepfather had. "We have to take care of him," Lucy Pace observed, "but we don't mind because he is a good man and has always been good to us." In this case, a sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity extends to a disabled family member even in hard times. Nor are the Pace's lacking in resourcefulness in managing the family economy: "[Otho's stepfather] makes us a little garden and we get right many vegetables from it, which helps out a whole lot." (19)

Communal networks of mutual aid also helped the Pace's, as they did numerous other mill families: "When Otho was in the hospital, I got $7.00 in cash and some groceries from the church. They're always doing something for the children." Nevertheless, neither a garden or a church "pounding" can provide any safety net for the Pace's: "The Lord has certainly blessed me with good health. I have never been sick to amount to anything in my life. I never had a doctor except during childbirth. I simply could not afford to get sick now. What would become of my family?" It takes remarkably little to make Lucy Pace feel grateful. She also finds tangible benefits in mill owner paternalism: "I ain't got nothing against the owners of the mill. They have been mighty good to me. They've cur off a lot of workers, but they always let me work. They know I'm the only one in my house able to work and if I ain't working we'll go hungry." (20) Compassionate paternalism? The issues raised by the Pace family story are in key aspects f amiliar ones in mill village historiography. What has not been explored is the way taking into account disability as a topic of historical inquiry might illuminate answers to these issues.

Some disabled members of the mill village community chose to identify themselves as disabled. A disabled individual like Ollie Farrington could see an interview as an opportunity for a disabled person to speak to other disabled individuals. Farrington, who has a sense of the relationship between class, disability, and gender, refers to herself as "a poor crippled woman." Disability and poverty are forces that helped shape her circumstances and identity: "You know we have always been poor. I never got to go to school none hardly." While at the beginning of the paragraph in which she makes this statement it seems that poverty explains her lack of education, it is also true that by the end of the paragraph that is no longer her point: "I went to about the fourth grade, but I have learned a lot just by reading good books. You know a person can learn a lot just by listening and watching other people. I have always been a cripple and couldn't get out and mingle with other folks, but I could watch the ones that come here and learn a lot from them." The idea that a "crippled" person cannot "mingle with other folks" was unquestioningly accepted by both the interviewer and the interviewee. At the close of her interview Farrington seizes the opportunity to address other disabled individuals: "Now that is my story. A person can't tell anything like they want to when they are asked to tell it, but I am hoping it will help somebody else that is crippled to make a new start in life and be able to carry on." (21)

Disabled mill workers interviewed by the FWP describe having to face choices between individual and collective strategies for coping with and trying to change their circumstances, as did other mill workers. Ollie Farrington struggled to reconcile faith in traditional religious values with faith in modern medicine. She arrived at a position that she found satisfying. She was, however, unable to reconcile traditional emphasis on individual effort and salvation with collective action. Her description of her disability and her work situation are rich and informative: "When I was born my ankles were weak and I was three years old before I ever walked a step--then I would take a few steps and fall down. I have gone through my whole life with weak ankles." In practical terms, that meant: "I used to work fifty five hours a week and when Sunday come I would just sit in one place almost all Sunday trying to get some relief [sic] so I could go back to work Monday refreshed. Papa won't making much...." (22)

Ollie Farrington's narrative of seeking medical help weaves together a traditional reliance on prayer with a respect for the expertise of the professional health care system in a way that incorporates the latter system into the older religious framework. Mill workers, like Farrington, asked in Christian terms the great theological questions that have stirred all human beings from time immemorial: "I have always tried to live the christian [sic] life, and I decided that maybe I was suffering so much because I had not lived the life that He wanted me to live." (23)

In the course of telling her story, Farrington provides an explanation--perhaps a retrospective and stylized personal experience narrative that has been told and retold on numerous previous occasions--of how she acquired the braces that improved her mobility and stamina. In times of excruciating pain, Farrington contemplated how "I would be a lot better off if I could just die and get out of it." She, however, rejected that as "the coward's way out of a thing." She recalled an occasion when her father wanted to call a doctor to give her a pain killer. She asked her father to wait, while she prayed about which doctor to see: "I lay there in bed and prayed as I never prayed before, and I was led to this part of scripture, 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.' The days of miracles are not past. I prayed with all my might and at the same time believed he would hear me, and He led me to Dr. Green." She did not reject traditional religious strategies, such as prayer, for a new faith in medical au thority. Instead, she found a way to make the appearance of Dr. Green an answer to her prayers, and in her view, Cod's choice. A skeptic might see her as the author of both her prayers and her revelation experience. What is impressive here, however, is not a conversion experience, although in that time and place that is the script that is already present for Farrington, but the syncretic direction in which she takes the promise of salvation through conversion and health restored through medical treatment. (24)

Historians have studied the attitude of middle class professionals toward mill workers. Less analyzed are the reactions of mill workers to the new class of professional experts that they came into contact with through their mill village experience. Historian David Carlton has written perceptively about the mill workers' resistance to the medical experts and other middle class professionals. Southern laborers found many middle class experts patronizing and ready to use classificatory schemes to assign them degrading labels. On the other hand, the move to the mill involved a decision, more or less conscious, to enter a world of middle class experts and routines. (25) By making Dr. Green an answer to her prayers, Farrington participates in choosing her doctor and making him an agent of God, not an imperial scientist with his own specialist claims to truth. Thus, perhaps this experience makes it possible for Farrington to be able to speak back to medical authority, despite her gratitude for the braces: "At first he told me I would have to quit the mill, but I explained to him that it would be impossible because Papa wont making much money and we owed so much money." (26)

Farrington participated in the collective attempts of mill workers at her Charlotte, North Carolina, mill to gain some leverage in dealing with management. She initially was enthusiastic about union organizing efforts: "I felt then like I would never go back to work until we had won our point." A shortage of groceries and a pile of unpaid bills eventually led her to cross the picket lines and return to work. This is a story of defeat and of Farrington's defending her own role in participating in that defeat. She found herself back at work in a factory run by an uncontested management eager to raise productivity through what textile workers like Farrington called the "stretch-out" and defined as "make one do the work of two." Farrington's criticism of mill management is made in the context of defeat: "I still think its [sic] a shame to work a poor crippled women like that, but there is nothing I can do about it" (emphasis added). (27)

At the end of the interview, Farrington outlines a religious strategy and individualistic tactics for coping with a world where collective solutions have failed. Prayer she believes will make her well. That plus individual effort, she trusts, will allow her a victory denied to unions: "God has been so good to me and I am sure He will be to any body else if they will only put their trust in Him." Learning to take dictation, a fairly sedentary and traditionally female job, is all the upward mobility "a poor crippled women" living in a nonunionized textile mill can realistically imagine. God's goodness and night school she hopes will be her ticket out of a mill world in which the collective solutions offered by the union movement were crushed. Attention to the disabled provides another avenue into the central issues about mill workers that have dominated the historiography--new variations on old themes. (25)

By the time the University of North Carolina's Southern Oral History Program began its Piedmont Social History Project in the late seventies, the southern textile mills had become a less significant part of contemporary debate about the future of the American working class and its southern component than it had been in the 1930s. True, periodic labor conflict persisted in the southern textile industry. It was also true that southern labor historians saw the history of textile workers as a way to understand the outlook of the southern working class of their day. For southern labor historians with leftist political commitments, their research was also a contribution to contemporary politics. The scholarly discourse among these historians did not overlap with a public discourse of compelling concern except in some instances of labor conflict in the South and among some retired textile mill workers.

The authors of Like A Family perceived the limitations in the old debates about textile workers and they sought to make social and cultural history central to their work. The theoretical framework Couch and the FWP brought to the history of the mill workers had permitted only limited insights into the culture of the mill village and none into questions pertaining to disability. "The mix of boosterism and muckraking," Jacquelyn Hall and her colleagues pointed out, has "cast a long [historiographic] shadow." "Discussion," they argued, "seemed stalled, circling around questions of southern distinctiveness," such as, "Were southern mill owners uniquely paternalistic? Were southern millhands docile or individualistic, or some special blend of the two?" They wanted "to shift the focus from whether to how" by asking questions, such as, "How were attitudes toward authority reflected in everyday life?" and "How did milihands see themselves and their world?" (29)

Jacquelyn Hall and her colleagues also sought to extend the family metaphor long associated with the historiography about southern textile mill workers beyond questions about paternalism: "as we pondered mill workers' stories, we realized that they were not using this imagery to describe their dependence on a fatherly authority so much as they were explaining their relationship to one another." That "family and community" were "arenas of conflict as well as reciprocity, able to exclude and repress as well as sustain" was their central insight. That insight enabled them to explore a strong sense of community without overemphasizing consensus, without ignoring class conflict, and without failing to look at gender roles. It did not keep them from virtually ignoring disability. Family and community conceptualized as social arenas made it possible for these historians to examine how changing cultural values became institutionalized over time and to portray the personal and social turmoil centering around competing cultural values. Their approach offered, and can still offer, significant possibilities for integrating disability and labor history in an analysis of the cotton mill village that can illuminate both topics and call attention to the need for disability history. Hall and her colleagues, however, did not recognize and use the opportunities inherent in their approach to study disability in the mill village family and community either in the book they wrote or in the interviews they conducted. (30)

In numerous places in Like A Family it is possible to imagine how the discussion might have been expanded to include disability in a way that would also have deepened understanding of the history of the cotton mill world. Would not attention to how mill workers and mill management responded to disability in the family and mill community illuminate the depth of their feelings of obligation and neighborliness, their commitment to reciprocity and exchange? If women and children can become subjects in the history of the southern cotton mill world, why not the disabled as well?

In Like A Family there are vague references to illness activating networks of interdependence, but does that reveal what happened with either chronic illnesses, or healthy but permanently disabled individuals? (31) We learn that Betty Davidson as the oldest girl in a family of twelve had so many chores to do, she often did them with a baby on her hip. Davidson thought that doing this "during a 'growing stage' ... made one side of her body lower than the other." And that is all we learn. What was Betty Davidson's perspective on her disability? Were the disabled stigmatized as were cotton mill workers, who were referred to by whites outside the mill as "lintheads?" (32)

If, as the authors of Like A Family argue, "the hierarchy of mill wages reflected cultural assumptions about men, women, and children and the value of their labor," where do disabled workers fit into this hierarchy? (33) If exploring the existence of gender-specific jobs in the textile mill is essential to understanding the family and community dynamics of the southern cotton mill world, would that not also be the case regarding jobs reserved for individuals with minor disabilities? The FWP southern life histories provide evidence that on occasion some mill jobs were seen as appropriate work for individuals with minor disabilities, as in the case of a mill elevator operator "with a game leg." They also provide evidence that mill management paternalism toward the disabled was no more likely to survive economic pressures, than it was toward other workers. An interviewee, referred to only as "Old Man Dobbin," recalled how after being hit by a car left him disabled, the company "give me an elevator job in the mil l, but awhile back when they took a spell of stretchin' the stretchout they cut out my job and divided the elevator runnin' amongst the four ropin' haulers." The sweeping, hauling, and cleaning job he was then given was more than he could manage: "I went to my bossman and asked him if they wasn't some lighter job he could put me on for maybe lower pay. And he answered me, 'You've got as light a job as they are in the mill.'" "Old Man Dobbin" concluded that the mill had had no intention of keeping him as an employee and was forcing him to quit: "When you get to disabled to do hard work they want to get rid of you and they know how." (34)

Like A Family provides a thoughtful discussion of company welfare work that probes deeper than previous examinations of this controversial topic, but it does not have anything to say about company welfare programs and disability. Perhaps company sponsored welfare work was conceptualized in terms of the able-bodied. August Kohn, who was close to mill management, reflects this point of view in The Cotton Mills of South Carolina (1907). Note his definition of the purpose of mill village health care: "there are quite a number of cotton mills that have employed at the expense of the corporation, trained nurses, whose business it is to attend those who happen to be sick in the mill community, and get them well as soon as possible." His praise of mill management acting out of enlightened self-interest has nothing to offer workers or their family members who are or become permanently disabled: "The humanitarian idea of employing trained nurses is not unmixed with commercialism, because the sooner the help is gotten b ack to work the better for the cotton mill.... The cotton mill superintendents are solicitous for the health of their help, if for no other than commercial reasons." (35) What expectations did mill workers and management have regarding disability? It is time that historians try to answer that question.

Historians have not really been able to ask questions about disability, let alone answer them. In the interviews done for Like A Family, the interviewees occasionally try to talk about disability but receive little or no help from the interviewer. In an interview with Betty Davidson, the interviewer for the Piedmont Social History Project asked Davidson important questions about her body being lower on one side than the other:

AT: Did you notice at that time that it was having an effect on you?

Davidson: No. My mother didn't either.

AT: When was the first time somebody pointed it out?

Davidson: I guess it was when I went to work. At public work. Noticed one shoulder was lower than the other.

AT: And that's when you figured out that's why....

Davidson: Yes. My mother said that's why it was.

AT: Have you ever known any other people like that?

Davidson: No.

[Pause] (36)

As in so many other areas, the transition to what rural southerners called "public work"--any work that took them off the farm--appears crucial. The agricultural work place had been private and familial. All aspects of private life, including disability, took on new meanings in the context of "public work." Davidson's interviewer was pursuing significant issues about disability and asking relevant follow-up questions. Why did he stop so soon? Would he have stopped if the discussion had been about how a mill child discovered people outside the mill called her a "linthead?" Does a sense of intruding on an individual's privacy inhibit oral historians' ability to ask about disability? Clearly, there is nothing to be gained by encouraging historians to be insensitive. Yet, historians have learned to ask questions about gender roles, race relations, sexual behavior, family violence, and a host of other issues that have traditionally been regarded as private matters. If disability remains an area that interviewers s hy away from, it is not simply because it is a part of private life, but because it is a part of private life that most social historians have not yet treated as having a history connected to activities in the public sphere.

In another interview done for the Like A Family project, Carl Thompson mentioned that he had injured two fingers and lost one finger in work related accidents. Thompson also told the story of how his father got his hand "torn up" as a nine year old boy. The interviewer did not ask one question about what those experiences had meant to Thompson or his father. Later in the interview, Thompson described how a supervisor tried to get him to work in the "card room," but he was so afraid of working with the machinery there because of all the injuries he had witnessed that he ended up quitting. He remembered one man who was instantly killed in the card room and he referred to other smaller injuries as if they may have happened often enough to have been taken for granted. The interviewer never asked what happened to the workers that survived these injuries, either in terms of immediate help or in the long run; whether they could continue working or not; whether they received help from the mill or the community. Too o ften mention of disability elicits few follow-up questions from the interviewer, who instead switches to questions about other important topics, such as mill village folk culture. These interviewers could not, however, imagine how disability could have been treated as part of mill village folk culture. It was not possible for them to imagine disability in relationship to folk culture and folklife. (37)

From examinations of monographs, oral history interviews, and various conversations with historians of the southern textile mill industry, we have come to believe that most students of this industry have found references to disability in the course of their work; but, because questions about disability have not been issues in the historiography on the textile industry and southern industrialization this material has not been explored. The way historical inquiry is conceptualized constructs histories that not only include, but also exclude, various topics.

The FWP interviewers were not any better at asking questions about disability than the interviewers who worked for the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. At the same time, the FWP interviewers had little sense of the historiography of the southern mill world. They had a set of questions designed to let southern mill workers speak about their lives and prove that they were decent hard working people. It is interesting how often, when people are allowed to talk about their lives, their families, and their communities, they mention disability. The interviewers for the Southern Oral History Program had a much more sophisticated sense of the historiographical issues than the FWP interviewers did. This made for rich interviews; however, it also worked against discussion of disability. Discussions of disability in these interviews are cut short, as the interviewer seeks to return to issues that are part of what the interviewer conceives of as the historiography of the southern mill wo rld. Interviewers for the Southern Oral History Program solicited materials from interviewees about gender and folk culture that allow the authors of Like A Family to offer new insights into old issues. But as this paper argues, and the analysis above of the FWP interviews shows, disability could have been integrated into the framework of Like A Family. The FWP has given us much material about disability in the mill world. The authors of Like A Family have, without intending too, provided a framework for asking analytical questions about this material.

When the FWP interviewed southern textile workers there was no disability rights movement in the United States. Forty years later when the Southern Oral History Program undertook its interview project, there was only a small, but growing push for rights. In another context, historian I. A. Newby has suggested "that sea changes in historical treatment of social groups occur only when basic improvements take place in the status of the groups themselves." (38) The continuing growth of a disability rights movement raises many questions about the history of disabled Americans and the cultural meanings of disability for both disabled and nondisabled citizens. The growth of disability studies reflects recent improvements in the political and social status of disabled people.

It is long past time to begin conceiving of disability as an important part of social history and to construct historical inquiry in general, and oral history interviews in particular, with disability issues in mind. It is time for historians to review the work they have done and the sources they have used, and to reconsider what they have lost by not including disability issues in their work. This involves revisiting many of the primary, written, and oral sources social historians have employed and discovering what historians have missed about what people have been saying concerning disability. It involves trying to explore disability with interviewees who indicate they want to discuss it, rather than hindering them because of the poverty of our historical imaginations. It is time to try to imagine disability as having a history. Don't we all know deep down that disability and able-bodiedness exist in a dialectical relationship that all of us have experienced, and that if we can explore the history of that e xperience we will understand both the past and ourselves better?


(1.) Peter Steams, "The New Social History: An Overview," in Ordinary People and Everyday Life: Perspectives on the New Social History, eds. James B. Gardner and George Rollie Adams (Nashville, 1983), 7.

(2.) FWP, These Are Our Lives, As Told By the People and Written by Members of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia (Chapel Hill, 1939); Jacquelyn Hall, et al., Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill, 1987). For an overview of the history of the Federal Writers' Project see: Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal, The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (Boston, 1972); Monty Penkower, The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts (Urbana, 1977), and Jerrold Hirsch, "Pottrait of America: The Federal Writers' Project in an Intellectual and Cultural Context" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1984).

(3.) The vast majority of FWP southern life histories are in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as are the interviews done for the Piedmont Social History Project by the UNC Southern Oral History Program. The FWP interviews are also available in a microfiche edition. See Jerrold Hirsch, ed., Federal Writers' Project Southern Life Histories Collection, Microfiche collection (Ann Arbor, 1983). Hereinafter FWP-UMI.

(4.) FWP, These Are Our Lives, x-xi, xiii-xiv.

(5.) Hall, Like A Family, xii.

(6.) That disability studies need to focus on the social construction of disability and that the medical model of disability is inadequate for this task is an emerging theme in the literature in this area. For an overview see, Karen Hirsch, "Culture and Disability: The Role of Oral History," Oral History Review 22(1995): 1-29.

(7.) For an overview of the history of Couch's southern life history project see Jerrold Hirsch and Tom Terrill, "Conceptualization and Implementation: Some Thoughts on Reading the Federal Writers' Project Southern Life Histories," Southern Studies, 18 (Fall 1979): 351-362.

(8.) Clare de Graffenried, "The Georgia Cracker in the Cotton Mills," Century, 19 (February 1891): 483-498; Lois McDonald, Southern Mill Hills: A Study of Social and Economic Forces in Certain Textile Mill Villages (New York, 1928), 144. Frank Tannenbaum, Darker Phases of the South (New York, 1924), 117. For an overview of the topic see Shields McIllwaine, The Southern Poor White: From Lubberland to Tobacco Road (Norman, Oklahoma, 1939) and Sylvia Jenkins Cook, From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction (Chapel Hill, 1976). For a recent review of historical writings on southern poor whites that demonstrates the persistence of these images, see I. A. Newby, Plain Folk in the New South: Social Change and Cultural Persistence, 1880-1915 (Baton Rouge, 1989), 1-19.

(9.) See for examples, "Voice of the People," Time 87 (May 1, 1939): 33; William Shands Meachum, "35 Southerners Tell Their Life Stories," New York Times, May 21, 1939; Robert Register, "Book Delves Into History of People," Greensboro Daily News, May 21, 1939. The University of North Carolina Press Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel, contain clippings of these and numerous other reviews of These Are Our Lives that appeared in state, regional, and national publications.

(10.) The strengths and limitations of Couch's approach are explored in Jerrold Hirsch, "Toward 'A Marriage of True Minds,': The Federal Writers' Project and the Writing of Southern History," in The Adaptable South: Essays in Honor of George Brown Tindall, eds., Elizabeth Jacoway, et al. (Baton Rouge, 1991), 160-166.

(11.) John H. Abner, "Three Bibles," interview with Joseph A. Michaels, white, mill worker, Mayfair Mill Village, Burlington, N. C., November 15, 1938, FWP-UMI, 3731. Hereinafter life histories from this collection are cited in the following format when all the information is available: name of interviewer, title, name of interviewee, place of interview, date of interview.

(12.) Holland Thompson, From The Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill: A Study of the Industrial Transition in North Carolina (New York, 1906), 115-116.

(13.) Ibid., 113-117.

(14.) Edwin Massengill, "The Knitter," interview with Ed Rutledge, Burlington, N. C., December 18, 1938, FWP-UMI, 3710, 3725, 3727.

(15.) Ibid., 3727.

(16.) Ida L. Moore, "The Hollifields," interview with Jed Hollifield and family, Factory Hill, Ashville, N. C., n. d., FWP:UMI, 13852.

(17.) John Kenneth Morland, Millways of Kent (Chapel Hill, 1964), 233-239.

(18.) Robert O. King, "The Pace Family," interview with Lucy Pace, Caraleigh Hill, Raleigh, N. C., November 8, 1938, FWP-UMI, 7754, 7757, 7756.

(19.) Ibid., 7757, 7760, 7758.

(20.) Ibid., 7760, 7758.

(21.) Mary P. Brown, untitled interview with Ollie Farrington, Charlotte, N. C., July 27, 1939, FWP-UMI, 4035, 4040-4041.

(22.) Ibid., 4034-4035.

(23.) Ibid., 4035.

(24.) Ibid., 4035-4036.

(25.) David Carlron, Mill and Town in South Carolina: 1880-1920 (Baton Rouge, 1982), 233-239.

(26.) Brown, untitled interview with Ollie Farrington, 4036.

(27.) Ibid., 4039.

(28.) Ibid., 4039-4040.

(29.) Hall, Like A Family, xvi-xvii.

(30.) Ibid., xvii.

(31.) Ibid., 21-22, 145-146, 150-152.

(32.) Hall, Like A Family, 16.

(33.) Ibid., 78.

(34.) Ida L. Moore, "Old Man Dobbin," full name of interviewee not given, White Oak Mill Village, Greensboro, N. C., n. d., FWP-UMI, 8903-8904.

(35.) August Kohn, The Cotton Mills of South Carolina (Columbia, S. C., 1907), 78.

(36.) Betty and Lloyd Davidson. Interview by Allen Tullos, 2 and 15 February, 1979. Piedmont Social History Project, Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

(37.) Carl and Mary Thompson. Interview by James Leloudis, 19 July, 1979, Piedmont Social History Project.

(38.) Newby, Plain Folk in the New South, 9.
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Author:Hirsch, Karen
Publication:Journal of Social History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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