When community comes home to roost: the southern milltown as Lost Cause.
But whose memory and which places will be preserved? In throwing open the historical record to voices 'from below' and further encouraging local communities to collect and write their own histories, publicly engaged social historians eventually encounter the tensions between heritage--particularly its current, popular counterpart, heritage tourism--and history. While the latter upholds a standard of distanced reflection and continual reinterpretation, the former aims for fixity and wholeness, evoking emotions of pride and sometimes even reverence. The "heritage syndrome," concludes Michael Kammen, "accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic" in the record of the past. (2) Nor is it a problem that can be easily whisked away. The problem of heritage may well be embedded in the very undertaking of community history. As cultural historian Raymond Williams discerned thirty years ago, among "all other terms of social organization, 'community' seems never to be used unfavorably, and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term." (3) As the most positive association that can exist within a social group, the construct of community is regularly invoked by historical agents and analysts alike. Indeed, historians who invoke community in the past--with the usual explicit or implicit complement of "erosion" of community in the present--open the door to today's heritage seekers to rescue what they can from the detritus of broken dreams. That such initiatives can veer off in a politically reactionary direction is reason enough to re-think what historian Thomas Bender, in another context, called "the problem of community." (4)
What follows is a bittersweet reflection upon my own encounter with a community history and heritage project. A labor historian who has regularly invoked the community concept, I was intrigued, in this case, by a southern town's use of local history as a tool for community revitalization. I cultivated contacts with the leaders of the project, as well as other townspeople, to gain a deeper understanding of the connections between historical memory, civic identity, and (present-day) political action. The more I delved into my investigation, however, the more complicated, and ultimately disturbing, were my findings. On the one hand, I witnessed an impressive harnessing of history to community identity--a narrative about working-class Americans, borne of exploitation and struggle--heightened by the use of oral history in the hands of local "organic intellectuals." On the other hand, "heritage" history here ultimately appeared less to do full justice to the known historical record than to confirm and disseminate certain conservative and exclusionary political values of the project organizers and main patrons. On both intellectual and political terms, the unhappy outcome, for me at least, forces a critical reckoning with the "will-to-community" within historical studies as well as contemporary affairs.
My contact with the Cooleemee Historical Association (CHA) began with a flattering encounter in the spring 1996. A two-day regional conference, entitled "Growing Up on the Mill Hill" and supported by the North Carolina Humanities Council, highlighted the "family and home life of textile people in those small Southern communities known as mill villages." (5) The founders and chief movers within the CHA, I soon learned, were Jim Rumley and his wife Lynn Wells Rumley, two buoyant and remarkable spirits who had harnessed a fascination with local history to a larger project of regional cultural revival. As a northern historian with no milltown roots of my own, I was taken by the warmth and generosity of my early encounters with the Rumleys. It began with Jim Rumley's double-take in first seeing me at the conference. "I thought you were dead," he exclaimed. It turned out that my published work on the Knights of Labor had earlier helped to clarify some of his own political and historical thinking. (6) Embracing the "community" both as a subject for historical study and an arena for civic renewal, the CHA initially beckoned to me as a laudable experiment in harnessing collective memory to contemporary use. Like the early History Workshop projects in the U.K., it appeared to qualify as an example of the "power of the past in building social movements." (7)
Newly arrived in Cooleemee in 1986, by the end of the decade, Jim and Lynn Wells Rumley had engaged their neighbors in what was to become a sustained attempt not only to establish a local textile museum but to make Cooleemee the center of an ambitious outreach project to former milltown residents and their extended families in the region. Indeed, the CHA quickly evolved into a "unique grass-roots organization," as Jim Rumley fairly calls it, an institution which, since 1989, had opened a mill village museum and archives at the Textile Heritage Center (staffed part-time by Lynn Rumley), organized annual Textile Heritage Festivals, created a documentary film, worked tirelessly to preserve historic mill houses and other aspects of local history and, in the process, enrolled some 1200 supporters. Moreover, while accepting academic input at events like the Mill Hill conference, the CHA determined to set its own course, allowing local people to write their own history, a process that would culminate in the CHA publication of Jim Rumley's Cooleemee: The Life and Times of a Mill Town (2001, 434pp.). As Rumley told a reporter in 1996, "Cotton mill people have a right to participate in interpreting their own experience." (8)
Although outside the precincts of academic high culture, the Rumleys' project has not gone unnoticed. In recognition of their efforts, then-Governor James B. Hunt commended the couple in 1997 with a certificate for "outstanding service to the State of North Carolina." (9) In addition, the North Carolina Society of Historians named Jim Rumley its 2002 "North Carolina Historian of the Year" and specifically praised the author for his determination to become a scholar despite a lack of formal education. (10) In 2004, the CHA received the Albert Ray Newsome Award for "general excellence" from the Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies. (11) With self-deprecating wit, Jim Rumley accounts for his initial connection to the CHA project: "I would like to say I am a textile worker, but I can't [his textile-working stepfather warned him against it] ... I would like to say that somewhere in my wanderings I moved to a mill town and tried to better understand the textile experience, but I didn't [he did not 'discover' Cooleemee until 1986] ... I would like to say we immediately got down to work ... but we didn't [not until he and Lynn came across an old film with local coverage did the history project occur to them]." (12)
But there is also another, less coincidental version of how and why Jim and Lynn Wells Rumley entered into the practice of community history. This is the story of two long-time activists in labor and civil rights causes, who, after experiencing years of frustration, defeat, and personal alienation--'came home' to an adopted southern white working-class identity.
Jim Rumley was born and raised in the tiny tidewater community of Pungo, North Carolina before his parents moved to Greensboro when he was eight. Dirt-poor, he first lived in a home without indoor plumbing, and he, reportedly, once received a cut-out picture of an airplane as his only Christmas present. (13) Rumley entered the Kaiser-Roth Hosiery Mill in Greensboro as a hosiery knitter following military service in 1962. Fired and then blacklisted for union activity, Jim served as textile union organizer in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama from 1963 to 1968. Following disastrous efforts at Greensboro's Cone Mills plant and at High Point in 1967-1968, after which he and others lost their staff jobs, Jim gravitated to left-wing politics. (14) Rumley's political journey included a stop as organizer for the United Electrical Workers (UE), a union with strong Communist Party ties. (15) By the early 1970s, however, he surfaced in Charlotte, N.C., as a local leader--and candidate for mayor in 1973--of Lyndon LaRouche's National Caucus of Labor Committees, an ideologically volatile "new left" organization, which, in the mid-1970s (by which time Rumley may have left the organization) mutated into an aggressively conservative operation with neo-fascist ties. (16) By the time I met him, Jim's experience had left him equally disillusioned with the collective bargaining ends of conventional trade unionism and the socialist romance of workplace-centered solidarity. Working as a security guard at an area country club, he still sought to connect to ordinary working people, but now professed a "community-centered" focus in doing so. Indeed, that was precisely what had attracted him to the "new labor history" of the 1970s and 1980s of which my narratives of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s were a part. (17)
Unlike Jim Rumley--with whom she reconnected romantically in mid-1980s following their original acquaintance during the Cone Mills campaign--Lynn Wells was a veteran of community-centered politics. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., Lynn moved south in the late 1960s for both personal and political reasons. (18) She came, it might be said, from a left-wing family with a difference. Although her father, Hudson Wells, was a stalwart United Electrical Workers Union (UE) staff member in sympathy with the UE's Communist Party leadership and her mother an equally progressive Russian-Jewish woman, her father's side of the family was of southern, old millworking stock. The combination of her strong southern ties with a radical political upbringing helped to lead Lynn to an early, intense identification with the civil rights movement. An eager recruit to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), volunteering at age fourteen in the Washington D.C. office under activist (and later D.C. Mayor) Marion Berry, she recalls sitting down and being arrested inside the White House for protesting the attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama on "Bloody Sunday," 1965. (19) In 1967, following the expulsion of whites when the organization adopted a Black-Power credo in 1966, Lynn left home for Greensboro, North Carolina and then to Atlanta, where she would quickly emerge as the "most popular and effective organizer" of the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC). (20)
Formed in 1964 as a white adjunct to the civil rights movement, the SSOC in Wells' day had adopted a broader agenda of radical social change, including an outreach to non-student southern whites. As a "southern working-class white"--for she had quickly assumed this identity--Wells struggled from the beginning to reconcile SSOC's anti-racist, anti-corporate, anti-war as well as feminist positions with what she considered southern "community norms." (21) The issue was symbolically resolved in re-adoption in 1967 of an older insignia for the SSOC--a pair of interlocking hands, one black and one white, in front of the Confederate battleflag. As Wells herself would later explain, "you didn't have to deny your identity ... to take a good stand on civil rights." (22) Yet, respect for southern "distinctiveness" proved immediately controversial both within SSOC and a larger left movement with which it was affiliated. By 1969, an internally-divided national Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was at once trying to swallow up SSOC and rid it of any "backwards" tendencies. Immediately attracted to SDS's Revolutionary Youth Movement (or RYM II) faction led by Mike Klonsky, Lynn Wells and her partner (and future spouse) David Simpson reconsidered their previous stance and abandoned talk of a "militant southern rebel working class" in favor of a one-size-fits-all proletariat of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. (23) Rejecting all Confederate symbolism, Simpson explained that "the fact that black and white hands are superimposed upon the [Confederate battle] flag does not negate the fact that the 'rebel' flag remains the symbol of 300 years of murder and oppression for black people." (24) From SSOC-SDS, Wells and Simpson followed Klonsky in the early 1970s into the "Maoist" October League, which subsequently became the Communist Party, Marxist-Leninist. (25) Klonsky, today a faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, remembers Lynn as the "best" of the SSOC organizers: "thoroughly anti-racist but at the same time she had this populist tinge which made her really good at communicating with truck drivers and other white workers. She was one of the few of us who listened to country music." (26)
Active in the Atlanta region in the 1970s and early 1980s, Lynn witnessed the stagnation and frustration of the American ultra-left project, while concentrating on local struggles that attempted to unite white and African-American workers. The task was not an easy one, especially after the 1979 murders of five Communist Workers Party members during a confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. Amidst the post-Greensboro mobilization of civil rights advocates, Lynn emerged as executive director of the newly-formed National Anti-Klan Network (now the Center for Democratic Renewal), founded in 1979 in Atlanta to advance "the vision of a democratic, diverse and just society free of racism and bigotry." (27) A fellow anti-racist organizer from that period remembers Lynn "working at great personal risk and carr[ying] a pistol around in her purse." (28) According to her own public testimony, Lynn had been "arrested several times in civil rights demonstrations and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and been on their death list." (29) Lynn Wells, in short, had put a lot on the line for the cause of racial justice. Indeed, one of the last things an old Atlanta friend remembers about Lynn Wells was her close friendship with Rev. Mac Charles Jones, a minister in the activist tradition of southern black preachers and theologians. Rev. Jones, a passionate political organizer who also served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, guided Lynn towards formal "conversion" to Christianity only months before she left town. (30)
For Jim and Lynn, each recently divorced, obscure little Cooleemee beckoned as a great place for a new start. According to his own telling, Jim had first stumbled upon the town during a canoe trip with his former wife in 1982. They made a mistake and somehow climbed out on the banks at Cooleemee, a place he had never heard of before. It was a poor town that had languished in economic doldrums and demographic decline since the mill closed in 1969. (31) As Lynn subsequently explained her move to her older political friends, "When I left Atlanta and the work I was doing to fight hate groups--I decided to do what I had always hoped after being in SNCC--and that was to work among 'my own' folks." (32)
By literally reconstructing the threads of an older southern laboring community, the Rumleys hoped to rediscover a source of democratic empowerment for the present and future. Against the background of de-industrialization and stagnation in the part of the Piedmont South ignored by centers of Sunbelt, high-tech, and altogether white-collared prosperity, they seized on both the methods and findings of '60s-based "history from the bottom up" to use collective historical memory as a community-organizing tool. In both their own writing and in their documentation of others' experience for the CHA, Jim and Lynn located a vestigial popular radicalism untapped by modern-day trade unionism or other liberal interest groups. In their eyes the capacity of the southern countryside for rejuvenation depended on the deep-seated values of both the republican and populist political traditions. "Our backcountry ancestors built a culture dominated by small, independent producers who were not reliant on the world market or government subsidy," they wrote, in a letter to the local press in 1992. "Theirs was a culture centered upon the family, kin, homestead, neighborhood, and fair trade in local markets--in short a way of life where individual initiative as well as the kindness of mutual support flourished." (33) Adopting the very descriptions that new social historians had leant to a world of yeomen and artisans (the works of Herbert Gutman, Sean Wilentz, Bruce Laurie, and Harry Braverman come immediately to mind), CHA scholars found at least the remnants of pre-industrial values still alive and kicking in their own backyards. (34) By preserving, reconstructing, and celebrating that older world, they suggested, today's more beleaguered common folk might yet regain their inheritance.
By the mid-1990s, the CHA itself was taking an active role in local civic affairs. Beset by "shock" and "disbelief" when the Erwin Mill closed in 1969, Cooleemee had experienced a slump in both population and morale. (35) With higher-wage manufacturing employment all but dried up in the area, the old mill homes became a refuge of the retired, the unemployed, and those struggling on part-time and low-end jobs to get by. In short, before the CHA came along, no one had had anything positive to say--let alone plan--for Cooleemee in years. So it was that Lynn Rumley led a slate of CHA-backed commissioners into local office in 1995, where they quickly replaced a corrupt police chief and also began to lobby outside public and private authorities to support and revitalize a number of local heritage sites. As both economic and psychological balm for de-industrialization, heritage tourism beckoned to the CHA pioneers just as it had in prior years in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York. (36) Before long, such incremental efforts had led to a grand vision: by 1995 the CHA was imagining an entire "Textile Heritage Historic District" complete with a mill village home (or "family life museum"), restored newspaper and tavern museums, an outdoor drama, mill industry and labor exhibits, and a grand park below the old Erwin Mill's dam on the South Yadkin River. (37) By 1998 the last item, creation of a river park at the old "Bullhole" swimming and fishing site, had taken center stage for local planners. In June 2000 what had begun as a dream among CHA stalwarts had secured a $250,000 matching grant from state funds to begin actual land acquisitions for the park. (38) Never, it seemed, had the Rumleys' organizing talents borne more successful fruit. Their idealism was genuine, and their vision infectious. Returning from my first Cooleemee visit, I happily donned a CHA t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "Linthead--a disparaging term for southern working class people."
Yet, from early on in my contacts, there was also something discomforting about the Cooleemee history project. It was not simply that local memory itself serves a self-protective function and is thus inevitably tinged with nostalgia. When Beatrice Keel Mace (who worked at the Whitney and Beaumont Mills in South Carolina) answered the CHA's "Family & Home Life Survey" in 1995, we recognize both the pride and the pain welling in her reminiscence:
To live in a mill village was great. We never knew anything else. We had a place to stay--always something to eat. If some people would get off their high horse--they would be happy and satisfied for all God has prospered them with. Mill work saved many children from starving, it was a honest and honorable life. Don't ever look down on mill work or mill villages. [Without this] how would many poor people have ever raised their children or built them a home. (39)
More disturbing was the bending and shaping of discreet memories to fit a tidy, group portrait. Historical "Cooleemee," it dawned on me, was being reconstructed less for its past distinctiveness than for the supposedly "traditional" values it could teach today's citizens. Thus, at the inaugural "Growing Up on the Mill Hill" conference, Greensboro resident Norman Ridener, who himself presided over a company with 1600 employees, assured the audience that "all paternalism is not bad, [it just] depends how it's handled." He further contrasted the parents of his childhood days in Cooleemee, who "fully accepted their responsibilities," with contemporary lapses of parental discipline. While his parents, Ridener suggested, used discipline out of a "sense of love," latter-day families had become confused by restrictive distinctions drawn between "discipline" and "abuse." "We need to get back to the old values," he concluded. (40) Even child labor could fall under the nostalgic glow of heritage recovery. The Cooleemee History Loom thus ended a report on "Cooleemee's Child Laborers" (before the national Wages and Hours Act limited the working age to sixteen in 1938) with a pointed invocation from a former child spinner: "Her words are worth hearing before we 'feel sorry' for these little mill kids: 'Well, I think it was a lot more pleasing to God than what's happening with kids today.'" (41)
As presented by the CHA, old Cooleemee represented a model way of life under siege in today's world. As Lynn Wells Rumley mused at the turn of a new century, "Marriage, family, homestead, church, and neighborhood; loyalty, honor, duty, and mutual obligation. No matter how poor, most of our ancestors stepping into the 1900's felt rich if they were successful in these things ... Much of our cultural inheritance from earlier times has been lost during this century." (42) In its determination to "preserve tradition," the CHA, of course, failed to explore such subjects as sickness and injury, alcoholism, or rebellion through out-migration that might shed a less-flattering light on the milltown's golden age.
More ominous than a simple excess of nostalgia, however, was the white racial component that accompanied the construction project of Cooleemee and southern milltown pride. Since the mills themselves had historically restricted factory jobs and residency in the milltown proper to whites only, nostalgic recuperation of the "old" days implicitly risked sentimentalizing a Jim-Crow-ordered social world. The message, moreover, was more than implicit. My graduate seminar's trip to the town's annual heritage festival not only encountered Confederate re-enactors camped on the mill museum's property, but boisterous representations from among the participants about the glory of the Lost Cause. As one re-enactor, whose two great-grandfathers had fought in the Confederate cavalry told us, "I think we're an occupied country and I think we ought to be prepared for resistance." (43) The group itself, officially the Davie Grays Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was new; it had been charted by CHA activist, Mark Whitman, in 1993, the same year Whitman and Jim Rumley explained in a joint interview, "When the Federal government exceeded powers granted to it by its people, our ancestors took up arms." (44) More unsettling still was the discovery that a prior CHA museum exhibit included a local Ku Klux Klan robe with no accompanying critical commentary. (45)
Moreover, given the CHA's robust presence, its racial attitudes almost inevitably carried contemporary political consequences. Indeed, one of the very first public initiatives of the CHA--to protest the local effects of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rent subsidy program--specifically invoked racial fears. While not averse to seeking federal block grant funds to restore dilapidated mill houses, CHA partisans worried particularly that rental properties might fall into the "wrong" hands. Their concerns centered on poor blacks, especially a new, urban-influenced black youth culture that was said to be drifting into Cooleemee from Charlotte and other surrounding cities. Amidst widespread fears of rising drug-trafficking by a black underclass, a publicly-circulated letter from the CHA in May, 1994 accused the Winston-Salem-based HUD office that oversaw federal housing repair projects of "planting crack cocaine houses in our community." In defense of the town's "natural, historically evolved racial balance ... that has not caused Cooleemee's whites to flee," the letter urged that the balance "not be 'tipped' by the well-meaning but destructive policies of government bureaucrats or social engineers." (46) Even the neighboring and usually mild-mannered Salisbury Post opined: (8-1-94):
The letter reveals a disturbing dark side. In it the association complains that the establishment of Section 8 housing in Cooleemee will bring crack houses and tip the town's heavily white racial balance You don't have to be a member of the NAACP to feel the sting of that slap.... The association appears to be overreacting. Most of the 11 Cooleemee families receiving Sec 8 rent subsidies are elderly. Does the historical association suspect them of crime? Only two of the 11 families are black. In a town of 927, is that enough to tip some mythical 'balance'? (47)
The Post warned the CHA "against taking a step back in time--to the days of Jim Crow and segregation."
No mere anomaly, the concern with a new criminal element (always imagined as black) consumed the CHA's local political attention through the next two years, driving the appointment of a CHA-friendly Public Safety Officer in 1996. On more than one occasion in 1996-1997, the official town newsletter, the Cooleemee Times, highlighted photos of African-American drug suspects with the admonition: "Attend court if you can. Let's keep watch for justice and remember the results at election time." (48) As late as February 1996, moreover, then town Community Affairs Commissioner Lynn Rumley openly disparaged federal fair-housing laws as "unconstitutional" as well as "not helping race relations in the United States." (49) By this time, it seems clear, she and Jim had broken with the Left's classic "color-blind" position on race-and-class unity and were now bending towards a more populist, race-affirming alternative.
As it happens, Lynn Wells Rumley had given voice to her own evolving thoughts on the race question just before coming to Cooleemee in 1986. As one of her final products for the Center for Democratic Renewal, she analyzed a case of modern-day KKK intervention in a labor dispute in Cedartown, Georgia for the Labor Research Review, a left-wing publication in Chicago. Tracing the anti-immigrant agitation of a "New Order" Klan among established white and (and even several black) workers at a local meatpacking plant--culminating in two murders, arson and a brutal beating--Rumley noted the "alarmingly natural ease by which genuine frustrations are diverted into a populist brand of racism." In the end, according to Lynn, counter-organizing by both the Anti-Klan Network and the union (UFCW) had effectively disrupted the Klan's Cedartown power base. But the incident clearly disturbed her. The new Klan, she insisted, represented a "genuine insurgency," "basically a blue-collar movement ... There is a 'white movement' out there. It exists and the Klan has entered it." Moreover, she was now convinced that for progressives to compete and "give the Klan a good run for its money," strategy and tactics would have to change.
It is just plain wrong to think that you can be "color blind." That traditional trade union approach may have worked in the 30s and perhaps a little in the 60s--but it won't work now.... Every worker's racial culture and heritage--including whites--must be respected if racism and racial misunderstanding are to be pulled out at their roots. (50)
In ways that incrementally added up to an overwhelming impression, the CHA message seemed to set the values and lifestyle of "pioneeer milltown heroes" against the indulgence, youth, multiculturalism, and especially African-American group assertiveness of the contemporary South. More than the tinge of nostalgia that regularly grips community oral history, this was a hotter feeling, an expression of intense racial as well as class grievance that lay right on--or just below--the surface of CHA activity.
The tension between race and class grievance repeatedly echoed in the populist discourse to which the Rumleys (and, by extension, the CHA) clung. Well before the CHA took off as an organization and immersed itself in a host of local political issues, the couple, in fact, offered a public cri de coeur about the state of the country. "Many of us feel we live in a situation like Russia before their upheaval," Jim and Lynn wrote in a letter to a local newspaper in May 1992.
A twelve-man corporate board could easily move those low-paying factory jobs we have come to depend on. Few of us would be surprised if that move to Taiwan or Mexico were subsidized by our own tax dollars ... Few of us are unaware of the many disasters resulting from America's course of Progress. That reckless, greed-driven path of "development" created the big cities.... Government directed public monies to build its favorable infrastructure--as against improvement of the family homestead or the small workshops of the majority in the countryside.... People like us face the greatest crisis in this century. We must channel our anger into finding a path for our survival--one which rests upon the exercise of power by our people. Let's not follow the Black strategy of crying "powerlessness." (51)
There were likely few local activists in the 1990s who more directly and explicitly appealed to the original radical Populist legacy than the Rumleys. Yet, in regularly identifying the government itself (and especially the federal government)--rather than private monopoly power--as the chief source of oppression and in denigrating those dependent on the government for welfare as somehow a lower class of citizenry, the Rumleys mixed the tincture of the New Right with the old-time Populist anti-monopoly message. Ideologically, they sounded similar themes to that of the "militia movement," which by 1995 was active in thirty-six states: the belief [summarized by historian Catherine McNicol Stock] "that the government was corrupt, unresponsive, and controlled by a greedy elite who scorned the values of a simple freehold lifestyle." Such assumptions, Stock suggests, loosely linked the militias to the tradition of the Shaysites, Whiskey Rebels, Populists, and even the Industrial Workers of the World; yet, unlike these earlier historical counterparts, the new rural radicalism shied away from social transformation towards a defensive, even violent, exclusion of "any person or organization that threatened the hegemony of white Christian American manhood." (52) The southern populists themselves were initially determined to overcome the region's preoccupation with race politics (as institutionalized in the Democratic and Republican parties) in favor of a biracial appeal to the "producing classes" within the insurgent "People's Party." Yet, just as People's Party advocates like Tom Watson ultimately slipped back to race-centered demagoguery, so too, did Jim and Lynn Rumley have trouble disentangling their new-age populism--what some might call southern nationalism--from the region's, and the nation's racial polarities.
Both the intellectual sophistication and the unsettling social-political implications of the neo-populist world-view are eminently on display in Jim Rumley's Cooleemee. (53) This handsome, well-researched, and self-published text might initially and mistakenly be catalogued as an act of merely "local" history, an amateurish craft sent amongst a flotilla of southern textile labor and community studies which have followed the flagship, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, and Robert Korstad, et. al.'s Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
More than an act of self-help, however, Rumley's text is local history with an edge. In significant ways, Cooleemee tilts against the dominant, contemporary professional wisdom in the field. The "new labor history," to which Hall and most subsequent works in the field have contributed, to be sure, determined to lift textile workers from mere victimhood to active historical agents. The new labor historians, however, never doubted the exploitation of their subjects by people with more power and wealth. Resistance to the stretchout and speedup in the form of mass walkouts and unionization efforts (generally crushed after the "great uprising" of 1934) lends the conventional narrative of southern labor history a spine of deep social conflict, and often tragic denouement. (54) Not until the racial integration of the mills in the post-war era, for example, did union organizations begin to balance company control with a staying power of their own, and, alas, this came just as the industry itself was pulling up roots and heading for cheaper, Third World pastures. (55) The classic, southern textile towns, we are wont to believe by the new labor history, were ultimately confining places, never living up to their original promise of lifting the region into mass prosperity, while substituting a "psychic wage" of racial supremacy among white textile operatives for real worker autonomy. (56)
This is precisely the historical image that both Cooleemee and the CHA mean to challenge. While the book offers valuable narratives on subjects encompassing churches, stores, schooling, baseball prodigies, and a famous local suicide, it is knit together by a heroic story of valiant natives fending off a variety of threats from outsiders. Rumley begins with those he calls the "pioneer generation" (1890-1920)--the rural folk who flocked to the town sprouting at the Duke Family's Erwin Cotton Mill No. 3 on the South Yadkin River some 55 miles northeast of Charlotte (what one visitor anticipated to be "the New York City of Davie County")--to rebuild a community from the ashes of Civil War defeat. Rumley honors this first generation primarily for their self-reliance: "there was no Marshall Plan to help the conquered South rebuild. In fact, the North intensified its looting of the South by special taxes on cotton and whiskey and by robbery of it natural resources and lands that followed." (57) The second generation or "mill kids" matured in the 1920s and experienced the beginning of industry's decline in the 1930s. The third cohort (or "American Generation" as Rumley calls them), matured during WWII, then witnessed the period of postwar deindustrialization.
While not ignoring the social reverberations that occasionally affected the entire textile region, Rumley argues that the Cooleemee community regularly held together, fending off one after another outside threats. Thanks to the "patriarchal" understanding of mill manager James W. Zachary, Cooleemee escaped the time study men, speedup, and accompanying social unrest that effected mainly "Northern" or "foreign-owned" mills. (3) (321) (310). (58) As if 1930s economic pressures by themselves were not enough, southern rural folk next had to put up with the federal New Deal policies "which largely ignored the principal anchors of Southern culture--its rural families, homesteads and neighborhoods." (310). Those who escaped what Rumley calls the Southern people's own "Trail of Tears" of forced emigration, soon stared class conflict in the face. But here again, even amidst the 1934 general textile strike--or as Rumley prefers it the "rising of 1934," the latest in a chain of popular rebellions following the Regulator Movement, American Revolution, War Between the States, and the Populist Revolt--northern union well-wishers fundamentallly miscalculated "the essentially non-trade union character of the Southern struggle." (321)
In case one were to miss Rumley's underlying message, the point is driven home in the book's forward by nearby Catawba College historian Gary Freeze, whose 1987 UNC dissertation also explored the positive side of paternalism in late-nineteenth century North Carolina cotton mills. Freeze does not mince words: "Rumley has tapped into Rousseaian philosophy to describe a 'social contract' that existed between owner and operative in the early days of the mill. This was not a particularly paternalistic relationship ... nor was it the more explicitly exploitative mill society that Jacquelyn Hall and others have portrayed.... In this way, Rumley departs from scholarship that waits like a bridesmaid for the class-conflict approach of labor history to work.... An urban proletariat never developed in Cooleemee. Terms of culture mattered more than distinctions of class." (59)
Rumley's text effectively serves as the intellectual framework for the larger historical agenda of the CHA. Whereas, Hall et. al. explicitly sought to subvert an older historiographic model of company-town paternalism--i.e. their eponymous 'family' extends only among the workers themselves--the CHA is less discriminating. "Our elders," proclaims its 2004 website, " describe these cotton mill communities as being like 'one big family.'" (60)
Nor is it surprising, within such a socially placid framework, that race relations receive short shrift. Like all southern textile operations, the Erwin Mill employed only white operatives, yet, as Rumley documents, a small black minority (4 percent in a total population of 2000 in 1920) played a persistent role in local affairs. With its origins in the 400 slaves who had once worked the thousands of acres, including the current townscape, of "Cooleemee plantation," the community's black "border" (estimated at 125 people in 1935) was never invisible. From quarrying the rock that would brace the mill dam to providing janitors for the mill and domestics for millworking families, and making up their own congregations and baseball teams, black families played a continuing and vital role in the area's social and economic development. (61) Yet, one could easily miss race feeling as a historical factor of any consequence in the pages of Cooleemee. The objects of local Ku Klux Klan actions, for example, were reportedly limited to late-night rowdies and "wife beaters." Finally, Rumley credits his post-WWII "American Generation" with altogether good intentions "to rewrite the terms of the racial 'peace treaty' known as segregation." While enlightened white citizens of Cooleemee were allegedly supporting black voting rights and even the integration of "most mill departments," a form of vicious racism did punctuate the period--this by Japanese soldiers against American prisoners of war (including several Cooleemee boys). (62)
On balance, Cooleemee, the book, offers a sustaining intellectual justification for the far-flung activities of the CHA. An iconoclastic, nostalgic, even ethnocentric interpretation that tilts at the windmills of academic wisdom, the book also advances the deep-seated political convictions of its author. "A flag alone will not save the South," the book's final lines attest. "It must be saved one country neighborhood and mill village at a time." (63) Rather than a sentimental heirloom, then, Cooleemee and the CHA itself reflect a serious attempt to authorize a white southern nationalist version of the region's past--and use it for political ends.
Despite the Rumleys' success in turning a public history project into something of a popular movement, a few doubters and dissenters dogged the CHA's tail in Cooleemee. They included local African-Americans, who generally grew distant or even openly alienated from the history project and its leaders. Their own experience--their 'heritage' as they remember it--disinclined them towards the reverential view of the local past preferred by the CHA narratives. John Lewis Ijames, for example, does not recall the old mill with nostalgia, where he and his brother Freddy worked in the "opening room," where they removed the ties and bagging from the bales of raw cotton. John had been recruited into the mill periphery from his prior job as a cook at the Cooleemee Hotel. His father, Jim Ijames had worked in the mill's boiler room when John was young. John's grandfather, Bobby Jean Ijames, had been a slave. John Ijames begins his narrative of milllife with an emphasis on limits: "Black people also swept, cleaned up, all that kind of stuff. There wasn't no black allowed in the spinning room ... your supervisor would talk snot to you if he catch you in the spinning rooms. You could [only] go in there to clean up." Then, he explodes, "I'll tell you what. It don't make sense for me to sit up here and talk to you. Cause it makes me about half way mad to tell you what went on, cause it wasn't right ... You didn't get a fair shake. You didn't get a fair shake. That's what I'm talkin' about.... Because you was black, you didn't get a fair shake. No. You sure but didn't." (64) And it was only with outside pressure that things changed for the better. Viola Davidson, the second black woman to be hired at the Erwin Mill, "around 1964 or 1965," remembers the thrill of setting foot in the weaving room "It was when all the equal opportunity laws came into being. They were forced [to let us in], they had to do it." (65)
As long-time members of the Cooleemee community, black residents both shared and divided with white neighbors about the record of the past. Like other town residents, John Ijames's son, Benjamin Franklin Ijames, remembers days spent at the Bullhole, swimming and fishing. But he has not been there in years--not since his brother drowned there in circumstances he never understood. (66) Interestingly enough, black informants share concerns about local crime with the Rumleys and CHA forces. "Since the mill closed," notes Benjamin Franklin Ijames, "Cooleemee has gotten rougher, with gangs and drugs." John Ijames agrees that Cooleemee "is now loaded with dope." "There used to be a lot of bootlegging, but it wasn't [so] bad." Rather than protest stricter law enforcement, however, the African-American citizens complain that they do not receive enough enforcement services. Lonnie Wilson, who grew up in Cooleemee and whose brother worked for years in the mill, thus insists that the very lack of black empowerment in Cooleemee hurts crime prevention. Effectively living in the county outside municipal jurisdiction, her people feel unprotected by local police. "They don't patrol here. It's just like a haven for anybody that want to get away with murder or drugs or anything. They do a lot of transactions in the road and everything. They don't care about nothin' 'cause they ain't got nothing to worry about. There's no law in here. So we ain't got, you know, people who want to live right and do right, you just throwed away. There is no accountability." (67)
According to Lonnie's wife, Bessie Wilson, a retired school bus driver and beauty shop owner, the local black people have "distanced themselves" from the CHA. "They talk as if African-Americans didn't exist in Cooleemee, you didn't count [in their eyes]. It's hard for me to think that someone who never lived here could understand our history. African-Americans have information that would be just as valid [as what the CHA has] but you don't see that ... "Are the Rumleys racists? "Let's just say it like this," offers Wilson. "There's a Confederate flag flown at their house daily. At the first CHA little museum thing they displayed a Ku Klux Klan uniform. And [Lynn] has made it publicly clear that as long as she was in power there would be no black representation on [the CHA] board." (68)
In addition to the town's tiny black community, the CHA leadership alienated some of the town's older white residents, including former Cooleemee mayor (1993-1997), Jacqueline Morton. Morton's family are among the town's "pioneers"; her father was Cooleemee's first barber and Jacquelyn worked summers in the mill while attending school. After graduating from college, she moved to Asheville and Winston-Salem to work as a journalist and in office positions for the U.S. Selective Service and Postal Service. Like many other older residents, she "retired" to Cooleemee in 1975. According to Morton, her initial run for mayor was initially backed by the Rumleys. They soon quarreled, she says, because she would not follow the CHA agenda on race, crime, and other municipal matters. As for the Rumley's commitment to the town's heritage, Morton bristles:
It's alleged that two drunken hippies came rowing in a boat down the South Yadkin River. They say that's the way they came to town. They came to town and had no jobs, but they wanted to start telling us about our proud heritage. Now I don't believe that someone from Georgia can come into town and tell me about my heritage. For what reason? There was a reason to begin with, other than what they claim, that's alleged by many, many people in Cooleemee, and I believe it myself. There are very strongly documented indications that these people were racist from the word go.
Morton believes that the Rumleys played like Pied Pipers on the emotions of local townsfolk: "They hit a town where there's a lot of illiteracy; they knew that these old people who lived in the mill houses never went beyond the third grade.... They appeal to the elderly. They talk to these people about their proud heritage and put their names and their relatives' names in the newspaper and on bulletin boards. So all these people love them to death." (69)
Yet, if the Rumleys and the CHA raised new frictions in Cooleemee, they caused no local explosion. Indeed, even Bessie Wilson, contacted in December, 2002, admitted that local race relations had "improved somewhat." (70) Perhaps the reason is that after 1998, the focus of CHA's organizing shifted from race-inflected issues to a community-wide campaign against the local water company--a local version of an old-time populist crusade of "the people" against "the interests." Creation of a $1.1 million RiverPark at Cooleemee Falls--the site of the mill village's old "Bullhole" and likely named after Troy, NY's RiverSpark project--formed the core of a larger vision of heritage tourism for the Cooleemee textile mill district. (71) Yet, although the park project gathered considerable enthusiasm--with sizeable grants from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Salisbury-based Margaret C. Woodson trust augmenting an initial $250,000 state appropriation--it ran into the adamant opposition of the South Yadkin Power Company, which not only owns key acreage on the Davie County side of the river, but, more importantly, controls river water levels by operating the dam under federal license for electric power. (72) When, beginning in the summer 2000, enhanced demands on company's turbines (drawing water into the old millrace site and the main river channel turned the Bullhole into a mere trickle), the CHA stepped up a public campaign against the company, including a petition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to deny Yadkin Power a requested license alteration. (73) In October, 2001, Yadkin Power responded with a SLAPP--or nuisance--suit, intending to ban the CHA from filing further petitions or public complaints against the company, and even asking for unspecified monetary damages from the Rumleys and other CHA officers. (74)
To some degree, what Lynn Rumley called "our redneck green struggle to 'Save the Bullhole'" once again repositioned the Rumleys in relation to their Populist principles. In addition to new appeals to environmentalists, church, and public history groups, Lynn reached out for help through a listserv of old SSOC members to old friends from whom she had been estranged for years. In doing so, she subtly linked her work in Cooleemee in continuing relation to her left-wing, anti-racist past:
When I left Atlanta and the work I was doing to fight hate groups--I decided to do what I had always hoped after being in SNCC--and that was to work among "my own" folks. If people don't want the Klan and Nazis to lead our folks, then some other leadership or direction is necessary. Well-meaning coalitions of anti-hate group people (no matter how broad-based) will not solve this problem. I've spent the last sixteen years doing that, learning some valuable things and provoking me to look at my "left" experience from a different slant. It's been the best sixteen years of my life ... (75)
Against the CHA campaign, the South Yadkin Power Co.--in reality not a "big corporation" but one of many small-scale enterprises harvesting power from old dams on the nation's rivers and creeks--portrayed the issue as one of nostalgic local yokels vs. the march of progress. Pearlie and Linwood Bullock, who own the power company and their son Breck, who manages it, variously scoffed at the very concept of freely flowing rivers as a "largely wasted natural resource" and insisted that the company had been "losing money in order to give them a pretty dam, but we do not have to run water over the dam for [Lynn Rumley]." (76) An anonymous leaflet, reportedly circulated by the power company, spoofed the whole idea of restoring the "Historic Town of Cooleemee." Among its recommended "ten simple steps" to "bring the town back to its original historic value," it suggested:
1. Bulldoze the shopping center (company store supplied all the needs of the town)
2. Demolish ABC store (liquor was made in the woods) ...
3. Tear up the black top streets and dig wells in them for water
4. Build outhouses behind the shacks
5. Build old baseball field. All mill towns had a baseball field.
6. Restore old mill to its original state (put back the ropes and pulleys)
7. For Havens [sic] Sake, Save the Bullhole, everyone needs a bath
The other option is to consider if these things are not just better off dead, buried, and forgotten!!! (77)
Despite opposition and considerable legal wrangling, the Bullhole campaign pressed onwards. Local historic preservation and free-speech advocates received an important boost in November 2002, when a Guilford County judge quashed the company's initial motion for summary judgment in its nuisance suit, and on Dec. 18, 2002, the RiverPark at Cooleemee Falls--The Bullhole was formally dedicated. A large gathering including local ministers and a state representative as well as students and other townspeople watched as six representatives from the Cherokee and Lakota Sioux traditions formally blessed the land adjoining the Bullhole and the people trying to preserve it. (78) Yet, even as the CHA leaders switched focus from a racially-charged divisiveness to the more inclusive people-versus-the interests version of the populist creed, their political ambivalence shone through. Drawing a lesson from their initial victory over an arrogant corporation, Lynn Rumley thus assessed blame in a manner in keeping with the Rumley's Cooleemee-era "conservatism." "This effort," she proclaimed, "has shown that unless local citizens are vigilant in guarding its natural treasures, a faceless governmental agency in Washington can make decisions which may affect several generations." (79) In November, 2003, five years to the month after the CHA first took up the issue (and with a tentative compromise reached between park advocates, power company owners, and a special delegation from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), the Bullhole celebrated its formal reopening. (80) As the RiverPark initiative indicates, right-wing populism, as practiced in Cooleemee, is more substantive and capacious than the pull-the-wool-over-their-eyes fundamentalism to which some pundits point. (81)
"Friends," "home," "community"--these are the bedrock stuff of life that we often assume lie outside the shifting sands of contemporary affairs, the comparatively superficial world of "politics." In analyzing what he termed the "radicalism of tradition," sociologist Craig Calhoun pointed to the powerful historical utility of just such tight social formations: "Communities provide a social organizational foundation for mobilization, as networks of kinship, friendship, shared crafts, or recreations offer lines of communication and allegiance." (82) Like many other social historians, I have been continually attracted to the excavation of the sources of community strength, particularly at moments of social contestation. (83)
Yet, community identity itself is a kind of political act, and one that deserves more critical scrutiny. In a little-remarked passage in his now-classic disquisition on nationalisms as "imagined communities," Benedict Anderson argued, without elaboration, that "all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined [emphasis added]." "Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined." (84)
Suffused with politics and political consequences, the act of community association--what Anderson calls "horizontal comradeship"--is also an act of border-making. (85) Exclusions from the networks of kinship and friendship are, in the end, just as telling as the signs of solidarity. Several black residents, for example, complained that when Cooleemee finally incorporated in 1986, their streets were left out, thus depriving them of both participation in town affairs and city police protection. (86) Such municipal "underbounding," albeit practiced throughout the country, is reportedly "most prevalent in small towns across the South." (87) But belonging and incorporation work both ways. A September, 1993, local annexation meeting thus reportedly drew an "angry crowd" of neighboring residents, overwhelmingly opposed to joining Cooleemee. "I live in the country, and I want to stay in the country," said Reba Holt. She said that she had her own street light and her family regularly carried their own garbage to the landfill. "And the police come by my house every day." Walter Cook agreed, saying the residents were already "jipped" for services on country taxes. "How you're going to spend my tax money, that's what I want to know." (88) Calculation of community, then, must consider those voices, willingly or unwillingly, consigned to the periphery.
In addition, there is the problem of selected memory. An essential component of national identity, as Anderson interprets the work of the late 19th-century writer, Ernest Renan, is that the people are "obliged already to have forgotten" many things. (89) Civic education, according to this argument, characteristically helps to transform historical moments of deep social conflict into a pageantry of community reconciliation (or "reassuring fratricide"). As an American example of such selective, national memory-making and cultural amnesia, Anderson cites the commemoration of the hostilities of 1861-1865 as a great 'civil' war between 'brothers' rather than a treasonable attack on the nation [or, he might have added, a defense of slavery]. (90) This reconciliationist theme is more fully developed in David W. Blight's recent treatment of Civil War memory, where it is attached to a white supremacist ideology, aided by southern reverence for the "Lost Cause." (91) Elaborating on the legacy of the Confederacy as captured by war veteran-turned-novelist Albion Tourgee, Blight notes that "the sheer 'woefulness and humiliation that attended its downfall' ... is what made [it] so attractive in America's cultural memory." (92) In particular, Blight enumerates the key ingredients of the Lost Cause as follows: "a public memory, a cult of the fallen soldier, a righteous political cause defeated only by superior industrial might, a heritage community awaiting its exodus, and a people forming a collective identity as victims and survivors." (93)
As with national memories of the Civil War, Cooleemee's memorialization of its communal, mill town past partakes both of a reconciliationist and a Lost Cause narrative. On the one hand, there is the attempt at inclusion and dissipation of lines of temporal and/or social division. The town's old Bullhole, for example, was dedicated as a public park in 2002 as Liz Singing Butterfly, a visiting Native American woman, lit a ceremonial pipe, touched earth to her cheeks, and summoned the spirits of each direction to bring their gifts to the park land. "We are all equal. We are all the same. That's the beauty of the Native American way. There is no separation [between the land and the people]. There is only the illusion of separation." (94) Yet, beyond reconciliation, the pathos of another Lost Cause echoes as well. Like the Old South itself, the milltowns are fundamentally dead and defeated communities. Like the subject of the original Lost Cause, it is the very destruction of the milltowns and the lifestyles they sustained that now make it so attractive in selective regional memory. Instead of the fallen soldier, the new Lost Cause is dedicated to the disappeared millworking family. In both instances, a righteous people, retrospectively viewed as a unified whole, succumbed to external forces more powerful but less virtuous than themselves. Each community effectively suffered its "exodus," and each subsequently can be revered as "victims and survivors."
Most importantly, however, the milltown-as-Lost-Cause honors a single ethno-racial stream as the essential core of the community's achievements, willfully excluding others from their historical or present-day contribution to the community-building process. Thus, amidst the mythology of sturdy rural homesteads radiating values of liberty, independence, and self-sufficiency, there is little room to include plantation slavery (the forerunner to the actual mill settlement at Cooleemee), racism, or even African-Americans in the community's mental boundaries. As late as June 2003, the CHA's five-year-old "Discovering Our Heritage" curriculum aimed to teach local fourth-graders the "three historic economies that once thrived on the banks of the South Yadkin River." The lesson plan began with Native American hunter-gatherers, jumped a thousand years in time to the "'backcountry,' where Scot-Irish and German settlers ... trekk[ed] down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania," and finished with the world of cotton mill village. There was no acknowledgment, in short, of the reign of King Cotton himself, nor the social world over which he had presided.
The very effort to assert the integrity and essential goodness of the textile community as a whole ignores the economics and politics that explain its very decline and fall as a social formation. The nostalgia advanced by the CHA not only soft-pedals past divisions within textile communities but also turns away from today's ongoing destruction of the region's industry, jobs, and welfare. This is particularly evident in the CHA's latest project, the Southwide Textile Heritage Initiative that began with a Cotton Mill Reunion and Convention in Kannapolis on April 22-23, 2005, as coordinated by Jim Rumley and attended by some 200 delegates from five states. (95) Kannapolis, of course, served for decades not only as the region's quintessential company town but also a stubborn bulwark against unionism, a mold broken only after Fieldcrest Cannon sold the plant to Pillowtex in 1997, when the new owners reached agreement with UNITE, the textile and garment workers' union in 1999. Then, within a matter of months, the company entered bankruptcy proceedings, and utterly collapsed three years later, precipitating the largest industrial layoff in North Carolina's history. (96) Against a tableau of corporate mismanagement as well as broken dreams, the CHA notably chose not to protest the decisions of business or governmental authorities, but only to advance a preservationist agenda. Indeed, a representative of the Kannapolis History Associates, helping to coordinate the new Southwide project, took particular pride in one particular aspect of his community's past: "it had fewer union problems than many other communities had." (97)
The role of heritage creation in the local community is neatly exemplified in the popular recollection of Cooleemee's downtown section, the Square. The ideal of community is lovingly portrayed in mural artist Jeremy Sam's 1998 rendition [see accompanying photo] of the "Old Square" on the back of a crumbled mill wall (an image that currently graces the CHA's website). In fact, the square, established on company property, was torn down by the mill itself in the early 1960s to make way for a parking lot. (98) Rather than document the tensions or inequalities in power and control in local social life, the heritage emphasis determinedly deflects the focus from class to culture, and from labor politics to identity politics. As the Southwide Textile Heritage Initiative crows, "These neighborhoods embodied many values modern America envies." (99) Carefully selecting those elements of the textile town base that will most appeal to potential funders as well as its white stakeholders, the heritage movement artfully reconnects once-scorned mill-villages to the essence of today's all-American South: "Remember," offered an instruction sheet at the Kannapolis convention, "there would be no NASCAR today without that beaten track from moonshiner to mill hill via that fast driving bootlegger." (100)
The siren song of community thus triggers many diverse reactions. On the one hand there is no gainsaying the universal need to belong somewhere and to ennoble that place with tangible and positive memories. A report on the CHA's heritage curriculum (noted above) published in the Salisbury Post quotes the glowing review of a local fourth-grade teacher that her students "now have a rudimentary but well-rounded view of what life was like for their ancestors. When I came to teach here in 1988, the children were unanchored. The mill had closed, and they no longer had a community institution with which to identify. The Cooleemee Historical Association has given our students a sense of pride." (101) One cannot deny the value of such an effort.
The Cooleemee Historical Association, to be sure, offers the somewhat anomalous instance of a community-by-adoption. Why, in short, would two left activists like Jim Rumley and Lynn Wells Rumley turn for inspiration and vocation to the conservative rhythms of a dead-end textile town? Short of a more intimate acquaintance--or more willing collaboration--with the two principals, the answer must remain something of a puzzle. (102) But it is perhaps not too far-fetched to suggest that the grandiose expectations followed by overwhelming political failure of the post-1970s Far Left set off a search for alternatives. As former American Maoist leader, Mike Klonsky, recalls, "Really, with the collapse of socialism in the world, the bottom fell out of the communist movement.... It caused a tremendous rethinking, not only ideologically but also [regarding] personal connections and loyalties, it was tough times for everybody, figuring out where to go in life." Unwilling to judge his old comrade, Lynn Wells, for her seeming political about-face, Klonsky offers only that "there are a lot of wounded people out there, I think maybe Lynn has got some wounds that she's trying to come to terms with ... I don't know, that's my hunch." (103) As its own kind of "haven in a heartless world," ardent identification with one's own little community may serve the same function as family, church, or even a social movement, in other contexts. (104)
With their more disciplined professional identities, academic historians may feel somewhat protected from the interpretive short cuts rife in the "heritage industry." Yet, can the invocation of "community" in heritage projects be entirely separated from its use by social and labor historians? I wonder. After all, in our own vicarious way, we also regularly "adopt" communities of our choosing. Invoking popular cultural "traditions" and looking for "agency" or "resistance" to dominant economic or political authority on the social margins, we too may exaggerate the social bonds and romanticize the motives of our subjects. Challenging the academic's preferred polarity between "history" and "heritage," Raphael Samuel rhetorically asks:
Do we not require of our readers, when facing them with one of our period reconstructions, as willing a suspension of disbelief as the 'living history' spectacle of the open-air museum or theme park? Is not the historical monograph, after its fashion, as much a packaging of the past as costume drama? And do we not call on our own trompe- l'oeil devices to induce a hallucinatory sense of oneness with the past, using 'evocative' detail as a guage of authenticity?" (105)
Without dropping our guard regarding the popular manipulation of cherished symbols of horizontal comradeship, perhaps we should turn a closer eye to our own collaboration, however unintentional, in the sacralization of an interpretive concept. Community--in its idealistic, Tonniesesque sense--is a widely-sought objective, but how often is it found in practice? (106) With greater awareness of the corrupting power of nostalgia and indeed, our own search for identities, historians approaching this "most fundamental unit-idea" should, at least, raise for themselves the issues of "community for whom?" and "community to what end?" (107)
In the preparation of this manuscript, I regret the dissolution of an initially valuable connection with Jim Rumley and Lynn Wells Rumley. My understanding of developments in Cooleemee benefited from an extended oral history interchange with them in 1996 and 1998, including recordings, and requisite consent form, deposited at the Southern Oral History Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I would have preferred not only to have drawn more fully on their own words at that time but to have asked them for a subsequent reaction to my findings as well as their account of more recent developments at the CHA. In a telephone exchange on January 26, 2003 (and again in a subsequent letter), however, both Jim and Lynn made clear that they wanted no more to do with my project. Insisting that I "destroy" or return the tapes and "withdrawing" their consent to the interviews, they accused me of straying from an originally-stated focus on the CHA project into an investigation of their personal pasts and that, as such, my research no longer properly centered on "history." Faced with both an ethical and potential legal dilemma in the use of the interviews, I decided to pursue the inquiry I had begun, but on the basis of other sources, that is, without recourse to the contested interviews. (108)
Department of History
Chicago, IL 60607
For research assistance in this piece, I am especially grateful to William P. Jones, who conducted several interviews, Kristofer Ray, and the Southern Oral History Project, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Daniel Walkowitz provided a most constructive critique, and I also thank Susan Levine, Peter Coclanis, Robert Johnston, David Thelen, Diana Robin, and several anonymous readers for their editorial suggestions.
1. James Green, Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements (Amherst, 2000), 13.
2. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991), 621-28, quotation, 626; On heritage/history distinctions, see also David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, GB, 1998). "Heritage diverges from history," argues Lowenthal, "not in being biased but in its attitude toward bias. Neither enterprise is value-free. But while historians aim to reduce bias, heritage sanctions and strengthens it." (122); Nor are the distortions of heritage limited to any particular political ideology: for an analysis of a recent case on the "left," see Gerald M. Sider, "Cleansing History: Lawrence, Massachusetts, The Strike for Four Loaves of Bread and No Roses, and the Anthropology of Working-Class Consciousness," Radical History Review 1996 (65): 48-83.
3. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York, 1976), 66.
4. Bender, 15.
5. "Mill Folks Hold First Conference," Cooleemee History Loom No. 23, (summer 1996), 6.
6. The quote is my reminiscence from our first conversation. Correspondence from Lynn Rumley in 2000 confirms its essence: "I am very sorry to hear that you have departed the old Tar Heel State. Jim was so delighted to hear that you were alive--but then that you were at Chapel Hill, he was very excited." Lynn Rumley to author, Aug. 7, 2000, in author's possession.
7. James Green, 13.
8. Charlotte Observer, May 16, 1996.
9. Davie County Enterprise-Record, March 27, 1997.
10. Salisbury Post, Nov. 14, 2002. In addition to Rumley's book, the Society awarded three other awards to CHA-sponsored projects. The other community projects recognized by the N.C. Society of Historians included the Cooleemee History Loom, a quarterly journal in its 12th year of publicaton; a short video about the CHA's riverside preservation plans; and the Cooleemee Kids History Club for "outstanding involvement of elementary school-age children in learning and preserving history."
11. Salisbury Post, Nov. 7, 2004.
12. Jim Rumley, Cooleemee: The Life and Times of a Mill Town (Cooleemee, N.C., 2001), 1
13. Cooleemee, 2; Leah Wise interview, Jan. 2, 2003.
14. Joe Alvarez telephone interview, Feb. 28, 2003. Alvarez, then Northeast regional director of the AFL-CIO, served in the 1980s as southern district manager of the textile workers' union.
15. Charlotte Observer, July 13, 1973.
16. Charlotte Observer, July 12,1973; Dennis King, Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism (Doubleday, 1989), Dennis King telephone interview, Feb. 22, 2003.
17. These impressions are drawn from my early informal conversations with Jim Rumley and Lynn Rumley. As I had argued in work which Jim Rumley had read, moments of radical reform in U.S. history had often depended on cross-class, ethnic-centered mobilization within a local community context: the Socialist party scored its greatest successes in the rural Southwest and Midwest industrial and mining towns, where, one may presume, a working notion of the producing classes still bound people together; the revival of American labor in the CIO period also depended to an important degree on the political coming of age of the southern and eastern European immigrant (as well as displaced Appalachian) communities. This same quality of community solidarity gave strength to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where the southern black church leaders provided a crucial link between local rank and file and outside power centers. Leon Fink, Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana, IL, 1983), 224.
18. Gregg L. Michel's Struggle For a Better South: The Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1964-1969 (New York, 2004, 139. Drawing from 1960s-era records, Michels lists Well's first name as "Lyn" (single n).
19. Lynn W. Rumley presentation, Minutes and Notes Relative to special Cooleemee Town Board meeting of 2-16-1996, copy in author's possession.
20. Michel, 111.
21. Michel, 145.
22. Lynn Wells as quoted in Michel, 193.
23. Michel, 205, 211.
24. Michel, 211.
25. Kirkpatrick Sales, SDS (New York, 1973), 576, 592; Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (New York, 2002), 102, 180 photograph.
26. Michael Klonsky interview, Dec. 20, 2002.
27. CDR website: www.publiceye.org/network/cdr.html
28. Mab Segrest telephone interview, Dec. 30, 2002.
29. Lynn W. Rumley presentation, Minutes and Notes Relative to special Cooleemee Town Board meeting of 2-16-1996, copy in author's possession.
30. Leah Wise telephone interview, Jan. 2, 2003. Wise, a longtime African-American activist herself, is now executive director, Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network. Rev. Jones died March 7, 1997 and was eulogized in the Worldwide Faith News archives (www.wfn.org) March 10, 1997.
31. "Shock, disbelief Greet News of Cooleeemee Plant Closing," March 13, 1969, Salisbury Evening Post; Cooleemee's population had dwindled to 900 by 2000.
32. Email from Lynn Rumley to SSOClistserv, Sept. 15, 2002.
33. Davie County Enterprise Record, May 14, 1992.
34. On social history's treatment of rurality as "the key counterpoint to the familiar, history of proletarianization," see Frank Tobias Higbie, "Rural work, Household Subsistence, and the North American Working Class: A View from the Midwest," International Labor and Working-Class History, 65 (spring 2004), 50-76, esp. 69.
35. Salisbury Evening Post, March 13,1969. Cooleemee's population dropped from 1609 in 1960 to 1448 in 1980 to a low of 905 (following additional shrinkage via incorporporation in 1986) in 2000. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population, vol. 1, 1960, Table 7, Population of Counties by minor civil division, 35-16; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population, vol. 1, 1980, 35-24; Census 2000 Summary File 1. Persons by race, age, & sex. Cooleemee town. www.census.state.nc.us.
36. The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, established in 1986 and encompassing communities from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Worcester, Massachusetts, represents one of the most ambitious of such efforts (http://www.nps.gov/blac/who/content/annual%20report/2001annualreport.pdf). On New York's experience with the Hudson/Mohawk Urban Cultural Park or RiverSpark in Troy and Cohoes, see Brian S. J. O'Donnell, "Memory and Hope: Four Local Museums in the Mill Towns of the Industrial Northeast." Technology and Culture 37 (October 1996), 817-827. For a more recent initiative regarding the National Coal Heritage Area in West Virginia, see http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/coalheritgrant.rtf.
37. "Cooleemee N.C. Textile Heritage Historic District promotional leaflet," 1995 in author's possession.
38. Salisbury Post, July 22, 2000.
39. "God Helps Those That Help Themselves," Cooleemee History Loom, 31 (summer 1998), 8.
40. Author's notes from conference.
41. "Who Were Cooleemee's Child Laborers?" Cooleemee History Loom 35 (summer 1999), 11.
42. Lynn Wells Rumley, "Threshold of a New Century," Cooleemee History Loom 37 (winter 1999), 7.
43. "Max" at Textile Heritage Festival, Sept. 28, 1996.
44. "What Has Made Us Southern," The Loom (fall 1993), 8; On the rise of Southern-heritage, Southern-nationalist, and reverential Confederate-reenactor groups in the 1990s, see Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York, 1998).
45. Davie County Enterprise Record, Oct. 8, 1992.
46. CHA letter to Matthew Dolge, Administrative Agent, HUD, May 31, 1994.
47. Salisbury Post, Aug. 1, 1994.
48. Cooleemee Times, Sept. 1996. In fairness to the Rumleys, there was and is a drug problem in Cooleemee, as attested to by other local citizens, both black and white. As late as February, 2003, a drug bust in Cooleemee--coordinated by local and county police departments--netted seven arrests on multiple felony cocaine charges: six of the seven parties arrested were African-Americans. Davie County Enterprise Record, Feb. 14, 2003.
49. Lynn W. Rumley presentation, Minutes and Notes Relative to special Cooleemee Town Board meeting of 2-16-1996, copy in author's possession.
50. Lyn Wells, "The Cedartown Story: The Ku Klux Klan and the Labor in 'The New South'," Labor Research Review no. 8 (spring 1986), 69-79, quotations 72, 76, 79.
51. Jim and Lynn Rumley, letter to editor, Davie County Enterprise Record, May 14, 1992.
52. Catherine McNicol Stock, Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Ithaca, 1996), 148.
53. Cooleemee: The Life and Times of a Mill Town (Cooleemee, N.C., 2001, 434pp.); The chasm in the world of historical studies between academic and local or "amateurish" publication is evident in the lack of any journal review of Rumley's work, as revealed by a search of America: History and Life.
54. One new labor historian refers to the Carolina Piedmont's past as "a contentious historical process in which the industrial fathers held a strong upper hand over desperate families who came to the mills already accustomed to long days and years of punishing physical work for little reward." In this account, an exemplary millworking woman's life is defined by "hard physical labor, the raising of many children, a tortured marriage, and her family's year-by-year survival." Allan Tullos, Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont (Chapel Hill, 1989), 303, 205; Another recent case study suggests that a famous textile strike signified "a rare opportunity for people who were often despised and humiliated, marginalized, powerless, and subservient, to retaliate, to assert their power, to claim their place, however precariously, in the volatile New South." Clifford M. Kuhn, Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta's Fulton Mills (Chapel Hill, 2001), 231; Similarly, George Waldrep concludes his own study of textile workers in Spartanburg County, South Carolina with the judgment that "[a] sense of loss--of defeat and betrayal--lies at the heart of the working-class experience in the twentieth century." Southern Workers and the Search or Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina (Urbana, IL, 2000), 180.
55. See Timothy J. Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980 (Chapel Hill, 1999).
56. Originally proposed in W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in the United States, 1860-1880, the concept of the "psychological wage" has been updated and extended more recently in a "whiteness" literature, sparked by David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York, 1991). Among many studies which cite the motivating power of white supremacy among textile workers, see, Kuhn, esp. 25-36.
57. Rumley, 4
58. See Mary Lethert Wingerd, "Rethinking Paternalism: Power and Parochialism in a Southern Mill Village, Journal of American History 83 (December 1996), 872-902, for a study which stresses the peculiarity of Duke-Erwin Mills labor relations within the larger southern textile environment. What Wingerd treats as exceptional, Rumley regards as intrinsic to a larger southern social "bargain" (318-19).
59. Gary Richard Freeze, "Model mill men of the New South: paternalism and Methodism in the Odell cotton mills of North Carolina, 1877-1908," (Unpublished PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 1987), 9-17; Gary R. Freeze, "Forward," Cooleemee, ix.
60. Hall et. al., xvii-xviii, 140-46; http://www.textileheritage.org/news/pr 01.htm.
61. Rumley, 27; Salisbury Post, Jan. 25, 1935.
62. Rumley, 191-92, 349, 352
63. Rumley, 404.
64. John Lewis Ijames interview, conducted by William Powell Jones, May 21, 1997.
65. Viola Davidson, Jenelle Watkins, Lonnie Wilson and Bessie Wilson interview, conducted by William Powell Jones, May 27, 1997.
66. Benjamin Franklin Ijames interview, conducted by William Powell Jones, May 21, 1997.
67. Viola Davidson, Jenelle Watkins, Lonnie Wilson and Bessie Wilson interview, conducted by William Powell Jones, May 27, 1997.
68. Viola Davidson, Jenelle Watkins, Lonnie Wilson and Bessie Wilson interview, conducted by William Powell Jones, May 27, 1997. Reference to the flag-raising is confirmed from the author's direct observation.
69. Viola Davidson, Jenelle Watkins, Lonnie Wilson and Bessie Wilson interview, conducted by William Powell Jones, May 27, 1997.
70. Bessie Wilson telephone interview, Dec. 19, 2002.
71. For comparison to the Troy project, see fn. 38.
72. Davie-County Enterprise-Record, Dec. 18, 2002.
73. Salisbury Post, July 25, 2000.
74. "Cooleemee History Group Sued for Efforts to Preserve the River," Cooleemee History Loom, 45 (Winter 2001), 1, 6-7.
75. Lynn Wells email to SSoclist, Sept. 14, 2002 (copy in author's possession).
76. Salisbury Post, July 22, 2000.
77. Leaflet, distributed to Cooleemee convenience store, Aug. 2, 2000 (in author's possession)
78. Davie County Enterprise-Record, Dec. 19, 2002
79. Davie County Enterprise-Record, Dec. 18, 2002.
80. Salisbury Post, Aug. 27, Nov. 10, 2003.
81. See, in particular, Thomas Frank, What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, 2004).
82. Craig Jackson Calhoun, "The Radicalism of Tradition: Community Strength or Venerable Disguise and Borrowed Language?" American Journal of Sociology, 88(March 1983), 897.
83. The theme re-echoes in my most recent book, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South (Chapel Hill, 2003), esp. 184-87.
84. Imagined Communities: Reflections on Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, revised edition, 1991 ), 6,7.
85. Anderson, 7; On this point, see also David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (Amherst, 2001), 109-28.
86. Viola Davidson and Jenelle Watkins in May 27, 1997 interview (Lonnie Wilson and Bessie Wilson also present). On the practice of "municipal underbounding," particularly affecting minority neighborhoods in the small-town South, see Shaila Dewan, "In County Made Rich by Golf, Some Enclaves Are Left Behind," New York Times, June 7, 2005.
87. New York Times, June 7, 2005.
88. Davie County Enterprise-Record, Sept. 23, 1993.
89. Anderson, 200.
90. Anderson 202-203.
91. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, 2001).
92. Blight, 219.
93. Blight, 38.
94. Davie County Enterprise Record, Dec. 19, 2002.
95. Salisbury Post, May 8, 2005.
96. Charlotte Observer, July 17, 2004.
97. Salisbury Post, Nov. 8, 2004.
98. Jim Rumley, Cooleemee, 393.
100. "Heritage Tourism" handout at Southwide Cotton Mill Reunion and Convention in author's possession.
101. Lynn Rumley, "Cooleemee Students Get a Look Into History," Salisbury Post, June 6, 2003.
102. See Methodological Epilogue.
103. Michael Klonsky interview, Dec. 20, 2002.
104. Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York, 1979).
105. Raphael Samuel, "Heritage-Baiting" (259-273) in Theatres of Memory: Vol. 1. Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, (London, 1994), quotation, 271.
106. German sociologist, Ferdinand Tonnies, in 1887, first proposed the split between organic gemeinschaft (community), associated with family and neighborhood, and the more instrumental gesellschaft (society), associated with the city or state.
107. Quotation from the studies of Robert Nisbet and George A. Hillery, Jr., as found in Thomas Bender, Community and Social Change in America (New Brunswick, NJ, 1978), 5.
108. On the complexities of "consent" in oral history interviews, see James Hoopes, Oral History: An Introduction for Students (Chapel Hill, 1979), 131-39, and John H. Neuenschwander, Oral History and the Law, rev. ed., (Albuquerque, 1993)
By Leon Fink
University of Illinois, Chicago
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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