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Let’s remember all of Charlotte’s history - even the struggles

Workers at the  Catawba Cotton Mills in Newton, NC.
Workers at the Catawba Cotton Mills in Newton, NC.

With music, images and a moving narrative, the bygone lives of Piedmont textile workers were brought to life Thursday night through a multi-media collaboration among the Charlotte Symphony, The Charlotte Museum of History and the great-granddaughter of a textile worker killed during a famous 1929 mill workers’ strike.

The event came together as one of many ways Charlotte is commemorating its 250th birthday — 250 years since British Colonial Governor Tryon signed the charter officially creating our city. The anniversary represents a wonderful opportunity for Charlotte to come together – to celebrate our identity and everything we’ve accomplished collectively in more than two centuries, evolving from backcountry trading outpost to vibrant American city.

But as we celebrate, it’s instructive to remember and reflect upon the uglier parts of our past, too. Our instinct in Charlotte is often to look away from that history, looking ahead to a vision of our future. This constant drive to push forward is part of our collective ethos and probably a big contributor to our success. But it can be a hindrance, too, because our history shines a light on the issues facing our city today, including our struggle to provide economic mobility and opportunity to everyone.

The Charlotte Symphony has performed Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody across our region over the last decade. It features 16 Charlotte Symphony musicians, together with live storytelling and historic images and sounds from the mill villages, including the factories, rivers and trains that were the physical touchstones of these communities.

The performance, made possible by an ASC Culture Blocks grant, pays homage to the real experiences of the people of the mill communities of Charlotte and the Carolinas by balancing the positive aspects – the transition from farms to mill village life, the deeply felt ties to family and community – with the more challenging parts – the adversity and oppression many workers fought against. The piece contrasts our area’s quaint mill villages of the past to the sprawling, gleaming city we know today.

To further illuminate the living legacy of the textile industry, both the good and the bad, Kristina Horton, the great-granddaughter of Ella May Wiggins, spoke powerfully after the performance about her ancestor. Wiggins, a textile worker and union organizer, was killed during a 1929 mill workers’ strike in Gastonia. Although her story of union activism was suppressed for decades, in recent years she has become a North Carolina folk hero. She is perhaps best known for her ballad, “The Mill Mother’s Lament,” which graphically illustrated the personal struggles of mothers working in the mills, from long hours to poverty wages:

We leave our homes in the morning/We kiss our children good bye/While we slave for the bosses/Our children scream and cry.

The strike Wiggins helped lead, and other actions by the workers, called for a minimum wage, equal pay for women, and better working conditions. Sound familiar? Wiggins also sought cooperation between black and white workers, and she partnered with black workers in their own attempts to organize. Ella May Wiggins’ story remains relevant today. It is vital that we recognize this history and how it still affects us in the Carolina Piedmont, from perceptions to policy-making.

In the face of development, Charlotte’s mill villages are disappearing rapidly. The final speaker of the Mill Village event, Stewart Gray, preservation planner for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, discussed what we can do to sustainably preserve these historic neighborhoods for future generations. As we repurpose old mill buildings as breweries, shops and apartments, we should never forget the stories these buildings tell. Those stories echo 250 years later as our city attempts to make the opportunities of our dynamic, thriving region available to all.

Focht is president & CEO of The Charlotte Museum of History