Fashion Culture | The Cotton Factory – ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’

Cotton, the most widely used textile fiber in the world, has a distinguishable, contentious history of oppressed, discriminatory labor practices in the United States.  The use of cheap factory labor has its roots in an all too familiar story of oppression and segregation.

The Cotton Factory -‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is the first of A Study of Eight, a curated editorial project advancing the study of African Americans’ contribution to fashion history. Eight American stories cover people and events of cultural and historical significance occurring between 1880 and 1980 against the backdrop of the post Reconstruction era to beyond the civil rights movement.  These stories represent the voices of Black Americans who, many at the time, were denied employment, denied credit for their work, or overlooked for their contribution to fashion history, and more importantly, to American history. But against all odds, Black people used the power of fashion to transform their identity and culture to be included, respected, and recognized for their talent, beauty, and brains.

Black History Month is a tribute to American history and is celebrated 365 days of the year.  In the belief in fashion as a legitimate subject of study and as part of EDGE’s education content, Fashion Culture presents A Study of Eight, acknowledging the significant contribution Black fashion makers and Black influencers have made to fashion’s history.

"Cotton Warehouse, Carrying Cotton," Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1879, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
“Cotton Warehouse, Carrying Cotton,” Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1879, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

“In the late nineteenth century, Charleston, South Carolina’s population was roughly half black and half white.  Many people of both races were employed by businesses that shipped cotton through Charleston Harbor, including these African American women working at a cotton warehouse.  Cotton factory workers, however, were typically white.  In the 1890s, the management of Charleston’s cotton mill made an unprecedented move to cut costs by drawing from Charleston’s significant Black population to replace most of their white workforce.  To keep wages low, they mostly recruited Black women”, as described by project authors Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius, in Charleston’s Cotton Factory, 1880-1900, exhibit and digital text, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Charleston’s Cotton Factory, although narrow in scope, covers one part of a broader topic regarding the use of predatory labor practices where cheaper Black labor was played against and to the exclusion of the higher cost of white labor, to the detriment of all laborers, while increasing race tensions that could be exploited by white supremacists.  White protests and white supremacy ruled during this time and throughout most of the twentieth century when it came to the priorities of employment and higher skilled jobs.  Blacks that were hired worked menial jobs and earned one-third the pay of white workers.

A mixed race workforce, although segregated, became heated.  ‘Angry white men posted handbills around the city and wrote an indignant public letter intended for the local newspaper.  In language that pitted black and white workers against each other, they railed, “Who could read the history of Charleston and predict she would be the first city in the western world to produce a negro-loving cotton mill president, the first to . . . mix whites and blacks in a southern mill; the first to repudiate social distinction in labor and subject the young, beautiful and innocent of our Southland . . . . to competing for bread at the side of the uncouth Africans?”’ [as quoted from the Toward a Black Workforce, 1897-1900, section of the text].

Charleston’s Cotton Factory covers nine topics along with an introduction, ranging from Bringing the Mill to the Cotton to Vesta Mills: An All-Black Factory to Closing Down the Cotton Factory.  The project is worth reading.  It is an in-depth view of the entire milling process from the “picker” machine to the production of fabric.  This text link will take you to the introduction of these nine topics.

A related story:

The Coleman Manufacturing Company (1899–1904) was the first African American owned and operated cotton textile mill. To promote the economic security of Black people, it was established in 1897 by Warren Clay Coleman and other Black capitalists in the Piedmont area near Concord, North Carolina.  Photographs of Coleman, the board of directors, and the building were featured in W.E.B. Du Bois’ Exhibit of American Negroes, 1900 Paris International Exhibit.  The second editorial in A Study of Eight series, Fashion Culture | W.E.B. Du Bois’ Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique Transformed the World’s View of Black in America, looks at how the power of fashion and fashion communities can transform identity and culture and the significance of the dress code and appearance of the business men in this photo.

Board of directors of the Coleman manufacturing co., Concord, N.C., the only Negro cotton mill in the U.S.,1899,Exhibit of American Negroes, 1900 Paris Exposition, Library of Congress
Board of directors of the Coleman manufacturing co., Concord, N.C., the only Negro cotton mill in the U.S.,1899, Exhibit of American Negroes, 1900 Paris Exposition, Library of Congress

Sources, documents, and suggested further study, of cotton factories, mill workers, and labor conditions during the political, social, and economic history of the late nineteenth century:

With an emphasis on Charleston, South Carolina, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI) is a digital public history project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL) at the College of Charleston.  In partnership with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and the Program for the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW), LDHI’s mission is to encourage projects that highlight underrepresented race, class, gender, and labor histories within the Lowcountry region, and in historically interconnected Atlantic World sites. They particularly encourage projects that focus on subjects such as African American history and culture, Native American history and culture, multicultural Atlantic World history, the history of colonial and antebellum slavery, women’s history, histories of class and labor struggles, post-Emancipation history, the history of the long civil rights movement in South Carolina, and much more.

Source: LDHI, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative

Featured photo: Slaves picking cotton while watched by a white overseer on horseback, picture taken about 1850 in the southern United States

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor