PRATTVILLE, Ala. – There’s no painless way to explain the story of a massive brick building converted into apartments in this central Alabama town — a factory that played a key role in the spread of pre-Civil War slavery.
The labor of enslaved blacks, dating back to the 1830s, helped it become the world’s largest producer of cotton ginning, an innovation that spurred demand for many more enslaved people to pick cotton, which was quickly turned into much higher quantities could be processed than ever before, historians say.
The project to convert the factory’s five historic buildings into 127 upscale apartments has excited many in the city of nearly 40,000 that a local landmark is being saved from demolition. New residents moving in early next year will only help Main Street’s shops and restaurants.
But as the nation debates how to teach history, the multimillion-dollar project also demonstrates the difficulty of telling a place’s complicated history in a way that both honors the past and doesn’t raise a hackle about “awakening” in a deeply conservative community ” develop .
The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808 and slavery was in decline before Eli Whitney invented the labour-saving gin to separate white cotton fibers from seeds. Demand for unpaid labor skyrocketed, and thousands of people were sold on plantations where gin made growing cotton more profitable than ever.
Prattville’s namesake, Daniel Pratt, became Alabama’s first major industrialist, moving south from New Hampshire and founding a gin-making business a few years later.
Pratt designed his corporate town about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of the state Capitol to resemble the New England communities of his past. With a physical layout befitting an ethos built on work, education and faith, he had workers build a church, schools and shops near the factory. His tomb rests on a hilltop overlooking the city, where he is hailed as the epitome of virtue.
According to “Daniel Pratt of Prattville: A Northern Industrialist and a Southern Town,” a definitive history written by Curt John Evans, slavery was always part of the operation.
Pratt used four enslaved mechanics as collateral for a $2,000 bank loan in 1837 to buy 2,000 acres along Autauga Creek for what would later become Prattville, and then used more slave labor to clear the swampy land, so the book.
Pratt wished to teach poor, white Southerners the value of manual labour, which before the South’s industrialization was commonly regarded as the labor of enslaved blacks, and most workers at the factory were white by the 1850s. But as production faltered, Pratt changed supervisors and bought skilled slaves to do the vital work that white people would not do. Evans wrote that by 1860 Pratt owned 107 enslaved people. During the Civil War he outfitted an entire Confederate cavalry unit and was elected to the secessionist Alabama legislature.
Much of this history was included in the documentation that led to the Daniel Pratt Historic District being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Yet only snippets of history — and nothing about slavery — are mentioned on the new development’s website, and the factory’s links to slavery are rarely discussed in the city, which is about 75% white and tends to vote Republican .
Some people in Prattville have complained about its name – The Mill at Prattville – saying it’s a factory, not a mill. Others claim that the conversion to apartments all but demeans its history as a leading producer of cotton gins.
His history of racial oppression is harder to deal with than any of these other things.
Bill Gillespie Jr., 64, is both a lifelong Prattville resident and the mayor, but it took a Discovery TV show called Mysteries of the Abandoned that aired a few years ago to establish the connection between the Gin Factory and Slavery, which the show interpreted with a video of the abandoned facility.
“Until I saw that, I hadn’t even made that connection,” said Gillespie, who is white.
Deborah Taylor Robinson, who is black and had a father and other relatives who worked at the factory, said many in the black community know about the factory’s links to slavery, although the topic hasn’t been much open over the years was discussed.
“I think people still don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” she said. “People get tense and uptight when they talk about it.”
Across a bridge from the buildings where workers are now installing walls and plumbing, the Prattaugan Museum—named for a combination of “Prattville” and the name of Autauga County—contains much information about Pratt, the buildings, and the gin manufacturing. But it focuses less on the common people, both black and white, who worked at the factory.
Betty Sharon Reed, who is black and taught history in the city for years before retiring in 2005, said Daniel Pratt deserves credit, but credit also goes to the enslaved people and other workers who formed the backbone of his business empire and the Importance of The Factory of America’s Bloody Breach during the Civil War should become better known.
“More than one historian has stated that without the manufacture of the cotton gin, slavery would have died out. Coincidentally, they needed more people to process the cotton. So what did they do? They got more slaves,” she said. “A lot of people say[today]’That wasn’t me, those were my ancestors.’ But that’s exactly what happened.”
Gov. Kay Ivey, who is campaigning for re-election in a nine-candidate Republican primary that forced her to the right this year, made clear where she stands when it comes to adding a new context to race and history to education.
“We don’t teach our kids to hate,” Ivey said in a TV ad that called her “trump-tough.”
Ivey’s re-election with nearly 67% of the vote suggests how difficult it might be to fit enslavement into a broader narrative of the history of buildings renting a three-bedroom unit for $2,140 a month. Residents are likely to include Montgomery state and federal employees, and if area demographics are any guide, most will be white.
Despite a tormented history that includes the birthplace of the Confederacy, white supremacist rule, the Ku Klux Klan bombings, and the election of segregationist Governor George C. Wallace to four terms, Alabama stands as a leader in the field of story promotion black and civil rights tourism, according to historian Brent Leggs.
Nationwide, few commercial sites with ties to the institution of slavery commemorate this aspect of history, said Leggs, senior vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Some old plantations are open for tours and events, but do little to acknowledge the enslaved people who live and work there.
Combined with Alabama’s civil rights sites and the national lynching memorial in nearby Montgomery, this project could achieve something unique by incorporating a broader perspective, Leggs said, “This development team and community have an opportunity to innovate and create new examples of the.” rest of the world to put nation.”
The mayor of Prattville is among those who believe the factory’s story, even if politically sensitive, needs to be told. Race is always a touchy subject, and some locals complained about the tone of the TV show, which Gillespie said was eye-opening. “I don’t think we can judge the past by the present,” he said.
The project’s developers at Envolve Communities LLC intend to display some historical documents, photos and perhaps furnishings from the factory’s past, but it’s unclear if they will address slavery or race, said Ashley Stoddart, community manager for The Mill at Prattville.
Stoddart, a Prattville native whose grandmother once worked at the factory, said the focus so far has been on saving the building, which closed permanently in 2012 after the last owner outsourced the work to India. “Animals lived in it and trees grew out of the roof,” she said.
Deborah Robinson’s husband Robert Lee Robinson, who is black and once worked at the factory, hopes residents will have a chance to learn more about the man who founded the town and owned the slaves who worked there.
“You always talk about Daniel Pratt and what he’s accomplished, but how did he accomplish that? On whose back did he accomplish that? Whose shoulders was he standing on?” said Robinson.
Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.