"I guess there were two hundred houses on this village, and I knew practically all of them from a kid up. It was kind of a cliché: You grew up here and you knew everybody. It had its bad points; we didn't make too much money, I know my father didn't. But like I said, it was kind of one big family, and we all hung together and survived. It was a two-hundred-headed family. Everybody on this hill, we looked after one another."
Textile mills built the New South. Beginning in the 1880s, as the South emerged from the wreckage of the Civil War, business and professional men tied their hopes for prosperity to the whirring of spindles and the beating of looms. Agriculture continued to dominate the southern economy until well into the twentieth century. But in the Piedmont, a region of gentle hills and rushing rivers that stretches from southern Virginia through the central Carolinas and into northern Georgia and Alabama, a new society rapidly took shape. By the mid 1920s this land of farms and farmers had been crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dotted with mill villages, and the Piedmont had eclipsed New England as the world's leading producer of yarn and cloth. World War I marked a turning point in this regional transformation, setting the stage for two decades of modernization and rebellion that culminated in the General Textile Strike of 1934. In the aftermath of that conflict, manufacturers began to abandon the mill village system, and a distinctive form of working-class community gradually disappeared. Through the words of Piedmont millhands like Hoyle McCorkle and Nell Sigmon, Like a Family tells the story of the making and unmaking of this cotton mill world.
This site was created by Dr. James Leloudis and Dr. Kathryn Walbert as a part of the American Historical Association's program Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In building this website, our intent is to make oral history resources available to teachers at the secondary and college level and to suggest some of the ways in which the stories told in Like a Family can enrich the classroom experience for U.S. History students.
We are grateful for the archival and technical assistance of Linda Sellars of the Southern Historical Collection, Jason Moore and Simon Spero of Metalab, and Dr. David Walbert of LEARN NC, all programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Historians, critics, and the general public all responded with enthusiasm to the publication of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World in 1987. Hailed by reviewers as "a moving exploration of the transformation from rural farm to mill village" and as "social history at its best," the book explores southern textile mills from their beginnings to the 1930s, drawing largely on the perspectives of mill workers themselves.
The authors relied on hundreds of interviews with working-class Southerners conducted by the Southern Oral History Program in the Piedmont Industrialization Project of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They combined those sources with materials drawn from the trade press and with workers' letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to craft a richly detailed account of cotton mill life, work, and protest. Like a Family blends the voices of workers with the analyses of the authors -- Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher Daly -- to create what oral historian Studs Terkel called "a living, revelatory chronicle of life rarely observed by academe. A powerhouse."
The book received numerous honors and awards, including the 1988 Albert J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association; the 1988 Philip Taft Labor History Award from the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University; the 1988 Merle Curti History Award in American Social History (co-winner) from the Organization of American Historians; and an Honorable Mention Award for the 1988 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize from the American Studies Association.
The University of North Carolina Press has published a paperback second edition of Like a Family that includes a new Afterword by the authors. There, they survey the scholarly and public responses to their work along with recent developments in the fields of southern labor and textile history. To order from UNC Press, click here. Or find it on Amazon here.
Like a Family is based on interviews collected by the Southern Oral History Program's Piedmont Industrialization Project. Launched in the late 1970s, the project sought to record the voices and experiences of men and women who came from agricultural backgrounds and worked in the early textile, tobacco, hosiery, and furniture factories that transformed the region. The project documented the life histories of more than 360 individuals in seven major sites: Bynum, Burlington, Charlotte, Durham, and Catawba County in North Carolina; Elizabethton, Tennessee; and Greenville, South Carolina. Over 200 of those interviews were used in the writing of Like a Family. The full collection of interviews is available for public use in the Southern Historical Collection, located in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For information about listening to recordings and reading transcripts from this landmark project, contact the Southern Historical Collection.
James Leloudis is Professor of History, Associate Dean for Honors, and Director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mary Murphy is Professor of History in the Department of History and Philosophy at Montana State University - Bozeman.
Lu Ann Jones is a historian with the National Parks Service.
Christopher B. Daly is Professor of Journalism at Boston University.