For thousands of years, the falls along the Tar River have been a feature of the land- and waterscape of eastern North Carolina. For two hundred years the “Great Falls” near what was to become Rocky Mount have been used to power mills. In 1818 local planter Joel Battle founded a cotton mill on the site, and for the next 178 years it took in raw cotton from the surrounding farms and turned out a wide variety of textile products – from Confederate uniforms to tobacco twine. The mill was the second oldest and longest operated in the state, and by the 1890s was one of the largest, with some 600 employees.
For at least the first thirty years of its operation, human labor for the Rocky Mount Mills came from slaves and free persons of color. After the Civil War and rebuilding of the destroyed mill, white men and women and their children formed the workforce, and forged a community in the mill village around it. African Americans took on segregated mill-work roles in the twentieth century, but throughout the community’s history black labor – whether in the fields, on the loading docks, in the kitchen – was crucial to the economy.
Owned and managed by members of the Battle family for most of its history, the mill was the center of economic, social, and cultural life for generations of Rocky Mount residents. Cotton mill labor was family labor, and the families lived in houses owned by the mill in the village around it. By the 1920s, the mill operated a community center, park, laundry, school, and movie theater for its (white) employees, and provided electricity, water, and sewer to the village. Lots were designed to encourage family gardens.
For the Community Histories Workshop, this is a singular opportunity to bring together multiple units of the university, cultural heritage organizations, community volunteers, and a far-sighted developer to recover the rich history of this place and to make that history a part of the experience of the next generation that will live, work, and play there.
The history of Rocky Mount, the mill, the family who owned it, and the university have been intertwined for two hundred years. Joel Battle and multiple later members of the Battle family were alumni of the university. Kemp Plummer Battle was President of the university between 1876 and 1891 and wrote a two-volume history of the university. John Mebane, the mill’s last manager and a Battle family member, arranged for the donation of the Rocky Mount Mills papers to the Southern Historical Collection–37,000 items spanning the history of the mill from 1816 to 1996. The Battle Family papers are also held by the SHC as are those of other families to whom the Battles are related and/or with whom they were associated in business. The North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives is home to the Charles S. Killebrew Photographic Collection: 470,000 images he made of daily life in Nash and Edgecomb County between 1948 and 1997 as a photographer for the Rocky Mount Evening and Sunday Telegram. There are also historical newspapers, city directories, census records, and maps accessible through the university library that document the lives of the tens of thousands of families who lived in this area since the eighteenth century.
But there is also another archive of sorts that is just as important and potentially as revealing as that held on library shelves: the memories and stories of people living in the Rocky Mount and the materials that form family archives – photographs, home movies, scrapbooks, mementos.
With support from site developer Capitol Broadcasting and with the cooperation of the UNC Southern Historical Collection and Rocky Mount’s Braswell Memorial Library, the CHW has been working since July 2016 to make the adaptive reuse of this iconic site a catalyst for open-ended community history and archiving. An online archive draws upon UNC Library’s extensive collection of mill-related materials. “History harvests” and oral history interviews preserve community memories and stories. CHW research fellows and students in Professor Robert Allen’s American Studies classes have developed ideas for digital exhibits and tools.
We have extended our work in the Rocky Mount community through new collaborative initiatives with partners within the university and in the community; the development of K-12 learning activities around the experience of African American workers in the last decades of the mill’s operation; and the connection of the slave-era history of the mill to the present-day community through family history and genealogy.