hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Bound by cotton

Historian, artist detail region’s forgotten role in slave trade



Contributing writer

Most Northerners assume that slavery was a Southern issue, and that the main role of people in upstate New York and New England was to help slaves flee to freedom in Canada and to muster troops to fight the Confederacy in the Civil War.

But that widely accepted version of history isn’t true, says Ralph Brill, an artist with a gallery in the former Eclipse Mill in North Adams.

The reality, he says, is that in the years just before the Civil War, the owners of cotton mills in North Adams and other towns in the Berkshires controlled more than a quarter of the South’s 4 million slaves, chiefly through ownership of the cotton plantations where the slaves toiled.

“It’s important that we confront this,” Brill said. “It’s also important in terms of the company-town mentality that comes from control of the town by one or two wealthy families. This is a piece of history that needs to be told.”

To start that conversation, Brill is sponsoring a lecture, “Cotton, Race, and the Northern Berkshires,” by Gene Dattel, a financial historian and author of the 2009 book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America.” Dattel will discuss the Berkshires’ role in slavery at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Church Street Center Auditorium at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

According to Dattel, cotton was the leading U.S. export from 1803 until 1937.

“We need to understand global economics today, and there is no better way to understand the power of economic trends than observing the tornado that was cotton,” Dattel wrote in an e-mail. “We need to correct the myths which surround and mislead Americans about the African American experience. Much of our interpretation of American history is a fairy tale.”

Brill was among the first artists to open studios in the Eclipse Mill, a former textile factory, in 2005. His gallery was once the mill’s boiler room. Visitors often asked him what the building was originally, and those inquiries drove Brill to delve into its history.

His research led to last year’s “Mill Children” exhibit, which explored the lives of child laborers in the northern Berkshires textile mills in 1911. The exhibit included some of the many images collected at area mills by the documentary photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, whose work helped lead to the enactment of federal laws setting limits on child labor.

The “Mill Children” exhibit, originally shown at the Eclipse Mill, later was displayed at the Bennington Museum and is continuing to travel to other locations around the Northeast.

In the course of his research for that exhibit, Brill found clues to a more shadowy and unsavory past. Following those clues wasn’t easy, he said.

After the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, “the South kept its historical documents, but Massachusetts and Rhode Island [another textile center with strong connections to slavery] burned everything,” Brill said. “History was rewritten.”

Brill did much of his sleuthing in Deerfield and Boston. He also gleaned some information from local families who passed on family lore and the rare surviving document or bank note.

‘More valuable than gold’

Although the region later came to be thought of as a center of the abolitionist movement, slavery was part of the history of the Berkshires.

For example, Ephraim Williams, the founding donor of what was to become Williams College, brought slaves with him when he settled in Stockbridge in 1738, and he willed both “cattle and Negro Servants” to his brothers on his death in 1755.

By the 1790s, though, slavery in Massachusetts was effectively over, Brill said.

But the War of 1812 and its blockades promoted the growth of the American cotton industry – as well as the region’s financial stake in the slavery of South.

“New Englanders had water power” to run textile mills as well as the “business organizations and the smarts” to take advantage of the cheap raw cotton produced by slave labor in the South, Brill said.

“The pieces of cotton, slavery, insurance, banking and transportation came together,” he explained.

At the same time, Europeans were switching from clothing made from wool and linen to cotton, opening an enormous market.

By the 1850s, the South produced two-thirds of the world’s cotton.

“Cotton was more valuable than gold during much of the 1800s,” Brill said.

Cotton was even used to back bank notes.

But Britain built its own textile industry and began to import cotton directly from the South, so Yankee mill owners “faced a constant price squeeze,” Brill said.

To keep their cost of raw materials low, Massachusetts and Rhode Island mill owners cooperated to expand the African slave trade. They invested in slave ships and had slaves delivered directly from Africa to their plantations in the South.

They also searched for cheap labor for their mills. In the Berkshires, mill owners recruited impoverished French Canadian farmers and new immigrants from Europe. Many of the mill workers were children; by some estimates, as many as 40 percent were boys between the ages of 6 and 12 who earned about $1 a day.

Children “worked 14-hour days,” Brill said. “They weren’t allowed to go to school.”

Many were maimed by the fast-moving machinery. Despite Hine’s searing photographs and state and federal laws limiting child labor, the use of children as mill workers continued into the 1920s and early 1930s. The practice ended mainly because labor unions wanted the jobs for unemployed adults in the Depression, Brill said.

Following the threads

Brill learned of Dattel’s work through a 2011 symposium on slavery, jointly sponsored by Harvard and Brown universities, with a focus on New England’s role.

Dattel was the only Mississippi native in his class at Yale University when James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962.

“The attendant violence caused a barrage of questions and comments from my classmates,” Dattel wrote in an e-mail. “I immediately became interested in racial history, economic history, etc.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at Yale and a doctorate in law from Vanderbilt University, then spent 20 years in international investment banking with Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley. He continues to write, lecture, and serve as an adviser to governments and the private sector on American and Asian financial institutions.

“The Berkshires were integral in the support of the cotton economy, which chained the black population to the cotton fields as slaves for 60 years and for 100 years as free laborers,” Dattel wrote. “There are direct and unambiguous connections between the Berkshires and the cotton world, either in the South or New York, through purchases and sales of goods and even land ownership.”

The Berkshires also played a part in keeping African-Americans in the South after the Civil War.

“Massachusetts residents will be stunned to find out what their anti-slavery advocates thought,” Dattel wrote. “The key to understanding the black experience after the Civil War is found in the antebellum North in which racial hatred and a fear of black migration was pervasive.”

Dattel said he hopes people attending his lecture will gain a better understanding of how the global economy works, how economic trends impact a society, and an appreciation of the northern Berkshires’ role in American history.

They should also come away with a desire to learn more.

“Gene is hoping some Ph.D. student will take this as a dissertation subject,” Brill said.

Brill said he arranged to hold the lecture at MCLA “because the campus is surrounded by buildings built with textile works money,” including the North Adams public library and mill owners’ mansions.

“This will personalize it a bit,” he said.

Brill plans to present two more lectures on the topic, with speakers to be determined. He said he hopes at least one will be held at Williams College as a way of recognizing the college’s historical connections to the slave trade.

Gene Dattel’s lecture, “Cotton, Race and the Northern Berkshires,” will be presented at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, at MCLA’s Church Street Center Auditorium, at the corner of Church and Porter streets in North Adams. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.brillgallery109.com or call Brill Gallery Productions at (413) 664-4353.


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