By Mike Thomason/Contributing Writer
Eufaula is a pleasant town on a bluff overlooking the Chattahoochee River in Barbour County in eastern Alabama. It is an old place with a beautiful historic district and tours of its fine old homes. Like Mobile, it boomed in the 19th century as a cotton market, shipping the white gold down the river to Apalachicola before the Civil War and by rail to mills in the Piedmont after the conflict. Like Mobile, it got its own cotton mills in the late 19th century, which provided employment to men and women fleeing the poverty of life on the farm in Alabama.
Two mills, both built south of Old Eufaula, were surrounded by housing for the mill operatives who were looked down upon by old Eufaula. However, they and the mills in which they worked would play an important economic role in the city in the last decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Like Crichton here in Mobile, the Southside, as it came to be called, was home to poor people whose lives were hard, but not as hard as they had been on the farm. Not quite.
Employees of the Southside mills were predominately white; whole families worked long days in grim conditions. Children joined their fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles and struggled to get even a marginal education. Their world, like the mills themselves, are long gone with little physical evidence to show that they ever existed.
As seems to be the case in Crichton, their stories would be forgotten, with few to regret the loss. A portion of Crichton’s mill still stands, but most of it is uncelebrated rubble, like the people who once worked there. Such would have been the case without David Alsobrook’s remarkable book, “Southside-Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and its People, 1890-1945,” published by Mercer University Press earlier this year.
The author had access to letters, photographs and personal accounts preserved by his family and others who lived and worked in the Southside. As a trained public historian with a Ph.D. from Auburn University, the author also benefited from Dr. Wayne Flynt’s subsequent mentoring. He has done extensive archival research in the National Archives, the Alabama Department of Archives and History and the archives of the Birmingham Public Library, among many repositories.
Although out for only a few months, the book is already receiving rave reviews. It combines personal accounts of people from whom we rarely hear with exhaustive documentary research to flesh out their stories. It does not sugarcoat racial issues, workplace hardships and the prejudices of Old Eufaula, but tells the story with love and respect for the people who lived it.
It also lets us see the remarkable mill owner Donald Comer, whose genuine and caring paternalism led the two mills to provide generously for the people who worked there. Comer’s family included two governors, and he served in the United States Army in the Spanish-American War. Throughout his long life he showed a sincere concern for his mill employees and their families. If ever there was a poster child for Southern Paternalism, it is Comer. Comer saw that they had a well staffed and equipped Mill Recreation Center, health care, vacation time, enabled them buy their own houses and so on.
The author does not dodge an honest examination of race relations, which supplied a grim and often violent background to life in the South. He explains that the white mill workers clung to the fact that the one thing they could count on is that they were better off by far than blacks. They depended upon racism to make their lives bearable, despite Comer’s genuine paternalistic approach. They were, as Flynt’s book’s award-winning title says, “Poor But Proud” and white. The author puts the racism that almost all whites felt in context as another burden poor white southerners bore, thinking it an advantage in their hard world.
Alsobrook wants readers to get to know the people he is writing about and he really does succeed. It is often said that history is the story of the elite. Ordinary people are just so much background noise to the lives of the “important.” Most diaries, letters and books are written by the well-to-do. The rest of us get a line in the family bible, work hard and die young. It takes determination to find out about poorer people, who were too busy coping day in and day out with life as they found it.
Alsobrook’s talented historical research and writing lets us see how the relatively poor Southsiders lived. They rose above their “station” and we get to know them as human beings. The mill workers were people with stories we need to know to understand the world of our Southern ancestors, all of them. Many are now buried in Eufaula’s Fairview Cemetery along with the leaders of “Old Eufaula,” as the old divisions in the community have faded.
The author has a long and successful career in public history, archives and museum work in addition to a long list of scholarly publications. He knows how to research and tell us a story we need to learn. He grew up here in Mobile, got an excellent education and moved on to help set up the Jimmy Carter Presidential library, then head the George H.W. Bush and later the Bill Clinton Presidential libraries. He returned to Mobile to be director of the History Museum of Mobile, introducing many valuable innovations, until he faced problems with “Old Mobile,” as his forebears had with Old Eufaula. In “Southside” he shows us the talent we didn’t appreciate when he worked here. Instead he shows us what a well-trained and innovative historian can do to bring the past and its people alive.
We can all learn from this remarkable volume, even if we have never set foot in the Bluff City.
“Southside — Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and its People, 1980-1045”
Mercer University Press: Macon, Georgia, 2017), $29