For 200 years, the site of the Rocky Mount Mills in Rocky Mount, N.C., has been a defining feature of the community’s natural and built environment. There the long history of the state’s coastal plain has been enacted: as a riverine resource for American Indians and early European settlers, as a site of industrial slave labor, as a nexus of plantation cotton production, as one of the largest textile operations in the state, as a racially segregated mill community, as the center of a way of life for thousands of white families over many generations, as the site of an important civil rights victory, and since 1996 as a shuttered reminder of the collapse of the state’s most important industry for more than a century. The mill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980; the mill village in 1999.
On the occasion of its bicentennial in 2018, the mill site will officially reopen as apartments; rehabilitated mill houses; commercial, retail, and leisure space. The sixty-acre river-front campus is already home to a craft-brewing incubator and several dining spots.
With support from site developer Capital 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 Robert Allen’s American Studies classes have developed ideas for digital exhibits and tools. They shared their work with the local UNC alumni community at a special event in April 2017.
Over the next eighteen months, we will extend 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.