What is History’s Role in Transformative Renewal?
What is History’s Role in Transformative Renewal?

What is History’s Role in Transformative Renewal?

An early twentieth-century promotional booklet about Rocky Mount Mills in North Carolina boasts that the mill doesn’t owe its modern success to its past. “Though proud of its history,” the booklet opines, “the management [of Rocky Mount Mills] has never been immersed in the past…[rather,] funds have been bountifully supplied…in the efficient production of dependable cotton yarns of a high and uniform quality.”

Interior, Rocky Mount Mills / Photo by Ina Dixon

The mill boosters writing this pamphlet declare that the mill’s history – which they neglect to state includes slave labor for much of the nineteenth century – had no effect on the progressive, efficient, and money-making textile company of Rocky Mount Mills in a modern twentieth century.

Many of these mill boosters from long ago perhaps would have gladly supported the Rocky Mount Mills site’s recent major change into a mixed use redevelopment project. They may have applauded its textile and working-class history being swept away in exchange for modern lofts, rehabbed mill homes, commercial retail, and craft breweries. However, those same boosters would be dismayed to discover that the transformative turn of Rocky Mount Mills did not have to discard history in order to don the proud label of modernism. Rather, history can complement renewal efforts. They do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

Founded in 2016 and affiliated with the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies since 2017, CHW is a community-based, digital history workshop. CHW develops and tests innovative models for community-engaged digital public history in a scholarly practice that benefits local communities and advances UNC’s institutional mission and priorities. The CHW team collaborates with academic and community partners – including other faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, university units, cultural heritage organizations, and community stakeholders – to catalyze long-term and comprehensive humanities projects in local communities, just like Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Since 2016, CHW has partnered with the redevelopers of Rocky Mount Mills, Capitol Broadcasting Company, to dovetail with their rehabilitation of the site, which is one of the oldest textile mills in the state.

Exterior, Rocky Mount Mills, pre-completion / Photo by Ina Dixon
Exterior, Canteen, pre-completion / Photo by Ina Dixon

The Battle family established the mill in 1818 and operated it under slave labor until at least the 1850s. After, white women and then white men worked at the mill and from 1885, lived in the mill village. When the mill closed in 1996 however, many of the hundreds left without jobs were black. The renewal and vibrancy of the Rocky Mount Mills site depends upon this complex history of the mill as a site of work, where stories of community and race are told and shared respectfully.

To do this work of documenting community history, CHW sits in a unique position at UNC-Chapel Hill, with easy access to the North Carolina Collection  and the Southern Historical Collection, both of which are part of Wilson Library at UNC. Wilson Library houses relevant collections to the project in the Rocky Mount Mills papers (37,000 items), Battle Family papers (10,000 items) and the Charles Killebrew photographic collection (450,000 items). These archives reflect the documented history of the mill from the early 1800s until its closure in 1996. Being close to a this wealth of primary resources helps illuminate the story of this important mill and its working community in North Carolina.

Photographs, archives, and documents are only part of the story, however. The bigger part of the work is informed by the community itself. Working with oral histories, conducting history harvests, and scouring local archives, CHW staff rely on community collaboration to find the story of Rocky Mount Mills. Our aim is to leverage academic and scholarly resources in tandem with local knowledge and memory to find the foundational story of the working community of Rocky Mount Mills. To date, CHW has already collected twenty oral history interviews, built a 500-object digital archive, and connected with former workers through a history harvest in Rocky Mount, and raised awareness of the project among UNC alumni with Rocky Mount ties.

All of our work has been accomplished through strong partnerships with Carolina K-12, Rocky Mount’s Braswell Memorial Library and NC Digital Heritage Center, among others.

History Harvest guests look at historical material.
History Harvest participants share materials.

Future work on the Rocky Mount Mills story will undeniably involve further collaboration with the community of Rocky Mount. CHW hopes to continue working with the collections held at Wilson Library to develop onsite and more online exhibits highlighting the history of the community in addition to working with community partners to co-create a community narrative. The CHW staff are working with local historical societies, archives, and community leaders in addition to CBC to explore the historical themes and narrative of the site. This narrative could lead to an onsite installation so future tenants – residential and commercial – can reflect as they live and work in the site. In past projects, such as Digital Loray, we have projected multimedia digital exhibits within the rehabilitated mill space. Rocky Mount Mills has great potential to host such installations in order to enhance visitor understanding of the space and the people who once roamed its walls.

The purpose of the project is to ensure that the renewal of the mill site does not erase its culture or history. Renewal and its mantra of progress and the future cannot occur successfully without the responsible recovery and articulation of the past. It is only when a community’s story can be documented, recognized, and shared that present common values, trust, and mutual understanding – the pillars of a strong community – may be realized.

Want to learn more about Community Histories Workshop?  Stay tuned for future blog posts for updates on the Rocky Mount Mills progress and any interesting history tidbits we find along the way. Follow us on Instagram (@communityhistoriesworkshop) and subscribe to our YouTube channel!

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