The Digital Loray Initiative: 2013-2017                                 From Digital Innovation Lab to Community Histories Workshop
The Digital Loray Initiative: 2013-2017 From Digital Innovation Lab to Community Histories Workshop

The Digital Loray Initiative: 2013-2017 From Digital Innovation Lab to Community Histories Workshop

Loray Mill: From Digital Innovation Lab to Community Histories Workshop

Loray Mill Postcard

In many ways the history of the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, is emblematic of the critical role of textile manufacturing in the history of the American South.   It also has been an iconic structure for generations of local residents.  The largest mill ever built in the state, when it opened in 1902 the mill drew tens of thousands of struggling farm families from as far away as Tennessee to work in the mill and live in its mill village.  In 1929, the mill was the site of a violent labor struggle, which left a policeman and a strike leader dead and the community bitterly divided.  But the mill and mill village were also the center of economic, social, and cultural life for generations of working families.

The mill’s closure in 1993, symptomatic of the collapse of the U.S. textile industry in the 1980s and ‘90s, also signaled the end of a way of life and source of community identity.  Some powerful interests in the town called for the mill to be demolished to remove the site of the city’s most traumatic event.  Others, led by Preservation North Carolina, mobilized to save the mill.  PNC arranged to purchase the mill from the company that had owned it since 1935: Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.  A development team, led by Billy Hughes, bought the building in the early 2000s and began putting together the funding package necessary to undertake the repurposing of the mill as a mixed use site.

Robert (Bobby) Allen knew this mill and the community around it well.  He grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s, attending the elementary school built for the children of mill workers.  Both sides of his family had worked in the mill in the early decades of the 20th century.  His parents were married at the mill village’s Baptist Church during World War II.  The “GI Bill” enabled his father to attend a business school for a year to learn the basics of bookkeeping and to buy a small house just beyond the southern fringe of the mill village, where housing had been built for African Americans (labelled on a map as “negro tenements”) in the 1920s.  His mother lost her father in 1933, when she was nine years old.  She dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to help support her family.   

While teaching a family history course at UNC in 2007, Bobby discovered the photographs made by legendary documentary photographer Lewis Hine, which had been preserved in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.   In 1908, Hine had traveled the Southeast on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, documenting children as young as eight working long hours in unsafe conditions in hundreds of cotton mills.  Hine tried to engage his photographic subjects in conversation to learn their names, where they lived, how long they had worked, and what they earned, making notes that were later typed on note cards accompanying the images. 

Shift Change at Loray Mill, Nov. 1908, Lewis Hine

In November of that year Hine visited Gastonia, then the center of the burgeoning textile industry in North Carolina, and on November 8th, he was able to catch a group of children leaving the Loray Mill at the end of a twelve-hour shift.  While demonstrating to his class how census enumerations could be an invaluable tool in family history,  Bobby discovered that in 1910 several of children Hine had photographed two years before were living only a few doors down from his paternal grandfather’s family. 

These photos soon became iconic images of the evils of child labor, but a century later they still had not been publicly displayed in Gastonia.  With the support of the North Carolina Humanities Council, Allen collaborated with Carol Reinhardt of the Gaston County Public Library and local volunteers to mount an exhibition of the photographs in commemoration of the centennial of their having been taken, with the opening scheduled for November 8, 2008.  A reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Joe Depriest, offered to do a story on exhibit.  During his research, he discovered that the daughter of one of Hine’s subjects was still living in Gastonia, unaware that her father’s image had once helped to mobilize support for an end to child labor.  Depriest ran a sidebar to his story, listing the names of other photographed children, and encouraging anyone who recognized them to contact Allen.  Dozens of people did so, and they were able to present them with the photo in which their ancestor had appeared.  Others sent the names of relatives whom they knew to have worked in North Carolina’s mills as children in the early twentieth century, asking if they might have been photographed by Hine.  They remembered their stories of being so small when they started working in the mill that they had to stand on a box to reach the frame they had to tend.   The organizing committee decided to invite all the living descendants of the photographed children to be special guests at the exhibition’s opening.  “Standing on a Box” as the exhibition was called, was mounted at the Gaston County Museum of Art and History, the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, and in a curated version at the North Carolina Museum of History. The project was featured in the North Carolina Humanities Council’s magazine “Crossroads” and received the first Harlan Gradin Award for Excellence in Public Humanities. 

As the project came together in the fall of 2008, Billy Hughes and his partners were in the final stages of securing funding for the Loray adaptive reuse project, which would transform it into a mixed-use site with apartments, retail and commercial space.  The organizing committee looked forward to the Hine photos being hung in the entryway of the new Loray Mill.    

The global economic crisis had other ideas, and repurposing plans were put on hold for five years.

In the summer of 2013, Bobby was director of the university’s Digital Innovation Lab (DIL) (working closely with Pam Lach, who first worked with the DIL as a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Science, and who as assistant director of the DIL played a critical role in the implementation of the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative).   One day he read in the New York Times that the Loray Mill project was back on track with a projected reopening of early 2015.  The article quoted  Myrick Howard, the director of  Preservation NC  (PNC),  as saying that the repurposed site would include a “history gallery.”  It was to be funded through a gift by UNC alumnus Rick Kessell, whose father and grandfather worked in the mill.  Bobby was asked to join an informal committee to advise on the representation of the mill’s history, or, as one member of the committee put it, to decide “which pictures should be on the wall.”  

The group met in the construction trailer over the summer and early fall of 2013.  Conversations kept returning to a few questions: “Which photographs should be displayed in the mill?”  “Whose stories should be told?”   Rick Kessell’s gift might be used to support a dedicated space for representing the mill’s history.  What should that space contain?  What artifacts should be displayed there? 

Labor Defender

Hovering over all our discussions was “How do we represent the strike?”  In  April 1929 as a part of a concerted effort by the National Textile Workers Union to attract members among cotton mill workers, the Loray Mill was targeted.  Local workers staged a walk-out over working conditions, especially what was called the “stretch-out” production system, under which workers were assigned  higher and higher quotas at the same time that their pay was cut.  Fred Beal, a union recruiter from Massachusetts immediately came to Gastonia to organize on behalf of the union.  The strike attracted national attention, and the union assumed control.   The union worked in close association with the Communist Party of the US, which also sent organizers.   After a few weeks,  the governor sent the national guard to Gastonia, the number of local striking workers diminished, and the Rhode Island company that owned the mill evicted the remaining strikers from their (company-owned) houses in the mill villages.  The union countered by erecting a tent colony only a few blocks from the mill.  A striking worker from  nearby Bessemer City, Ella May Wiggins, composed songs about the workers’ plights and sang at protest meetings.  In June,  local police were called to the tent colony to investigate a disturbance.  Strike leaders, who had already been the objects of (company organized) vigilante violence, armed themselves.  “Shots were fired,” as they say, and the police chief was killed.  Strike leaders were arrested and charged with murder.  The trials stretched out over the summer and fall.  Ella May Wiggins was assassinated as she traveled to a strike rally in the back of a truck.   Charges were eventually dropped against all but seven and charges reduced to second-degree murder.  They were convicted and several, including Beal, jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union.

There is much, much more to this episode  than can be covered here.  Suffice it to say that the strike and its aftermath left the community scarred for generations.   The mill and the mill community entered a new era in 1935 when Firestone purchased Loray.  By the 1950s, when Bobby was growing up in Gastonia, the strike was not talked about.  Families that participated in the strike or joined the union had long since moved away.  A highway marker commemorating the strike was not erected until 2013.  A committee worked for months to  reach a consensus on language  and finally settled for the anodyne: “A strike in 1929 at the Loray Mill, 200 yards S., left two dead and spurred opposition to labor unions statewide.”  Ironically, in the 1980s, the  Firestone plant in King’s Mountain was one of the few operated by the company that had not unionized.  A union drive was successful.

It soon became clear that the surviving documentary history of the mill and mill village had not been located and surveyed.  The mill had been sold to the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1935.  In 1993, it closed the Loray mill and moved operations to the neighboring town of King’s Mountain.  No one knew of any pre-1935 company records that might have preserved.  Someone had been told that the Smithsonian Institution had “taken” the original architectural plans for the mill.  Were there private collections of photographs or artifacts?  What materials might the Gaston County Museum of Art and History or the Gaston County Public Library have?  What about UNC’s North Carolina Collection or Southern Historical Collection?  

The five hour round-trip car journey to Gastonia provided a lot of time to think about how the complex and fraught history of the mill and its surrounding community might be represented and what the university’s role in this might be.  Deciding on what images and artifacts should represent the history of the mill and mill village presupposed that we had identified, preserved, and curated the set of materials available for this purpose.  This was clearly not the case.  The discussions of which images should be used and where presumed a selection of scarce analog material that would be affixed to the walls or hung in the history “gallery.” 

What was needed was what we’ve come to call “historical due diligence” on the site: a systematic search for the surviving material history of the site, held by institutions and in personal collections.  The end result of this process would be to determine who has ownership of these materials, to encourage and facilitate their transfer to a persistent cultural heritage organization (museum, library), to create curated digital images, and to model how digital objects might be deployed across a range of spaces and functional areas on the site, as well as online.   Other stakeholders–Preservation NC, the project developer or architects, local community heritage organizations, individual volunteers–were not well-positioned to commit to the this multi-stage process.  As a public research university, UNC was very well-suited and resourced to  undertake this task, and the Digital Innovation Lab was singularly positioned within the university to organize and lead this effort.   

Firestone News


With funding from PNC,  the DIL began the due diligence process in the fall of 2013.   We started by searching for any relevant materials in the UNC Library, including the Southern Historical Collection and North Carolina Collection.  DIL graduate assistant Sandra Davidson (folklore) got the process started.  We discovered that the North Carolina Collection had preserved  a newly complete run of original paper copies of the mill’s newspaper, The Firestone Newsfrom 1952 to 1993.   Thanks to  the NCC staff and archivist Nick Graham, this rare–so far as I know, unique–collection was digitized  (and made searchable) and published online.     The paper is  a company organ and not  an independent news outlet, but  it chronicles the working lives of thousands of employees and  spans the last  forty years of the history of the mill and a key period in the history of the textile industry in the South.    It also shines a light on race relations and policies before and after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  For example, in the 1950s the mill sponsored separate Christmas parties for the children of White and Black employees at local (segregated) movie theaters.  

We did find the original architectural drawings for the mill and solved the mystery of the involvement of the Smithsonian Institution.  The Loray plans were preserved because they were part of the company papers of Lockwood Greene, the architectural and engineering firm that designed the building,  which had been donated to the National Museum of American History.    The drawings were nearly eight feet long.  we chose several dozen examples and asked if they could be digitized.  The museum staff was very helpful, but it turned out that there was only one scanner that could accommodate documents of that size.   In the midst of scanning  our drawings, the scanner broke down, and we had to wait weeks for it to be repaired.  It was worth it.

Architectural Drawings for Loray Mill Hung in History Center Foyer

Brady Whitesides, Firestone Mill Employee Photo, Gaston County Museum of Art and History


The principal cultural heritage organizations in Gaston County are the Gaston County Museum of Art and History in Dallas, North Carolina, (about four miles from Gastonia) and the Gaston County Public Library.   Both had been involved in the “Standing on a Box” project in 2008.  This was clearly the time to reach out to them and explore areas of possible cooperation and collaboration.  The museum had a permanent textile exhibit and had been collecting textile-related objects and materials for some time.  At some point after the relocation of the Firestone plant from Gastonia to Kings Mountain in 1993, Firestone had given the museum some Loray-related material, including a set of fascinating photographs used for employee identification badges.  Among them were several of Bobby’s relatives and neighbors.  We worked with the museum to curate and digitize their Loray-related material.  

Two community members held large collections of Loray-related material and became invaluable collaborators.  For decades, Lucy Penegar had been a champion of cultural heritage and local history in the county and an ardent supporter of the preservation and repurposing of the mill.  After Firestone sold the mill to Preservation North Carolina in 1990s to prevent its being torn down, she volunteered to cut the grass at the side, joking that she had burned out several riding lawnmowers in the process.  When the mill closed in 1993, she saved many artifacts from being destroyed or thrown away, filling her barn with them.

Bill Passmore, Elijah Gaddis, Bobby Allen

In the construction trailer meetings one name kept coming up as someone who knew where there were more Loray/Firestone-related photos: Bill Passmore.  While finishing his dissertation in American Studies in 2014, Elijah Gaddis assumed a leadership role in the Loray project as a graduate research assistant in the DIL, helping make connections in the community and identifying artifacts and materials in need in preservation and digitization.  Elijah took on the task of tracking down Bill Passmore and any photographs he might have access to.  Elijah made contact with him and asked if he would talk with him about our project.  As Elijah discovered when he was invited to his house, Bill was an extraordinary resource on the history of the mill.  He had worked there in several different roles for most of his adult life.  His father had worked there for some 30 years his mother ran a boarding house in the mill village.  Among Bill’s responsibilities had been to serve as a photographer for the Firestone News.   Elijah spent hours talking with Bill at his home, and as a relationship of trust developed, Bill shared more of the artifacts and materials he had saved from destruction and became our consulting expert on all aspects of mill history. 

It was clear that the collections assembled and preserved by Lucy Penegar and Bill Passmore needed to find an institutional “home” and that this home needed to be in the community from which these materials had been drawn.  It was at this point that we enlisted the help of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.  A collaboration with the N. C. State Library and UNC’s Wilson Library, Digital NC (as it is called) has worked with more than 100 local cultural heritage partners  to digitize collections that reflect the history of communities across the state.   In our case, they facilitated  digitization of the Penegar and Passmore collections through donation of records and artifacts as well as digital copies to the Gaston County Museum.   Digital NC also provided a home for and access to more than 1000 digital objects  Elijah Gaddis had helped to locate.

In 2011, Senior Associate Dean for the Fine Arts and Humanities Bill Andrews asked Bobby to join him and John McGowan (then Director of UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities) in crafting a proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Its aim was to create a programmatic initiative to elevate the role of digital humanities at UNC through faculty and graduate student fellowships, a new graduate certificate in digital humanities, a more strategic role for the Digital Innovation Lab, and four two-year postdoctoral fellowships.  Then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Karen Gil committed three new tenure-track faculty lines.  Internal support also came from the Office of the Provost, the Vice Chancellor for Research, and Information Technology Services.  The proposal succeeded, and in May 2012, the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative was launched.  Terri Rhodes, who succeeded Bill Andrews as Senior Associate Dean for the Fine Arts and Humanities, asked Bobby to serve with her as co-principal investigator.  For the first year of the CDHI, Pam Lack played leadership roles in both the CDHI and the DIL.  

Julie Davis, Elijah Gaddis, Bobby Allen

In the summer of 2014, she supported a plan to devote a postdoctoral fellowship to the Digital Loray Initiative, whose role would be that of UNC’s first “public historian in residence” at the Loray Mill.  A national search brought public historian Julie Davis to us from Minnesota, where she had experience both working on collaborative public history projects and teaching the principles of public history at the college level.   Billy Hughes agreed to provide housing for Julie  in the renovated mill, which opened for occupancy in February 2015.

Site for Kessell History Center

Crowd in Front of History Center

Preservation N.C. agreed to provide funding for what we were now calling a history center in the mill, which was given a prime location next to a large public events space by Billy Hughes and his partners.  Over the next fifteen months, Julie mobilized exhibit designers, property developer, Preservation N.C., DIL staff, and local cultural heritage organizations and volunteers in the planning for the Alfred C. Kessell History Center, which opened in October 2016.  Julie’s residency in the mill facilitated our making it a field site for demonstrating community-based work at the intersection of digital humanities and public history.  Bill Passmore  and Lucy Penegar became our unofficial but invaluable consultants on the project.  Julie also developed the American Studies Department’s first graduate seminar in public history; organized three “history open house” events at the mill, which attracted more than 1,000 visitors; and consulted with the Gaston County Museum of Art and History in the processing of donated artifacts for display in the history center.

Several people told us that there was “a movie of the mill” taken in the 1940s, but no one seemed to know who took it, why, or whether it survived.  We tracked the original projection print back to our doorstep: at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  The film was made by a travelling film maker, H. Lee Waters.  A photographer from Lexington, N.C., Waters visited dozens of mill towns in the region in the late 1930s and early 1940s, making  “local” films and showing them  several weeks later at a local movie theater.  Tom Whitesides, a Durham-based filmmaker and historian of Waters’s work, collaborated with the Rubenstein Library to locate and preserve surviving prints of the more than 100 Waters films. Fortunately the film of Gastonia was in the collection.  It was shot in April of 1942, one of the last films Waters made prior to resuming his work as a studio photographer.  It was also one of the few  color films Waters made.   It does, indeed, feature the Loray (then Firestone) mill, showing an afternoon shift change, and the mill village’s movie theater, where the film was shown. Our colleagues at Duke made a high resolution digital copy of the film and shared it with us.  The Waters family allowed us to organize the first public screening of the film held since April 1942–in the Loray Mill.  It was the marquee attraction at one of our open houses.

Waters Film Audience

Waters Film Audience from Back 

We debated how best to represent the architectural origins of the mill and to suggest the lofty aspirations of its founders to build the largest mill under one roof in the South.  A 22-foot long wall opposite the entrance to the still unfinished history center provided a suitably-scaled canvas.

architectural drawing outside entry to history center

By the spring of 2015, we had over 1000 digital objects in the archive for what we called Digital Loray.  Many of these images had never been displayed but contained people and places that would resonate with members of the community whose families had worked in the mill and lived in the surrounding mill village.  The history center itself was still an empty space, with no fixtures or digital affordances.  Will Bosley, the General Manager of the DIL in 2014, had a background in theatrical technology.  He came up with this brilliant idea.

Window Through Time

Photo wall

Will’s “solution” implicitly addressed the question that had occupied hours of debate in the construction trailer: “Which photographs will be hung on the walls?  The answer: “All of them.”  This was also an exercise in the use of low-tech hardware and software to produce an evergreen project with a “big bucks” impact.  The full cost (not including a LOT of Will’s time) was less than $1000.   With the exception of replacing the bulb in the digital projector, the maintenance cost is effectively zero.   It requires no staff interpretation, and the only training  needed is how to turn the projector on and off.

As we worked with Julie and the history center design firm, we in the DIL remained focus on the ways a fairly small space (around 1200 square feet) could be opened up through the use of digital exhibits.  Karen Sieber’s enthusiasm for digital history provided one important direction for our work.  She was in the process of resuming her undergraduate study in American Studies after a decade of work in the restaurant business.   An independent study with Bobby on the history of the Loray Mill led to her joining the DIL as a research assistant.  We then asked her to join the team working on Digital Loray.  She was very interested in exploring the possibility of “reconstructing” the mill village at some point in the past, layering household data from a census enumeration on historical maps held in the North Carolina Collection. 

Loray Mill Village

Karen proposed 1920 as the date for the project.  This was a key moment in the history of the mill.  The Rhode Island company that purchased the mill in 1919 shifted production to tire cord and added a 200,000 square foot wing to the 400,000 square foot original plant in anticipation of the increased need for tires as automobile ownership soared.  This also required an expansion of the workforce and of the mill village to provide housing.  Workers were recruited from as far away as Tennessee.  The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the area show these changes.  

Karen Sieber demonstrates mill village in 1920 project

The combination of these two data sources also documented a key moment in the racial history of the mill.  Histories of the textile industry in the South argue that African Americans were not a significant part of the mill workforce until the 1960s.  A small number of African American men might be hired to do the most onerous and dangerous jobs on loading docks.  Loray in the early 1920s was an exception in some respects.  The expansion of the production capacity of the mill in 1919-20 created a need to rapidly add hundreds of new workers.  Historical maps document the decision of the (Rhode Island based) mill owners to attempt to draw African American families from the surrounding counties for men to perform the most onerous and dangerous work in the mill and for women to work as cleaners, laundresses, and child minders.  New houses were built along the southern edge of the village, noted as “negro tenements” on map labels.  The census, conducted slightly later than the maps were drawn, confirm the race of the families occupying these houses, along with information regarding birth place, occupation, age, marital status, and education.  It is important to note that this provision for African American workers did not arise out of a sense of social equity, but rather necessity.   Nor does it mean that African Americans were given better jobs or allowed to work in production alongside white workers.  This would not happen until the 1960s. 

Karen took on the job of transcribing the census enumerations with amazing persistence, accuracy, and attention to detail.  By the time we held a spring 2015 open house, she was able to demonstrate “The Loray Mill Village in 1920” as a digital exhibit prototype intended for history center.  We also incorporated it into undergraduate teaching at UNC.  Students in Bobby’s first-year seminar on family history honed their digital history skills by researching family case studies on mill village residents.  They uncovered what might be called a “micro-migration” of Black farming families from nearby York County, South Carolina, to the Loray Mill village.  Comparing their family histories, they found that for some of the South Carolina families the move to Gastonia was a relocation from rural communities to what must have seemed “the city,” and a generation shift from agricultural to industrial and service work.  Children and grandchildren of the first families to occupy new houses in the mill village show up in Gastonia public records in the 1930s and 1940s.   For others, the move to Gastonia was only the first leg of a much longer and transformative journey: taking the train from nearby Charlotte north to Baltimore, New York City, and other Northern metropolises.  

Digital Loray was also an opportunity to prototype and field test a range of tools and platforms that might be incorporated into the history center but that could also be applied to a range of use cases in community history and archiving.  Elijah Gaddis used digitized historic newspapers as the basis for a time line depicting the history of the mill and mill village.  

Link to time line

Crowd in front of History Center

The Alfred C. Kessell History Center opened in October 2016 and for two years was managed by PNC.  The CHW continued the DIL’s involvement with the Loray project, consulting with Kessell Center staff and maintaining digital exhibits.  In 2019, PNC and the Loray Mills management reached an agreement with the Gaston County Museum of Art and History for it to administer and program the space.  In the spring of 2020, both the museum and the history center suspended public programming in response to the Covid19 pandemic.  

In 2017 Jason Luder and his staff at the Gaston County Museum of Art and History began research and planning for the first major museum exhibit on the Loray Mill Strike to be mounted in Gaston County.  Entitled “1929: A County Divided,” the exhibit opened in March 2019, nearly ninety years after the walkout that precipitated the strike.  

This brief video summarizes our work with the Digital Loray Initiative.