Connect with us


Slavery’s ghost haunts cotton gin factory’s transformation

News Agencies



PRATTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — There’s no painless way to explain the history of a massive brick structure being renovated into apartments in this central Alabama city — a factory that played a key role in the expansion of slavery before the Civil War.

Dating back to the 1830s, the labor of enslaved Black people helped make it the world’s largest manufacturer of cotton gins, an innovation that boosted demand for many more enslaved people to pick cotton that could be quickly processed in much higher quantities than ever before, historians say.

The project to transform the factory’s five historic buildings into 127 upscale homes has many in the city of nearly 40,000 excited that a local landmark will be saved from demolition. New residents moving in early next year will only help Main Street’s shops and restaurants.

But with the nation debating how to teach history, the multimillion-dollar project also demonstrates the difficulty of telling the complicated story of a place in a way that both honors the past and doesn’t raise hackles over “wokeness” in a deeply conservative community.



The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808 and slavery was in decline before Eli Whitney invented the labor-saving gin to separate white cotton fibers from seeds. The demand for unpaid labor skyrocketed and thousands of people were sold onto plantations, where the gins made cotton farming more profitable than ever.

Prattville’s namesake, Daniel Pratt, became Alabama’s first major industrialist against this backdrop, moving South from New Hampshire and starting a business to produce gins several years later.


Pratt designed his company town about 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of the state’s Capitol to resemble the New England communities of his past. With a physical layout matching an ethos built on labor, education and faith, he had workers build a church, schools and stores near the factory. His grave rests atop a hill overlooking the city, where he’s celebrated as a paragon of virtue.

Slavery was always part of the operation, according to “Daniel Pratt of Prattville: A Northern Industrialist and a Southern Town,” a definitive history written by Curt John Evans.


Pratt used four enslaved mechanics in 1837 as collateral for a $2,000 bank loan to buy 2,000 acres along Autauga Creek for what would become Prattville, and then used more slave labor to clear the swampy land, according to the book.

Pratt aimed to teach poor, white Southerners the value of manual labor, which generally was considered the job of enslaved Black people before the South industrialized, and most of the factory’s workforce was white by the 1850s. But when production lagged, Pratt changed supervisors and purchased skilled slaves to do the vital work whites wouldn’t do. Evans wrote that by 1860, Pratt owned 107 enslaved people. During the Civil War, he outfitted an entire Confederate cavalry unit and was elected to Alabama’s secessionist legislature.

Much of that history was included in the documentation that resulted in the Daniel Pratt Historic District being listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.


Yet only snippets of the story — and nothing about slavery — are mentioned on the new development’s website, and the factory’s ties to slavery are rarely discussed in the city, which is about 75% white and tends to vote Republican.


Some people in Prattville have complained about its name — The Mill at Prattville — saying it was a factory, not a mill. Others contend that turning it into apartments is almost demeaning to its history as the leading maker of cotton gins.


Its history of racial oppression is tougher to address than either of those other things.

Bill Gillespie Jr., 64, is both a lifelong resident of Prattville and the mayor, but it took a Discovery Television show that aired a few years ago called “Mysteries of the Abandoned” for him to grasp the link between the gin factory and slavery, which the show laid out using video of the abandoned plant.

“Until I saw that, I had not even made that connection,” said Gillespie, who is white.


Deborah Taylor Robinson, who is Black and had a father and other relatives who worked at the plant, said many in the Black community know about the factory’s ties to slavery, even if the topic wasn’t openly discussed much through the years.

“I think people just still aren’t comfortable talking about it,” she said. “People get tense and uptight talking about it.”

Across a bridge from the buildings where workers are now installing walls and plumbing, the Prattaugan Museum — named for a combination of “Prattville” and the county name, Autauga — contains lots of information about Pratt, the buildings and gin manufacturing. But it has less of a focus on the common people, both Black and white, who worked in the factory.


Betty Sharon Reed, who is Black and taught history in town for years before retiring in 2005, said Daniel Pratt deserves accolades, but credit also is due to the enslaved people and other workers who formed the backbone of his business empire, and the importance of the factory to America’s bloody fracture during the Civil War should be more widely known.

“More than one historian has stated that if it weren’t for the creation of the cotton gin, slavery would have died out. As it happened, they needed more people to work the cotton. So what did they do? They got more slaves,” she said. ”A lot of people (today) say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was my ancestors.’ But that is what happened.”



Campaigning for reelection in a nine-candidate Republican primary that forced her to the right this year, Gov. Kay Ivey made plain where she stands on the subject of adding fresh context about race and history to education.

“We do not teach hate to our kids,” Ivey said in a television spot calling her “Trump-tough.”

Ivey’s reelection with almost 67% of the vote suggests how tough it might be to incorporate enslavement into a fuller telling of the history of buildings where a three-bedroom unit will rent for $2,140 a month. Residents likely will include state and federal workers from Montgomery, and if the area’s demographics are any guide, most will be white.


Despite a tortured history that includes being the birthplace of the Confederacy, white supremacist rule, Ku Klux Klan bombings and the election of segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace to four terms in office, Alabama is considered a leader in the field of promoting Black history and civil rights tourism, according to historian Brent Leggs.

Nationally, few if any commercial sites with ties to the institution of slavery memorialize that aspect of history, said Leggs, a senior vice president with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and executive director of its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Some old plantations are open for tours and events, yet do little to acknowledge the enslaved people who live and worked there.

Combined with Alabama’s civil rights sites and the national lynching memorial in nearby Montgomery, this project could achieve something unique by embracing a broader view, Leggs said: “This development team and community has an opportunity to innovate and set new examples for the rest of the nation.”



The Prattville mayor is among those who believe the story of the factory needs to be told, even if it’s tricky politically. Race always is a touchy subject, and some locals complained about the tenor of the TV show that Gillespie said opened his eyes. “I don’t think we can judge the past on the present,” he said.

The project’s developers at Envolve Communities LLC intend to display some historic documents, photos and perhaps furnishings from the factory’s past, but it’s unclear whether they’ll address slavery or race, said Ashley Stoddart, community manager for The Mill at Prattville.


Stoddart, a Prattville native whose grandmother once worked at the factory, said the focus so far has been on saving the structure, which closed for good in 2012 after the last owner outsourced the work to India. “Animals were living in it and trees were growing out of the roof,” she said.

Deborah Robinson’s husband Robert Lee Robinson, who is Black and once worked in the factory, hopes residents will have a chance to learn about more than the man who founded the town and owned the slaves who worked there.

“They always talk about Daniel Pratt and what he accomplished, but how did he accomplish that? Whose back did he accomplish that on? Whose shoulders was he standing on?” said Robinson.



Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

Continue Reading


Breaking News

Editor Pick’s

Latest Entertainment

Entertainment6 hours ago

Jennifer Lopez says she nearly fell off a cliff filming a Shotgun Wedding stunt with Josh Duhamel

Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel nearly took ’til death do us part literally after a stunt in their new movie,...

Entertainment7 hours ago

Megan Fox Shows Off New Bob Hairstyle and Her Figure in Tiny Orange Bikini — See the Photos! Megan Fox/Instagram Megan Fox/Instagram Megan Fox is rocking a new hairdo! The actress, 36, unveiled a much shorter hairstyle...

Entertainment8 hours ago

Shakira Shares Cryptic Message After Ex Gerard Piqué and Girlfriend Become Instagram Official

These hips don’t cry. A day after Shakira‘s ex Gerard Piqué made his relationship with girlfriend Clara Chia Marti Instagram...

Entertainment10 hours ago

Hilary Duff explains her friendship with ex Joel Madden and his wife Nicole Richie: ‘We actually hang out all the time’

Hilary Duff explained that photo of herself with Joel Madden and Nicole Richie. (Photo: Arturo Holmes/WireImage) Hilary Duff and Nicole...

Entertainment19 hours ago

Jennifer Coolidge Says ‘Most Fun I’ve Ever Had at a Wedding’ Was for Billie Eilish and Finneas’ Parents

Dotdash Meredith and Yahoo Inc. may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below. Jennifer Coolidge arrives...

Entertainment21 hours ago

Julie Bowen Shoots Her Shot with Harry Styles at His Concert: ‘I Know What I’m Doing’ itsjuliebowen’s profile picture itsjuliebowen Verified I’m here! HARRY! @harrystyles @harryflorals 21h; NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 19: Singer-songwriter...

Entertainment22 hours ago

Chrissy Teigen Shares Photos of Luna and Miles — Looking All Grown Up! — After Birth of New Baby Esti chrissyteigen Verified Too �� for school but still going to school because it’s important 4h chrissy teigen/Instagram Chrissy Teigen‘s...

Entertainment24 hours ago

Hilary Duff Says She Hangs Out with Ex Joel Madden and Their Spouses ‘All the Time’: ‘It’s Lovely’

Hilary Duff, Joel Madden Marc Andrew Deley/FilmMagic Hilary Duff is keeping it friendly with at least one ex. The How...


Latest Sports

Sports52 mins ago

Missouri leaves no doubt it’s a tournament team

You probably thought it after the Braggin’ Rights blowout of Illinois. Your belief was reinforced after running

Sports1 hour ago

REPORTS: Jim Harbaugh turns down Broncos, again

Reports suggest the Denver Broncos reached out to Jim Harbaugh one more time about their head coach vacancy.

Sports2 hours ago

49ers vs. Eagles predictions: Experts’ NFC Championship Game picks

Who do the NFL experts pick to win this matchup of epic proportions? We've compiled their choices, and here's what...

Sports2 hours ago

Sixers vs. Nuggets: Joel Embiid drops 47 points in Sixers’ seventh straight win

Joel Embiid turned in an MVP-caliber performance Saturday and the Sixers came back for a 126-119 victory over Nikola Jokic...

Sports3 hours ago

Why Steve Kerr kept James Wiseman on Warriors bench in win vs. Raptors

Warriors coach Steve Kerr explained why James Wiseman didn't play in the win over the Toronto Raptors.

Sports3 hours ago

Basketball’s in their blood: The next generation

The offspring of NBA stars are already knocking at the door. Let's check the credentials of these high school hoopers...

Sports4 hours ago

49ers promote Tevin Coleman, Janoris Jenkins

The 49ers have added a pair of veterans to the roster for the NFC Championship Game. The team announced that...

Sports4 hours ago

Conference Championship Preview: Burrow flying under the radar & Purdy’s biggest test yet

Matt Harmon is joined by his Fantasy Football Live co-hosts Andy Behrens and Tank Williams to preview both the AFC...

Technology Hot News

Technology1 week ago

Led by "Amazon" and "Microsoft" .. the technology giants are planning to lay off 64,000 employees

After 10 years of driving the stock market bull run, big tech companies are racing to downsize staff to adapt...

Technology1 week ago

Apple introduces MacBooks with new M2 processors

Yesterday, Tuesday, Apple unveiled MacBooks powered by the new, faster “M2 Pro” and “M2 Max” processor chips, in a surprise...

Technology2 weeks ago

All you need to know about the upcoming Galaxy S23 phones from Samsung

Samsung has officially announced that the (Galaxy Unpacked 2023) event will be held this year on Wednesday, February 1, which...

Technology2 weeks ago

FTX Exchange Announces Hacking and Stolen $415 Million in Cryptocurrency

Bankrupt American cryptocurrency firm FTX announced today, Wednesday, that $415 million in cryptocurrency has been hacked and stolen from the...

Technology2 weeks ago

Because of a "fraudulent tweet"… Elon Musk's trial begins

Elon Musk's trial began Tuesday in San Francisco with the selection of jury members who will have to decide whether...

Technology2 weeks ago

An electric spoon replaces salt and spices, but with conditions

Experts have developed an electric spoon that is able to replace spices and flavors and affect the taste buds in...

Technology2 weeks ago

The biggest dangers of using tracking devices.. so you can escape?

If you spot an unknown Bluetooth tagging device, there are ways to disable the device so it can't track your...

Technology2 weeks ago

New Twitter.. For You tab to web version

The Twitter platform announced that it will bring the new tab (For You), which launched last Tuesday for iPhones and...