No’Ala Huntsville, March/April 2015

Page 51

text by allen tomlinson and sara wright covington photos by cliff billingsley and patrick hood additional photography from everett historical

Poverty and Progress One hundred fifty years ago, at the end of the Civil War, North Alabama was a poverty-stricken place. The War wreaked havoc on the economy, and although there was wealth here, the majority of residents were farmers or laborers, barely growing or earning enough to feed their families. Thankfully, our state’s natural resources were substantial—imagine if we did not have good soil and adequate rainfall—but according to the 1880 census, only slightly more than half of the farmers in the state owned their own land. The rest were tenants, and they were poor. A post-war social structure that included a 1901 state constitution that favored landowners and disenfranchised blacks, women, and white men who did not own land, meant there was not much opportunity for upward social mobility. The constitution also kept property taxes low to favor large landowners, which meant that education and social programs were underfunded or nonexistent. Alabama was a poor state, and it remained poor for a long time. In 1940, a statewide survey showed that only 1.4 percent of rural houses had running water, less than 1 percent had a flush toilet, and less than 12 percent had a refrigerator. And North Alabama was not immune to any of this; in the Tennessee Valley, we were about as poor as it gets. After the Civil War, however, there was one thing we could still do: grow cotton. And because our climate and soil is ideal for the growth of cotton, we attracted the attention of northern industrialists who decided to locate mills here. With economic incentives from our area, the first group, Dallas Manufacturing, opened Dallas Mill in 1891, followed quickly by Merrimack Manufacturing, Lowe Mill, Lincoln Mill, and a few other smaller textile businesses. The mills provided employment, housing, stores, churches, and entertainment for the laborers and their families, and Huntsville was able to enjoy a measure of prosperity that much of Alabama wouldn’t see for many generations.

march/april  | | 

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