“Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945”
Author: David E. Alsobrook
Publisher: Mercer University Press Macon GA
Price: $29.00 (Hardback)
I will begin by admitting I never thought I would read an entire volume on the history of one SECTION of Eufaula, Alabama.
But I have and I’m glad I did.
David Alsobrook, now living in Mobile, was the perfect, maybe the only person, to write this history.
Professionally, his credentials are impressive. He has been the first Director of both the Jimmy Carter and William J. Clinton presidential libraries, among many other accomplishments.
His research in “Southside” is prodigious. Alsobrook has read, internalized and spun into a highly readable narrative, hundreds of newspaper articles, company histories, public government reports and interviews, not to mention scores of volumes of scholarly books and articles.
And, just as important, Alsobrook’s family have been Eufalans for generations and he draws heavily, and honestly, on family lore and letters. The study is loaded with lively individual stories from the Depression and WWII. Alsobrook proudly tells of his father, Thomas, nicknamed “Monzie,” a Seabee in WWII, and less happily of his grandfather Ernest who had been arrested in 1920 for stealing freight from the American Railway Express Company. There were extenuating circumstances.
Eufaula, on the Chattahoochee River, was a very prosperous antebellum town, the wealth coming from the cotton trade. Not much physically damaged by the Civil War, the economy was nevertheless ruined.
Like many another Alabama town, Eufaula was infected by the Lost Cause mythos, and Alsobrook declares, without much hedging, “‘Jim Crow’ in Eufaula rested solidly upon one basic premise—the lowliest, poorest white farmer, laborer, and cotton mill operative was racially superior to any African-American.”
Eufaula was the scene of numerous grotesque lynchings and other expressions of racism, described here without equivocation. Racism was rock solid. Even soldiers from Eufaula fighting in Europe, side by side with African-Americans, wrote in their letters home that they feared integration after the war and found the prospect “disgusting.”
It would take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to change that element of Eufaula’s mores.
On the issue of social class, his main subject, Alsobrook notes the huge changes, from the establishment of “Southside,” the mill town section of Eufaula, when there was a social, psychological Berlin Wall between it and “Old” respectable Eufaula, into the second half of the twentieth century when that barrier was pierced and then destroyed by the shared hardships and sacrifices of the Bluff City dwellers through the ’30s and ’40s.
The feelings against social integration ran so strong that in the 1890’s “The Eufaula Methodist and First Baptist Churches organized elaborate fund-raising campaigns to build two Southside chapels as ‘mission’ projects.” They became the Washington Street Methodist and Second Baptist Church.
Statues and memorials have high symbolic value in small towns. Eufaula has three.
Whereas almost all the lone Confederate sentinels face north, looking for the Yankee invasion, Eufaula’s faces east, since the Yankees would probably come across the Chattahoochee River.
The WWI statue, the “Doughboy” erected in 1925, listed the fallen of Eufaula, but the African-American names were not added until 1980.
(A note on Eufaula in the First World War. In January of 1918 the ladies’ Symposium Club devoted its “spend the day” party to sewing “cootie garments” for distribution to soldiers in the trenches. “Cootie garments” were “chemically treated underwear used as a preventative against lice and other vermin.”
As a symbol of the town’s divide, Alsobrook describes the memorial statue of beloved Baptist patriarch Reverend Morton Byron Wharton, erected on June 3, 1911. Wharton faces Old Eufaula, his “backside to Southside,” its factory workers, the farmers come to town, the “lintheads.”
Southside itself, the neighborhood of the textile operatives, came into being as a mill village. When the mills went bankrupt they were bought by Donald Comer who, a little surprisingly, becomes the hero of this story.
Comer, the son of Braxton Bragg Comer, railroad president, planter and Alabama governor, not only modernized them and made them profitable, he cared for his workers in the best possible application of paternalism, supporting a community house, college scholarships, a baseball team, a Boy Scout troop, low interest housing loans, day care, a kindergarten, a company band, health-care insurance, life insurance, educational projects of every imaginable kind, even a profit-sharing plan.
Comer, Alsobrook suggests, partook of socialism without quite realizing it.
Comer maintained his humanitarian interests in his workers right through the Depression, when all three of Eufaula’s banks closed and the mills were losing money. His sense of the corporate family was in its own way decades ahead, and we marvel now at some similar efforts in Silicon Valley.
His workers adored him, declared they would “fight for him,” and efforts to unionize these mills failed, not surprisingly, time after time.
Alsobrook insists that Donald Comer, the mill owner, usually the villain in Southern small town dramas, “deserves a more prominent niche in the state’s history.” I’m convinced; they should put up a statue.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.