Cotton Mary

AHF Recognizes Women’s History Month
During March, we will feature a series of blog posts focusing on Women’s History Month. Please join us in the discussion and comment with your own opinions and tales.

The woman came down from a field of red clay,
And her cohorts were teeming with cotton and hay;
And the gleam in their eyes was like stars in the sky,
To work for a wage was their victorious cry.

(With due respect to Lord Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib)

Sixteen-year-old Mary Frances Tapley defies her daddy’s wishes, deserts his scraggly field of cotton that has fought to break through the stubborn, red, Alabama clay. She turns her back on the sparse field of plump white bolls that have victoriously survived and leaves them unpicked to find work at a cotton mill in the nearby town of Alexander City. Though the Great Depression has not quite tightened its tortuous talons around the South, the boll weevil, the searing drought, and poor land management have already ravaged most of the cotton crops in East Alabama leaving most farmers desperate.

Mary is familiar with the hard times now descending again like a tornado on her sharecropper family. Scores of men and women, like Mary, are leaving farms, lured to dime-an-hour wages in a mill which devours bales of cotton that for eight-hour shifts sucks the sweat and dreams from its victims, releasing them only to begin again the next day turning out the finished denim and mattress ticking. The town folk call them “lint-heads” behind their backs but willingly accept their money every two weeks in exchange for just enough supplies to get by, with no hint of remorse. Rick Bragg refers to these share-croppers-turned-mill hands in The Prince of Frogtown, “There is little photographic memory of them and they left few letters or diaries, but look into the faces of the people of the mill villages and you will find them there. Look a little deeper and you will see the ghosts of people who were here before.” Mary soon finds a husband and has three babies by age 21. Aside from boiling diapers in the backyard wash pot and baking hot biscuits daily in a wood-fired stove, beyond conjuring up herbal remedies for sick kids, washing the family’s clothes on a washboard and ironing her husband’s shirts and khakis—she rarely misses one of her six days a week, eight-hour shifts at the cotton mill. A delicate ninety-pound image camouflages the guts of steel within this woman who draws upon every ounce of her coping skills to survive. Yet Mary is able to see beyond all this and doggedly refuses to pass her mill-hand legacy on to her progeny and relentlessly urges them, “You will leave this village, go on and get your education and make a better life for yourself.”

Cotton Mary lived to witness the demise of the cotton mill that had supported her family long enough to set their children on career paths that would not require the stoop labor that had left her bent like the crescent moon. Her sadness at seeing the permanent closing of the mill in the 1980’s was soon overshadowed by her relief in knowing that the “ghosts” of her three kids would never haunt its silent, cavernous rooms.