The Cone Mills White Oak denim factory sits out past the college football stadium and baseball diamonds on the nether edge of downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. Named for a large tree on the property, it is bordered by narrow, numbered streets cluttered with eyeless and empty ranch-style houses that seem to clamor up to the factory gates, dusty “for rent” signs swaying in their freshly seeded front yards. An asphalt bridge on a hill bordering the plant crosses over a single lonely railroad track, and from there you can see the factory’s berth—it goes back for miles, buffeted on its northerly edges by farmland, creeks, and historically black North Carolina A&T University. Rusted water towers and three grimy smokestacks loom overhead; just across a small drainage creek sits Cone Mills’ twin facility, all boarded up and abandoned, windows slowly shattering themselves out of boredom while crumbling ledges collect dust and crows. At White Oak’s main administrative office, ’70s-style white block letters slowly rot off the ruined façade. On my first visit to the plant, I pulled my car up beside a little guardhouse, dust billowing around my scratching tires. I rolled down my window and reached for the big yellow telephone, seeking permission to pass through the barbed-wire gate. It seemed like a disembodied voice on the other end of the line had always been there waiting for my call.
“HE-LLO?” it warbled. “Can I help you?”
“It’s Aaron?” I responded. “I’m the new security guard?”
A hundred years ago, the White Oak denim factory employed five thousand people; in recent years, that number has dwindled to four hundred. Strange circumstances had landed me the job. After an initial, virile thrust of résumé-mailing followed by several weeks of unemployed despondency, I received an unexpected call from a man with a syrupy North Carolina drawl named Sam Whitey. Whitey asked if I was still interested in the position as a security guard. I didn’t remember applying for the job, and the name of Whitey’s contracting company didn’t sound familiar, but I said yes. Whitey explained that he had a contract to secure White Oak and that he needed to hire a stable of warm bodies to watch the barely operational factory, freelance, for minimum wage and no benefits. An hour later I was driving down four-lane Benjamin Parkway, which cinches around Greensboro like an oversized belt, to endure the ritualized humiliations of tax paperwork and drug testing at a nondescript strip mall office. Sam Whitey turned out to be as ruddy-faced and polo-shirted as he had sounded over the phone. (Smiling, ruddy, polo-shirted middle-aged men with white baseball caps asking everyone “Howya doing?” are as North Carolinian as NASCAR and pecan pie.) We shook hands and he shuffled me into a small room where I was administered a state security guard licensing exam via computer. The computer flashed questions: “Is it OK to do a full-body search on someone because they’re wearing a turban?” and “Is telling someone they are ‘looking good’ sexual harassment?” I was to rate these on a scale from 1 (“don’t agree at all”) to 5 (“completely and totally agree”). My answers (1 and 5 to the questions above, respectively) must have been satisfactory, because Whitey led me to a wardrobe, shook my hand brusquely, said “Welcome to my team,” and left me alone to get suited up. The rows of starched shirts and crisp, pleated slacks swished around as I put on a pair of slacks, a white shirt, and a glistening black bomber jacket, large American flag embroidered on the sleeve. As a finishing touch, I pinned the heavy, copper security badge onto my lapel. Looking in the mirror, I could hardly recognize the clean-cut stranger staring back. The North Carolina state motto Esse quam videri, “To be rather than to seem,” seemed as applicable as ever. I liked the anonymity that wearing the uniform achieved.
Throughout the 19th century, American textile production was centered in New England, but after the Civil War mill owners began to reconsider their strategy in the South. “It is a perversity,” wrote E. M Holt, an antebellum textile manufacturer, “that cotton should be carried thousands of miles away from the place of its growth to be made into cloth . . . to clothe the very people who had produced it.” In the opening years of the 20th century, two brothers, Moses and Caesar Cone, built the White Oak mill and another flannel-production factory called Revolution Mills in Greensboro. By 1908, White Oak was the largest denim factory in the world. In 1915, the brothers partnered with Levi-Strauss and became the jean company’s primary supplier. At the time, bringing a factory to the South was considered a form of philanthropy, a Gilded Age gift to backwards yeomen farmers still reeling from Reconstruction. The late 19th-century South century possessed an irresistible draw for the hungry magnate—it was then, as now, anti-union, business-friendly, with an eager, exploitable workforce, and dotted with towns competing fervidly to offer the largest land grants and biggest tax breaks to window-shopping corporations. A prominent Baltimore textile investor in the 1880s wrote, priggishly, “Every little town wanted a mill. If they couldn’t get a big one, it would take a small one; if not a sheeting, then a spinning mill,” a statement that remains true of the South today, if you replace the word mill with Google server farm.
In the red clay of the Piedmont, the Cone Brothers built five paternalistic mill villages around their Greensboro factories. Each of these settlements had its own churches, medical facilities, pool halls, and company stores. White Oak had its own hotel. By the early 1940s the Cone Brothers had built at least eleven plants and subsidiaries across the Carolinas. Cone was Greensboro’s largest employer and the world’s leading supplier of denim. But even since 2003, when Cone Mills went bankrupt and was absorbed into an international textile conglomerate, the Cone family has remained the city’s largest employer through the Moses H. Cone Health System, a network of hospitals and outpatient healthcare providers. Today, most of their former plants are rusting and in decline. But people still whisper when Cone heirs arrive at parties, and their name is still emblazoned across the city their great-grandfathers built, from the wide, empty Cone Boulevard to the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital to the Cone YMCA downtown.
After a couple of itinerant years after college, and my first tentative summer working in New York, I moved back home to Greensboro into a tiny guest room set off from the kitchen in a collective house near downtown, hoping that the hundred-dollar-rent and absence of distractions would give me time to read and write. It did. But once settled in, I started to feel stuck in the past. Ex-girlfriends and old acquaintances seemed to wait around every turn at the Harris Teeter supermarket and at awkward craft-beer-sipping potlucks. With so much time between us, there was noticeably less to talk about. Our destinies seemed that much more locked-in and inescapable, the possibilities of youth markedly diminished.
My first week at White Oak factory was spent training with an upbeat middle-aged black woman named Judy, who explained that she worked at the factory “not because I have to. My husband’s old and rich. I just need something to do to pass the time while he’s out on the boat.” Judy took me on my first security round through the factory. I was surprised to find that cinema had not deceived me. An old denim factory really is a funhouse of red exit signs and retractable doors that yank open with the pull of the cord. Terminator 2 really nailed the vats and chains, the smoke, chemicals, and decay. They got the catwalks and metal grates, and most of all the lengthening shadows. Judy and I wandered past vats spewing steam linked up to mysterious-looking monitors. We heard our footsteps echoing on the hardwood floors of stadium-sized rooms storing massive carpet rolls of denim. These were catalogued on distorted shelves that crawled up thirty feet to the corroded scrap metal ceiling. Large rooms were named for the processes required to transform raw cotton into denim—weaving, slashing, beaming, warping, link spinning, and the dreaded dye house. Big, worn doors opened onto smokestacks and huge pill-shaped tanks of chemicals emblazoned with rust and bright EPA hazard diamonds. The darkened recesses of the factory were a mechanized tangle of pipes blowing steam and incomprehensible machines pumping away like some living, anodized Cthulhu. This was the two mile round I was to make six times a day, Judy and I taking turns on the hour to fill the twelve-hour shift.
“I’m so glad you’re with me now, Aaron!” Judy shrieked in exaggerated fear, dotting her flashlight around empty cavernous chambers. “It gets lonely in here!” I jumped when loud machinery hissed unexpectedly, and we passed huge, bowl-like plastic containers filled with velvety spools of cotton. “This is the part of the round where I have to walk with Jesus,” Judy began to shout as we ran through a decrepit expanse of wires and exhaust in the pitch, “Say it with me! Walk with Jesus! Walk with Jesus!” We emerged in a polyurethane-floored room filled with glowing, oven-like glass furnaces that looked like alien pods, their chutes blinking red in the darkness, and made our way up a short set of grated stairs out to the safety of the pipelined breezeway.
In the following weeks I memorized the lonely, serpentine walk through the living factory. Down inside the darkened departments with my flashlight, surrounded by whirring machinery, I shuffled from one security checkpoint to the next, following the barcodes that were the trail of breadcrumbs leading me, eventually, to the safety of an exit. When I got lost, I would start running, struggling to finish the round as quickly as I could. I occasionally imagined giant inflatable demons floating through the wide-open doorways or specter-like goat-men hoofing around in the dark just beyond my flashlight. I shouted down long, dark corridors where no one could hear me. I jumped and danced and screamed, and like an undertaker became reconciled to the grim solitude of the job. The factory maze began to infiltrate my dreams. I had visions of shuffling hands and bodies. On the even hours of my shift, while Judy made her rounds, I sat in the guard shack, passing time with crossword puzzles and endless pots of coffee, watching the gurgling Technicolor sunsets on the worn-out surveillance monitors the way one stares at a lava lamp, lost in the incandescent monochrome. I looked out at the empty parking lot or at filed timecards, collating them into a neat stack beside the antiquated punching machine. I drifted in and out of thousand-page books whose plots I no longer remember. I would get knots in my stomach from worrying, prickles of fear rising in preparation for the next tour through the building’s innards, the satanic subbasement. Occasionally I would collect passes and clock-out the exhausted workers who filed out of the barbed-wire gates when the horn, blaring, announced a shift change.
When I called my mother and told her I was working at the factory, she was initially disappointed that I was squandering my college education at the kind of place she had worked so her children wouldn’t have to. But after a while, she grew sentimental. “I just love the smell of an old cotton mill,” she said. “It reminds me of being a girl back in Mississippi.” I tried to appreciate her nostalgia, but instead I was brought back to what W.H. Auden wrote in 1939: “One cannot walk through a mass-production factory and not feel that one is in Hell.” Completing factory rounds, I could feel the long sweaty chapter of industrial history coming to a close. I began to prefer the company of books to people. Phone calls and emails became unbearable. There didn’t seem to be much left once you stripped the anecdotal varnish off of everyday life. When I came home after a twelve-hour shift and my always considerate housemates would ask, “How was work?” a mumbled “Fine” was all I could muster before shuffling to my bedroom and shutting the door.
“The dream of organizing the South,” Si Kahn, folk-singer and labor activist, once wrote, “has always been the drain in the bathtub through which progressive movements just kind of drain away.” The South remains the least unionized region of the country, with North Carolina clocking in dead last. Only 3.5 percent of its workforce pays union dues. In the 1920s, as cotton prices tanked and profits began to shrink, mill owners began what was to be a long clampdown on textile workers. Random firings and layoffs increased, and employees were made to operate many more looms without an increase in wages. In response, wildcat textile strikes spread rapidly through the Piedmont South in the late 1920s. In 1929, there were eighty-one textile strikes in South Carolina alone. The most bitter conflict was the five-and-a-half month-long standoff at Loray Mills, in tiny Gastonia, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte. A young Massachusetts Communist named Fred E. Beal, sent down to the mill by the National Textile Workers Union, called a strike after several union men at Loray were arbitrarily fired. Two days later, the governor of North Carolina, a mill owner himself, called in the National Guard, who combined with local anti-Communist vigilantes to turn Gastonia into a war zone. When strikers were evicted from company housing, the Workers International Relief set up a tent colony for the newly homeless. On June 7, a small army of police officers invaded the makeshift city and engaged the union’s armed guards in a firefight that left the Gastonia chief of police mortally wounded. Sixteen strikers were indicted for the murder. They were defended by the International Labor Defense and the ACLU, until the apparent insanity of juror Joseph C. Campbell forced the Judge to declare a mistrial. The New York Times reported:
Attorneys for the defense, acutely disappointed at the termination of the trial, charged that Campbell’s mind suffered the initial blow with the presentation by the prosecution last Thursday of the gruesome plaster of paris figure of [police] chief Aderholt, which Judge Barnhill ordered removed. It was recalled that when the black draped figure was rolled before the jury, Campbell’s terror stricken eyes almost popped out of their sockets as the chief’s widow emitted a stifled wail and the entire courtroom gasped. This, together with the offering into evidence by the state of Aderholt’s bloodstained and gunshot ridden clothes, seems to have added to the strain under which Campbell’s mind cracked. Today, as he was being taken into a padded cell he demanded that he be given a revolver so that he might deal out judgment to the defendants. “Give me a gun,” he yelled. “They have taken a life and I’ll make them confess. I’ll confess too, and finish it all.”
Soon after the mistrial, vigilantes murdered beloved organizer and single mother of five Ella May Wiggins in broad daylight, effectively bringing an end to the long strike. Despite the plethora of witnesses, no one was ever convicted in Wiggins’s death, which nonetheless prompted enough of an outcry to get the number of defendants charged with Chief Aderholt’s murder reduced to seven, Fred Beal among them. All seven defendants were convicted, and all seven jumped bail and followed Beal to the nascent Soviet Union. Beal gave lectures, wrote articles, and got a job picking cotton in Uzbekistan, until famine, bureaucracy, and the liquidation of the kulaks soured him on Communism. He returned to the US, where he went into hiding. After spending four years running from the police and his former comrades (and writing his autobiography, Proletarian Journey) Beal was caught and sent to prison in Raleigh. In exchange for the reinstatement of his US citizenship, he recanted his communism.
Throughout the 1930s, mill owners dug in their heels and instituted a campaign of low-grade terror against labor organizers, singling them out for beatings, kidnappings, and blacklisting. As the Depression sank in deeper, mills closed, wages plummeted, and union membership, already low, became practically nonexistent. In 1933, FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act established the Cotton Textile Code, which set up a baseline of regulation to protect textile workers: a minimum weekly wage, a maximum number of hours per week the mill could run, and a ban on child labor. Mill owners quickly found ways to skirt the regulations. In an early precedent to contemporary “permalancing,” tens of thousands of workers were reclassified to assistant and apprentice positions, which allowed mill owners to get away with giving them substandard wages.
Strife between owners and workers continued throughout the Depression and flared up again after World War II. In 1947, after five million American workers went out on strike and stayed out longer than ever before, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, a death blow to organized labor: it let states pass “right-to-work” laws that allowed individual employees to decide whether or not to join a union. In right-to-work states, employees who don’t join the union still receive the contract benefits of collective bargaining, even as they undermine the solidarity of their co-workers. Many right-to-work states also make it illegal for public employees to strike. Today, twenty-two states have right-to-work laws on the books, including every state in the South. Not coincidentally, the South remains the least-unionized region of the country.
One afternoon, I came in to find my co-workers Stacy and Jamie hollow-eyed and exhausted. Overnight they had had to drag an employee out of the plant after a vat of chemicals boiled over on top of him. Stacy recounted the accident clinically, her eyes glazed over: “He was going into shock, covered from head to toe in blisters, and the heel of his foot? It was like, hanging off, liquefied, not even attached anymore.” When I asked Stacy what to do if I was faced with a similar situation, she shrugged. “Open the gates. Fill out an incident report. Help carry them out on a stretcher if necessary. The company lawyers will be hovering around trying to get the employee’s family to sign the waiver so they can’t sue. And if they’re bleeding, for God’s sake, don’t forget to put on gloves.”
Earlier, while rooting around the guard shack for something to read, I had stumbled upon a large yellowing binder labeled “Incident Reports,” a kind of greatest hits collection of factory trauma: all the fights, animals attacks, trespasses, assaults, fires, vandalism, falls on staircases, and untimely deaths were elaborately described in a security officer’s tight, neutral prose. Throughout the factory, there were dusty light-up LED boards in that said, “This Department has been accident-free for ___ days!” They attempted to make not –getting injured into a team-building exercise. Walking through the factory after the incident, it was depressing to see one of the injury LED tickers set back to zero. About a week later, I started to notice a memorial set off in the grass near the factory entrance. Etched into stone were the names of four Cone Mills executives. It read:
IN MEMORIAM. PERISHED IN A PLANE WHILE ON BUSINESS TRIP TO SWITZERLAND.
I shook my head. Where was the stone monument to the third-shift mill worker who had never left Guilford County? Perhaps the company felt it had already done enough. After all, on the walls of every department were grimy mirrors with a line of faded text running across the top, reminding employees who would be paying the bills if they got hurt. The mirrors all read:
MEET THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SAFETY.
One can’t speak of Greensboro without noting the periodic gusts of radicalism that blow through the town. Throughout the ’70s, young people from the North on track for promising careers took blue-collar jobs in the North Carolina mills in an attempt to awaken the Southern working class. They formed a subgroup of the Communist Worker’s Party, dubbed the Worker’s Viewpoint Organization, and distributed thousands of copies of their newspaper, Worker’s Viewpoint. During one particularly long shift in the guard shack, I read a memoir by Bill Sampson, a young man with a Masters of Divinity from Harvard who got a job at my factory in the late ’70s. He started the White Oak Organizing Committee while working in the dye house—the most toxic department, where spools of cotton are dipped into noxious vats of indigo. Sampson produced a short pamphlet to hand out to White Oak employees that described a typical accident at the plant:
Chemical fire in the dye house. Dangerous chemical fumes started to spread. Meanwhile several workers in the finishing room started throwing up from breathing in the fumes. Naturally, many workers wanted to go home, but the supervisor told them, “If you value your job you better get back to work.”
Sampson and his comrades were successful enough in establishing a union at the factory that Cone management sent out a letter to White Oak’s workers, warning, “A small group of radical employees is threatening your job security.”
By 1979, the Worker’s Viewpoint had organized six strikes across North Carolina and cultivated a substantial presence in the local mills. Along the way, they engaged in an escalating conflict with a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. The Worker’s Viewpoint led a “Death to the Klan” march in Kannapolis, North Carolina and disrupted a Klan viewing of Birth of a Nation in China Grove, sixty miles to the south of Greensboro, burning a Confederate flag and chanting “Kill the Klan!” On November 3rd, 1979 they organized another “Death to the Klan” rally. This one was held in a predominantly African-American housing project in Greensboro called Morningside Homes. This time, the Klan and the American Nazi Party showed up ready to meet them: a small caravan of good old boys stood behind their cars and placidly unloaded their rifles and shotguns into the crowd. Five organizers were killed: Cesar Cauce, an immigrant from Cuba and recent Duke graduate; Dr. Michael Nathan, chief of pediatrics at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham; Sandi Smith; Jim Waller; and Bill Sampson. The massacre was captured on video; it later emerged that an undercover police agent had accompanied the Neo-Nazis and the Klan, and knew about the planned attack but did nothing to stop it. A police detective and police photographer were also present at the shootout but made no attempt to intervene. Of the forty Klansmen involved, only sixteen were arrested. Of those sixteen arrested, only six were brought to trial. All six brought to trial were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The primary duties of a security guard are antagonizing people and pretending to look busy. We stopped workers at the gates, demanded hall passes, ticketed their cars, asked for multiple forms of identification. Our presence at the factory was less a matter of security than of shrewd corporate accounting—the cost of maintaining a stable of warm patrolling bodies is simply less than the cost of damages or lost production if a fire or theft-in-progress is not discovered. One evening, Judy and I were staring out at a pink sunset when we heard the sound of glass breaking. I jumped up and pressed my face to the window, squinting out over the parking lot just in time to see a pack of dot-sized teenagers running away from the old church across the road. As I got up to go out after them, Judy jumped from her swivel chair, “Don’t you even think about going out there, Aaron! We’re staying right here—we don’t get paid enough to go mess with that shit!” Judy carried a golf club with her on her security rounds, saying she had seen wild dogs prowling around the outdoor sections of the plant. Down by the railroad tracks, where trains brought in baled cotton, I chased stray cats around creaky wooden barns. Once, in the machine shop, Judy’s flashlight landed on a possum standing upright and hissing on a golf cart, and she screamed over the walkie-talkie for me to come save her. One Sunday, while making my way through the hissing subbasement for the thousandth time, I found myself stooping down beside a noisy boiler unit to cry, blinking red lights and grays swirling in my tears.
Dams have to be built and coal has to be burnt. Sewage systems have to be kept running. Water and electricity have to be pumped in to power machinery. Chemicals have to be manufactured to be put in food and products and then be delivered in trucks that use gasoline, and grease has to coat the cogs of conveyor belts. Cotton has to be packed onto freight trains and cross dewy fields at night. Factory employees run hazardous machines to dye and process cotton into denim, while others roll it up and put it on planes. Once it arrives at its destination, other workers unload it and drive it to factories where it is sewn it into blue jeans. The product is then loaded back up onto planes and shipped to the US, driven by truckers to stores. Jeans are bought by people who work hard and deserve to have nice things. They are sold by people who have pretty smiles but no health insurance. Department by department, the lights were shut off throughout White Oak and the outsized machinery was quietly bubble-wrapped, put on planes, and shipped to Nicaragua, to a doppelganger factory that would be manned by a more pliant workforce. Huge boxes addressed in Chinese lettering sat in gymnasium-like rooms. In the 1970s, North Carolina had been a contender, a textile leader. But as the market became glutted with foreign products, Cone Mills closed ten of its factories between 1977 and 1990. The textile industry had made one last ditch effort with an optimistic “Buy American!” campaign, but it wasn’t enough to plug the sucking sound of the drain.
After about seven months at the factory, I realized my life had degenerated into a kind of early retirement, full of remembering and repetition. It was time to go. I put in my two weeks and drove away from my final shift at dusk, past the construction and tiny strip malls, toward the unusually bright glow of downtown Greensboro. The roads were cordoned off—a nonprofit had organized a “Get downtown, Greensboro!” day, but no one was there to see it. A few dozen corporate sponsors and volunteers shifted around and chatted anxiously, trying to determine the fate of dozens of boxes of promotional T-shirts. Middle-aged gallery owners stood outside their empty opening nights with folded arms and pensive smiles on their faces. SUNY 93.9 blasted tepid radio rock from a hastily thrown-up tent. These people too were like undertakers, administering last rites to the dream of a new city—one fed by fiber optic cables and servers, stored on key-chain zip drives; allergen-free, air-conditioned, lit up twenty-four hours a day by cheerless fluorescence. Meanwhile, the factory rotted on the edge of town.
I moved back to New York to join the pale, information-age multitudes huddled in front of computers, breathing the menthol-cold air pumped into offices by great, rumbling HVAC units. But in the early mornings before heading to work, I made coffee and took long aimless walks, as if my feet had come to expect a certain number of miles be covered per day. I would leave my apartment and head east to where the squatty vinyl-sided apartments of “East Williamsburg” abruptly give way to the brick factories and cobblestone streets of Bushwick. Walking past those quiet warehouses, in the perfectly contrasting geometries of morning light and receding shadow, I would stare up at the sooty chimneys and centuries-old smokestacks, looking for smoke.