Making of the modern South
“Cotton mills certainly provided the main source of industrial paid labor for white southerners, especially women, who made up 20-50 percent of the textile labor force through the twentieth century.”
She added that although the mill industry was one of the lowest paying manufacturing industries, the jobs were often coveted because there were few options other than agricultural or service work.
In many cases, textile work also ran in the family, and children would join as soon as they could.
However, the industry was much less inclusive to African-Americans, who were working as janitors or loading cotton into the machines .
“African-Americans were barred from all but the most menial of jobs in the mills,” said Fink.
However the 1963 Civil Rights Act opened the industry to African-Americans.
“Black men and women flooded into the mills and organized against discrimination and, with some of their white coworkers, for safer working conditions and higher wages, and for the right to union representation.”
Although conditions improved, the South began to lose mills in the 1970s, and it continued into the 1980s, do to increased labor regulations and global competition.
“No matter how low you drop American wages, you won’t be able to compete with overseas company who might pay their workers the same amount for a week of work that you pay an hour,” said Fink.
When the textile jobs went overseas, some of the technology went along with it.
“One southern labor historian, Mary Frederickson, has written about visiting a mill in Uzbekistan and finding there cast-iron looms from the Carolinas,” she said.
The economy rebounds
Many areas of the Carolinas suffered from high unemployment rates because the area was largely dependent on the textile industry.
Fink said from 1997 to 2001, the Carolinas lost almost 200,000 textile and apparel jobs, and in 2006, little more than 10 percent of the American workforce was in manufacturing. Roughly half the work force in the 1950s worked in the industry, according to Fink.
From 1992-2012, the textile and apparel industry in North Carolina lost 86.7% of employees according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The industry has slowly been shifting in North Carolina,and the latest report from the Division of Employment Security found the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in December, with only two counties above 10 percent.
Many of today's jobs are in biotechnology and information technology as well as agriculture, which are among the state's chief exports.
In fact, N.C. agriculture exports were more than $3.9 billion in 2012, a 189 percent increase from 2005 according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Total exports grew by 7 percent in 2014, and N.C. ranked fifteenth nationally in growth and amount of exports.