Acree Bell Lassiter was just 17 when she started working in a textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Now that mill, like all the mills in her town, is gone.
by David Compa
In Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, people like to tell a story about how in the middle of the summer, it used to snow. The white flakes would swirl around and stick to your hair and your car and your lawn. It was all over the place. This wasn’t snow, though. It was cotton, floating out of the town’s seven cotton mills. This was before air conditioning was commonplace, and the factories would open their windows to let a breeze in. Acree Bell Lassiter, 89, who now lives just outside the town, remembers those days well. “My daddy was a sharecropper,” she explains. Lassiter is one of the many women who found independence in mill work during the industry’s peak. She spent her nearly 60-year career at a local mill, beginning just after World War II. When she retired in the 1990s, the industry was on the decline, nationwide. It moved overseas, and the impact this had in Roanoke Rapids is still evident today: Just two of seven mills are still standing, and they have been abandoned. The town’s unemployment rate hovers around 10.5 percent, more than twice the national average, according to 2015 ACS data. Lassiter comes from a big family, with 16 brothers and sisters altogether. “I couldn’t go to college. Couldn’t do anything but go to work.” What little money they had always went to the boys in Lassiter’s family. “My daddy never gave us girls any money. But he would give the boys money. I used to wonder, ‘Well, why didn’t he give us something?’” But Lassiter’s life changed when the US joined World War II. Lassiter’s brothers went off to fight the Germans and, like so many young women, she went to get a job. Lassiter, then 17, was hired at a local cotton mill. “The first week, I worked for 40 hours. Guess what I got? I got [paid] $16. ... I was called a ‘creeler.’ You’d have things of yarn about this large,” she says, talking with her hands. A creeler is a textile worker who tends the creel, or a rack holding bobbins or spools for spinning and other aspects of a yarn tufting or twisting machine or another kind of loom. “You’d put so many of one color here, and so many of one color here.” Lassiter worked at one of the seven mills in town, all of which were owned by J.P.