An Urban Mill Town: Growing up in Cabbagetown in the 1940s and 1950s

As loving and good to their people as they were mean to outsiders, my village lived by a moral code that worked for them.
176

Life as I mapped it out for myself has been good; across my three score years I’ve put my Satchel and Underwood typewriter down in New York, Paris, Munich and in other cities I read about at the public library on Carnegie way. But whenever I’ve thought of home, I’ve thought of eight square blocks in the southeast quadrant of Atlanta, the Fulton Mill Village, called Cabbagetown since around 1946.

“Cabbagetown” as a name is a lie. Peaches have more to do with Peachtree Street—which is to say nothing—than Cabbagetown has with cabbages. It was a newspaper reporter’s invention that a truckload of cabbages overturned on Boulevard, making the “mill trash” put the feed bag on. Thus the name. It never happened.

0315_archive_urbanmill_cck_oneuseonlyOne flank of my blood kin dropped down from Rabun County eight years after the end of the Civil War, and early in the 1890s—the decade when cotton mills were starting up from southern Virginia to east Alabama—a new mill in southeast Atlanta put out a call for white workers: “operatives,” the mill called them. A sizeable number of hill people had found Atlanta’s chutzpah to be to their liking, my kin among them.

When I arrived in this world, at Grady Memorial Hospital in 1936, it was in the shadow of Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. My first home was in an upper room of a two-story duplex on Carroll Street where my teenage mama was living—a mill girl who would later take up jularkin’ all over hell and half of east Tennessee, leaving her tow-headed bush baby to settle his own hash. I was 2.

Life in the Deep South then was placed on a plain, dark backdrop. The white and black Southerners who had little were obligated to look after their own, and so it came to be that Cabbagetown families took in an abandoned boy-child.

The good women who fed and sheltered me were very much the true Cabbagetown people: a plate of greens and smoked bacon was fixed special for folks down the street who were without; a child at play on the sidewalk was every woman’s child. You need 50 cents? Here’s two dollars. Your mama runs off to Johnson City? Come stay with us. Two weeks here, a month there—they saved me from the county orphanage and heaven only knows what all else.

Then came Papa.

When I was 4 my migration ended with a tribe of touchous on Gaels on Tye Street whose alpha male was a carpenter by day, a moonshiner by night, and a Ku Kluxer. He was not my own blood kin. He was called Papa by his nine daughters and six sons and by my 102 “first cousins,” his grandchildren, and, in that season of my life, he was Papa to me. He still is. Even after my sense of the world burst forth, to my mind never had a male of the species flaunted his tail feathers with such relish.

Papa’s wife, “Grandma,” was two ax handles across and famous for being bent out of shape. As far away as the far end of Short Street she was known for pugnacity and holly-roller zeal and affection only for her own blood kin, one of whom I was not. She was as fiercely loyal to them as she was distrustful of strangers. The broom she made and kept next to the porch swing was to chase off any living soul who was in any way different from her—no small number.

In the minds of many of the neighbors, Papa himself was too often white with anger, but with me, his found boy, the better angel in him had come home to roost. He taught me to read at 5 and, until I was 8, I slept on a World War I cot at the foot of his massive bed. From Day One in his house this old man was my daddy, and for him I would have crawled on broken glass through fire.

Once I took to loving books he made certain I didn’t ever quit, for he wanted more for me. After I came of 7, the only hug and kiss he gave me came after a play I had written and put on in the chicken yard out back of his house on a little stage he built for it, copying a drawing of an Elizabethan playhouse. He kept my one copy of the play safe in his locked toolbox until, chancing upon a circle of Methodist church ladies from Buckhead, he put it in their hands.

Papa was there to see after me any day and time, and only once did he lay a hand on me. I was 8. I had made fast friends with a black kid my age who lived east of Pearl Street and lily white Cabbagetown—Reynoldstown today—and this was not part of Papa’s hope for me. He took me to a night Klan rally atop Stone Mountain. In the morning when I sassed back that the Klan was sorry as gully dirt, he came within a narrow inch of cold-cocking me—a right good lick whose sting lives on 54 years later.

Now, racism thrived everywhere in Atlanta, everywhere in the South then, so an old Klansman was by no means a pariah dog in Cabbagetown. But there were two ways by which he and his folks were not your usual Cabbagetown people. The life of nearly every mill worker there (some as young as 10 before child-labor laws trickled into Dixie in the 1920s) pivoted around the mill. They feared their God and the savagery of the mill owner and his “police”—outsider thugs in cop drag whose specialty was curbstone justice. Oh, how Papa despised Fulton Bag. The mill police flat knew better than to set foot on Tye Street as Papa, even in his 80s, was known to be a right mean sumbitch. Only two of his nine daughters would defy him and hire on at the mill. (A woman “operative” was favored; she would work 60-hour weeks for even lower wages than a man—and many male supervisors found certain perks in the system.)

Jackleg bootlegging was the career choice of Papa’s sons who hadn’t gone to fight the Japanese: down the chute from Gainesville, sifting dirt along two-lane Buford Highway, looking out for the rare Atlanta cop that hadn’t made room in his hip pocket for a payoff. Buying or chugging white whiskey was not a rare thing in Cabbagetown or anywhere in dry Fulton County, but for years and years it had been carted in by outsiders. For a Cabbagetown tribe to be making or transporting took enterprise—something seldom seen among submissive textile workers in the states of the old Confederacy.

In my early boyhood in Atlanta, while still barefoot and running wild, in love with Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and “Tales from Shakespeare,” by Charles and Mary Lamb, my eyes were open and I was listening and crystallizing—a young playwright finding his true voice.

My world went to dust when Papa passed away.

They waited until he was decently in the ground, but at the very hour that he was, at the National Cemetery in Marietta, my “grandma” and all but the oldest girl of her grown children let it be known that Papa’s 10-year-old best boy was now a stranger in the house. Back then child abuse was a matter of no importance to Georgia politicians, and child-care agencies were not flourishing.

At 15, the zeal for books that was Papa’s gift to me set me free. The very same church ladies in Buckhead whom Papa had given my play to years earlier got up money to send me to a private school 150 miles away. At 17, I was in New York City and training as an actor. Never willingly would I ever set eyes on any of my “family” again.

But look now and you’ll find precious few of the sort of good folks, who in my salad days, dwelled, worked and died in Cabbagetown. Loving their own kind but sometimes suspicious of outsiders, they lived by a moral code that had worked well for mountain people in the South ever since the pioneers, their ancestors, found the gap in the Cumberlands. Years before the mill shut down for good, after more than a 90-year run, nearly all the “operatives” and their children were long gone, leaving behind those who felt lost without the mill’s paternalism, the very old and tired, and some who simply loved the neighborhood. Sad to say, a slather of the latter-day down-and-out stumbled in from heaven knows where, some of whom were fresh out of morals.

Hard times, good times. Cabbagetown has persevered. By far most newcomers to my native city think of it as only another in-town neighborhood that’s changing, gentrifying. The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill is being made into upscale lofts that promise to bring in new people and money. The hard times shall be no more, so they say.

Gene-Gabriel Moore is founder and artistic director of Not Merely Players, a performing arts company for men, women and children with disabilities, at the 14th Street Playhouse. He lives in Midtown.

This article originally appeared in our November 1998 issue.

Advertisement