NORTH ADAMS -- Did high-powered 19th century Northern Berkshire industrialists build their cotton mill empires through investments in the slave trade?
Local gallerist Ralph Brill believes that early industrial icons such as Albert C. Houghton, owner of the Arnold Print Works and first mayor of the city, and the Plunkett family of Adams, which owned the Berkshire Cotton Mills, were not only investors but owned slaves and plantations in the south.
Evidence drawing connections between these early "movers and shakers" and the slave trade will be presented as part of a lecture, "Cotton and Race in the making of the Northern Berkshires," sponsored by Brill on Wednesday at 6:45 p.m. at the MCLA Church Street Center. The lecture is free and open to the public.
The lecture will feature Gene Dattel, author of "Cotton and Race in the Making of America," one of several featured speakers at a 2011 symposium on slavery in New England hosted by Brown University and Harvard University.
"Many people have asked me why I’m bringing this up," he said Friday during an interview at his gallery in the Eclipse Mill. "I think it’s important for people to understand the past in order to move this area forward. The roots of American capitalism started here, which is something to be proud of, but we must also acknowledge how it came about."
Brill came across North County’s connections to the slave trade haphazardly while working on "The Mill Children" exhibition, seeking out original stuffed doll and animal prints manufactured at the Arnold Print Works.
"There were several articles about the dolls, including one in the Transcript, where I reached out to the reading public and asked for anyone with the dolls to contact me," he said. "I got about 10 calls. During three of those calls, the individuals were telling me stories about their family connections and mentioned having documents connecting the mill to the slave trade. One had a letter from one of the owners of the Arnold Print Works addressed to his plantation manager in Mississippi. Another had proof of bank shares in a slave ship."
Brill began digging deeper and began making connections.
"After the Civil War, all of the New England states burned every document they could that connected them to the slave trade," he said. "At one time, Boston was a major slave port. Banks invested in Boston slave ships. Once the cotton gin was developed, cotton production picked up and Mississippi began growing fiber cotton -- which was made into luxury sheets and linens."
Brill’s suspicions about local connections have also been confirmed. He said the Adams Historical Society has documents showing W.B. Plunkett owned 11,000 acres of land in Mississippi -- a cotton plantation. Rachel Branch, a local descendent of William Arthur Gallup, co-owner of Arnold Print Works and Houghton’s son-in-law, also confirmed earlier this year, after making the shocking discovery during a family reunion, that the Gallups also owned slaves.
Research that has surfaced in the last decade linking banks and colleges to the southern slave trade also helped make connections, he said.
In 2003, it was discovered that Rhode Island’s James DeWolf, the second richest man in the country at the time of his death in 1837 and the benefactor who helped found Brown University, made his fortune as a slave trader, thus reopening a chapter in New England’s forgotten history. The admission led to Harvard University and other institutions coming clean about their past connections to slavery.
"The Eastern side of the state has come clean, now it’s time for us," Brill said. "We’re only at the beginning of this -- it’s like an onion and we’re peeling back the layers. There isn’t a lot of documentation left, but there’s enough to start connecting the dots."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email