At Slater Mill, a people's history of Pawtucket

Hidden Heritage
By PHILIP EIL  |  June 4, 2014

Cozzens's 'A-U-T-O-N-O-M-I-A.'

“I think that everything we purchase has a history of exploitation behind it, whether it be the time the laborer gives up of their life. . . the unsafe conditions they work in and the low pay, or the people who were colonized in order to steal the resources necessary to make whatever ‘goods.’ What we buy is dripping with blood and we are trained not to notice unless we are the laborers themselves.”

This is Chelsea Carl — a 23-year-old artist, teacher, and RISD Film/Animation/Video grad — talking about her large, black-and-white digital illustration entitled “it’s illegal to commit suicide” in the new show at the Slater Mill Historic Site in Pawtucket. “suicide” is a dystopian maelstrom featuring surveillance cameras, shopping malls, radioactive products sliding down conveyor belts, barbed wire fences, and assembly line workers maimed and handcuffed by clocks — all of it circling text that reads, in part, “BEING SUBJECT TO THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, FOUNDED ON OUR ENSLAVEMENT, WE THE PEOPLE DEMAND AN END TO THE IMPERIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT AND ITS ALLIANCES AND GLOBAL CAPITALIST REGIME!”

It’s a surprising piece to be exhibited inside a factory-turned-museum where a plaque announcing “THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE COTTON MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY IN AMERICA HERE IN 1793” hangs near the front door and the chipper line “Where Innovation Starts” plays prominently on its logo. But, well, the “The Mother of All Strikes: The 1824 Textile Worker Turnout,” is a surprising show.

The concept comes from Joey DeFrancesco, a local musician, artist, and organizer perhaps best known for his star turn in the 2011 viral video, “Joey Quits.” That video, in which he hands his Renaissance Providence Hotel boss resignation papers as the What Cheer? Brigade blasts a celebratory tune on horns and drums, has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube. But by the time the video was edited and uploaded, Joey already had a new job — one he still holds — working as a tour guide at Slater Mill. He has since added “Program Creator” to his title.

Visitors to the Mill for “Mother of All Strikes” find the museum’s usual artifacts and accouterments: the cotton gin, the looms, the high-speed braiding machine, the oil portrait of Samuel Slater hanging on the wall. But they’ll also find panels explaining what happened during a tumultuous week in May of 1824. “On Monday last there was a meeting of the manufacturers, which was generally attended, and an agreement made to run the mills about an hour longer, and to reduce the wages of those who worked by the piece, after the 1st of June, about 20 percent,” reads one contemporaneous newspaper account.

“On Wednesday evening a tumultuous crowd filled the street,” it continues, “led by the most unprincipled and disorderly part of the village, and made an excessive noise — they visited successively the houses of the manufacturers, shouting, exclaiming and using every imaginable term of abuse and insult.”

In all, 102 women walked off the job that week, protesting decreased wages and increased hours. After a week of such protests — “screaming & shouting thro the streets,” as one diary entry on display describes — prior conditions were restored.

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