She Died for Our Convenience Prologue
This is The transcript of the first 30 minutes of the piece. It was read aloud simultaneously by:
ronald kevin lewis, Hernan Jourdan, tally murphy, rebecca noon, and tyra wilson.
It was written by rebecca Noon, with support from Jed Hancock-Brainerd, Clara Weishahn, Emily Shapiro, LorÉn Spears, Tatyana Yanishevsky, and Johanna Walczak.
Thank you for coming to She Died for Our Convenience, a choral haunting commissioned by the Providence Preservation Society and created by Strange Attractor with composer Chrissy Wolpert. My name is __________, and I’d like to share some information with you about this place and the people who spent time here. It will be a lot of information, and so it’s okay if your mind sometimes drifts. History is long and we can’t always hold it all once. . . But that doesn’t stop us from trying.
I’ll speak loudly, but please move closer if you have trouble hearing. My fellow Speakers are sharing the exact same information. When we’re done we’ll come together as one large group for the rest of the night. There may be times where it’s hard for people in the back to see well. If you find yourself in the front and are feeling hearty, it would be great if you could sit or kneel. Just keep taking care of each other.
The first thing you should know is that THIS WAS A TEXTILE FACTORY.
These buildings were designed to produce worsted woolen goods for fine menswear. The word “worsted” refers to a smooth yarn spun from wool -- the kind of fabric that will become a suit more likely than a sweater. Think about what you’re wearing tonight. Is any of it worsted wool?
This complex of 11 buildings are known as the Earnscliffe Woolen/Paragon Worsted Company Mills. That name refers to two different companies that operated here at different times. The Earnscliffe Woolen Company constructed the first buildings here in 1898 and then operated until failing in 1909. The Paragon Worsted Company then bought the entire complex and added to it, constructing the last buildings in 1939. Paragon closed in 1964, and after that no one company purchased the entire property.
We won’t go inside the buildings tonight because they aren’t safe anymore, but in 1897, as the they were being built, the Providence Journal of Commerce wrote an article about what they were like inside. I’ll read you some of it to give you a better idea:
The building is of red brick with granite trimmings. The interior construction is cast iron and steel columns, steel girders, and Georgia hard pine and maple floors. All parapet walls are capped with blue flagstone, and the doors, window frames and sash throughout the mill are of cypress. The first floor will be well appointed and commodious, and fitted and finished in cypress and North Carolina pine.
Heating will be by steam circulation, and lighting by electricity from an electric plant installed in the mill. The first floor will contain the receiving, dyeing, finishing and shipping departments.
The matter of getting light to the work, especially in the weaving department, which is one of the main features of success in weaving colored goods, has been taken largely into account, and that department has been so arranged that no space is lost. The construction and equipment of this factory will not be surpassed by anything in that line up to date.
This textile mill was one among many operating in Olneyville during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and at some points upwards of 1200 people came to work here everyday. The workers ran in 3 shifts: The 1st shift was 7am to 3pm, the 2nd shift was 3pm to 11pm, and the 3rd shift was 11pm to 7am.
Running the mills all day and night was so noisy that eventually the neighborhood complained. On July 7, 1898 the Providence Journal reported that the Rhode Island Supreme Court heard a case where Olneyville residents requested the mill stop night shifts so they could get some rest. The mill owner testified that if they closed at night they would lose too much money, and his attorney called the suit *quote*: “an attempt to strike at what was the life of the state.” The Judge replied that *quote* “he did not believe any men should be allowed to acquire wealth at the expense or the discomfort of other men.”
For about 65 years, this area was dusty and loud, full of dyes and smells and the nonstop clacking of macheriney.
New England was full of mills in the late 19th and early 20th century, and so recruiters circulated throughout the region to find workers. Young women were particularly sought after to come to cities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to work alongside men in the textile mills. The wages, typically about $3.00 a week, were much higher than anything they could earn working at their family’s farms, and working in textile mills let young women earn their own money, save for their future, and assist their families.
But that doesn’t mean the work was easy or that they were treated well. Harsh conditions, long hours, and a lack of workers’ rights inspired many millworkers to strike and organize. Fifty unorganized weavers went on strike here at the Paragon Mills in February of 1946 due to poor working conditions. Later that year, the Textile Workers Union of America unionized this plant. But, like so many other industries, it wasn’t long after Paragon unionized that the mill closed for good. By the 1960’s lots of mills were moving to the US South for cheaper, non-unionized labor.
The constant need for higher profits for shareholders and cheaper goods for consumers, means that there are very few textile manufacturing plants still operating in the US. Women continue to be a large part of the global textile manufacturers’ workforce. Today, more than 70% of textile workers in China are women, 85% in Bangladesh, and 90% in Cambodia. Although producing for some of the most profitable companies in the world, the people who make textiles today are often working for poverty wages and under toxic conditions, in mills opens around the clock.
Did you know that THIS WAS A SLAUGHTERHOUSE?
In the early 19th century, before it was a mill, this area was a tannery for animal hides and a slaughterhouse. That’s why that little road there is called “Tanyard Lane.” At one point there were 100 tanning vats here.
In 1895 The Providence Journal reported that hundreds of people watched as a cow laid down right here on its way to the slaughterhouse and refused to move. About three weeks later the same newspaper reported that a woman was assaulted, also right here. I’ll read a bit from the article: “a police officer ran into the dark lane and found a woman in the grasp of four ruffians who had torn her dress from her person. They ran when the policeman entered the lane and made their escape in the darkness. The woman was fighting drunk and when the policeman advised her to go home she turned on him and was very abusive. She would not go home and was too drunk to take care of herself, and as a rapidly growing crowd was gathering, it became necessary to arrest her. She fought like a tigress all the way to the patrol box on Tar Bridge.”
For about 100 years, this area was a bloody place with livestock and animal hides and smells and the sound of flesh.
What I really want you to remember is that THIS IS NARRAGANSETT LAND.
Before it was a tannery and a slaughterhouse, this land was farmed by settlers who acquired it from the European Colonists who stole it from the Narragansett People. For thousands of years, the Narragansett People lived here, and they still do.
The Narragansett People who live in Rhode Island today can trace their ancestry back to this place for more than 30,000 years. As the largest nation in the area, the Narragansett were leaders along the waters of what is today Southern New England. They supported and protected smaller communities like the Nipmuck, the Niantics, the Wampanoag, and Manisseans. All of these nations worked together in partnership and family, as allies, neighbors, and kin.
In 1636, colonist and religious dissenter, Roger Williams was cast out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and was taken in by the Narragansett Nation, which gave him food, shelter and support, without which, he would not have survived. In that same year, Williams requested land use rights from Canonicus and Miantonomi, Narragansett Sachems who granted Williams land use for the area that eventually became the settlement of Providence. By 1644 Roger Williams secured a charter for Providence Plantations from England. Despite years of working closely with the Narragansett, the charter Williams signed sanctioned the invading and killing of Narragansett People. In 1675 during King Philip’s War, a military force of Puritans massacred a group of Narragansett, mostly women, children, and elderly men living in a winter camp in the Great Swamp located in what is today South Kingstown.
The Great Swamp Massacre drew the Narragansett into King Philip's War, which eventually destroyed all Indigenous sovereignty in this region -- their home for tens of thousands of years. Following the war, there were few options for Narragansett survival. Colonists sold some people into slavery in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations as well as the Caribbean. Others were forcibly displaced and later forced onto reservations in swamp lands in the southern area of the state, some of which make up the reservation today. Still others fled to northern New England, upstate New York and Brothertown, Wisconsin in order to survive.
While the Narragansett People have seen many changes, they have managed to pass down their traditional culture from generation to generation. Today, Narragansett people continue to build strong community at the Four Winds Community Center in Charlestown, the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, the Rhode Island Indian Council in Providence, and also at pow-wows, in various businesses and workplaces, and among families throughout the region. People who trace their ancestry to those who first greeted Roger Williams still live in Providence today, but no land in Providence has ever been returned.
For thousands of years -- much longer than it was a tannery or a mill -- this was a forested area, rich with animals, plants, and people. Things can change so fast.
You might already know this, but ARTISTS ALSO LIVED AND WORKED HERE.
In 1964 Paragon Mills closed, and sold its fabric division to Indian Head Mills, which eventually sold to ArtCraft Braid, which was right here until 2008, operating a small section of the original 4.4 acre, 11-building complex.
Maybe some of you have had experiences here. Maybe you played a music show, or saw a puppet performance, or danced all night with your friends, or received mentorship from YouthBuild. Think about those times now. (silently count to three) Cool.
For the last several decades waves of artists living outside the mainstream have made these buildings their homes, studios and performance venues. No precise records were kept of everything that happened in the 20-or-so years where various underground scenes made this place their own, however spaces like Soft Approach, Witch Club, Castlevania, Hilarious Attic, and Paragon all existed here. That building is particularly known by many artists who worked on this project. To many, it’s known as Building 16.
Building 16 ran from 2005 to 2013, with people living here as early as 2002. It was a sculpture studio, woodworking and metalworking shop, band practice space, DIY venue, and more. It wasn’t insulated and so was freezing in the winter and hot in the summer. However, all that discomfort didn’t stop people from stretching their creativity beyond what regulated spaces allowed. There were Movie Nights in the summer where people projected films on the side of the building. In the winter, temporary walls were made out of cardboard, glass, and plastic sheeting to create a “hot room” around the wood stove and kitchen. The dumpsters from ArtCraft Braid remained long after it closed, and so art projects often featured colorful rope. The PVD Dance Troupe performed an enormous DIY dance show called "Rigorous Disco of Doom" there in the courtyard before taking it to the New Orleans Fringe Festival in 2009. There was a going away party where people put the guest-of-honor inside a human-sized papier mache piñata, and people delivered food on roller skates.
As is so often the case, developers eventually smelled potential again in Olneyville. In 2012, Olneyville Housing Corporation purchased this complex for 1.2 million dollars, with dreams of turning it into a neighborhood health center, a theater, and community space. And so, in 2013, people who’d been living in Building 16 created a final series of events to commemorate their impending eviction, including a 16-hour show, featuring a raucous performance by What Cheer? Brigade, spilling out into this parking lot, complete with an altar, a ceremonial burning coffin and fireworks.
There’s video of that night on YouTube that I would recommend. At one moment, What Cheer? is playing Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” and a voice over a microphone says: “Over these past eight years, we've tried to build a creative space that balances freedom with accountability...A place that feels raw, but cared for...A place where we can make chaos while feeling safe... IF YOU SHARE THESE INTENTIONS THIS ISN'T THE END. Find a way to start your own space or incorporate these values into your own spaces that you're already apart of. Most importantly, whatever you do, do it better than us. This isn't the end. Building 16 lives on in all of the creative projects that were born here. All of the serious conversations and fun nights. You can't evict the dream!”
In 2014, the estimated rehabilitation costs for this complex were between 15 and 32 million dollars -- a prohibitive sum for Olneyville Housing to make their neighborhood center a reality. And so, for the last six or so years, these buildings have been in a kind of limbo without artists or developers occupying and improving them.
Last winter Olneyville Housing gave the complex back to the city of Providence, and in December, a new developer came forward and is in the process of purchasing the complex. We’re not sure what for, but that’s why you had to sign those papers saying you wouldn’t sue anyone, and also why this area -- which has been open forever -- is now surrounded by all this fencing.
Okay now. Here’s my favorite part. THE RIVER.
There is a river behind that building. We call it the Woonasquatucket River, and it’s the whole reason any of this has happened and is happening here. I’m sorry you can’t see it. All these buildings are in the way.
It’s hard to find information about the river that isn’t connected to people using it, but this river has been here longer than people. As we learned, for thousands of years the Narragansett and other Algonquin Nations were its caretakers, relying on the river as a vital connector and meeting place, building a trade center around the river and giving it its name, which is Algonquian for “The place before the bend at the mouth of the river.” But it was much more than that.
All water is connected. What goes downstream doesn’t really go away. The extractive capitalistic perspective insists that the water is only here for our use. However, the Indigenous perspective reminds us that we are all connected to the water and that when you poison the water you poison yourself. Eventually the Woonasquatucket River was so full of things no one wanted that it was toxic, traumatized, and dangerous to organic life. As the bosses of manufacturing moved their mills to other countries where workers couldn’t ask for so much, they poisoned -- and continue to poison -- other rivers, leaving this one alone.
In the last few decades, without manufacturing and industry to contend with, people have begun the long process of cleaning up the damage of the last few hundred years. The good news is, it seems to be working. Plants and animals are returning. The river is slowly healing.
But as people clean up the river, and turn the buildings that once held mills into condos and shopping centers, many people are being pushed out. On top of the loss of artist spaces, increasing costs and a changing culture make it less possible for the communities, largely from Central and South America, who have lived and worked in Olneyville for the past decades, to remain. Gentrification now traumatizes this river valley in a new way.
Let’s move to the middle of the lot, and join the rest of the group.
(If you are first, encourage people to chat amongst themselves. If you are the last, start moving to signal the others to join with you. Once together, walk to the River)
And finally, we researched this factory for a year, looking for stories about women who worked here. Unfortunately, it was hard to learn much about the few women we could find. We don’t know their race or their citizenship; we don’t know if they had pets or gardens; we don’t know what they wanted for themselves or their families; we don’t know if they ever got what they wanted. These things are unknown, not because these women weren’t important or didn’t do important things, but because they didn’t write history.
Here are some of the women we learned about and what we do know:
TALLEY: Domenica Riccitelli worked here. She was born in 1909, and worked here until she retired in 1950. She died in 1966.
HERNAN: Margaret Teoli worked here. She was born in Lancaster, England in 1893, and immigrated to Providence in 1937. She worked here for 25 years -- from the time she was 39 until she was 64. She died in 1975.
TYRA: Genoveffa Medici worked here. She was born in 1900 in Italy, and immigrated to Providence in 1923. She was a textile worker here for 30 years, from 1932 to 1962. She was was a lifelong member of St. Bartolomew's Church Women's Society, and had two sons; two daughters; 11 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and 3 great-great-grandchildren. She died in 1989 and is buried in St Ann Cemetery in Cranston.
REBECCA: Laura Peotrowski worked here. She was a burler and assembler here until she retired in 1975. She had a son, two brothers, a sister, and three grandchildren. She died in 2000 and is buried in Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter.
RON: Aldea Levesque worked here. She was born in Providence in 1903, and started working here when she was 15. She worked here for 42 years until she retired in 1960. She was married, and had several nieces and nephews. She died in 2000, and is also buried in St Ann Cemetery in Cranston.
TALLEY: Alice McCullin worked here. She left the company in 1950 when she took over Pocasset Reweaving in Olneyville, which she ran until 1973. She died in 1976 when she was 61.
HERNAN: Angela Faella worked here. She worked here in the 1940’s when she was young. She used to eat sandwiches while she worked since she she didn’t get a meal break. She stuffed them in the pocket of her apron, and joked that she must have eaten a lot of fibers. She was very proud that she survived working here, and later worked for the state in a job she loved.
TYRA: Angelina Rotondo worked here. She was a spinner here for 20 years, from 1935 to 1955 when she retired when she was 65. She was born in 1890 in Italy and died in 1977 when she was 86.
REBECCA: Agnes McCoomb worked here. In 1909, in a drunken fury, her husband William stabbed her hand there by the gates, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
RON: Mary Henriques worked here. She was born in the Azores, and worked here for 53 years -- from 1926 to 1979. She died in 1981.
TALLEY: Genevieve “Jean” Kloza Brousseau worked here. She was a sewer for 19 years, from 1931 to 1950. She was born in 1915 and quit school when she was 16 in order to help her parents during the Depression. In 1931, her mother paid a woman the large sum of $25 to teach her how to make the specific kind of repairs the sewers at Paragon had to know, which involved repairing defects in the wool. Jean always said it was tedious work, but not unpleasant. She met her husband, Albert Brousseau here. He was a burler and also worked in shipping and receiving. He would deliver large bolts of cloth to the sewing room, and got Jean’s attention by giving her the ones with the easiest repairs. Jean married Albert in 1945, and left work in 1950 to stay home and raise their two children. Albert was one of the last employees at Paragon when the mill closed in 1960. Jean died in 1993 at the age of 78.
HERNAN: Bertha Simcoe worked here. She was a Draw-in from 1935 to 1960. She lived on Chapin Ave with her husband Raymond T who was a janitor at Almy Street School. She died in 1982.
TYRA: Anna Shephard worked here. Here parents were born in Ireland, immigrating here in the 1880s. Anna was born in Rhode Island in 1895. Her father operated an elevator, and Anna went to work in the woolen mills when she was 15. She worked here for 50 years as drawer. There were times when her husband was out of work, making her the sole breadwinner for their family. She died May 10th, 1982.
REBECCA: Tonight we will listen closely.
RON: We will listen for voices we don’t normally hear.
TALLEY: We will listen for the voices that spent time here.
HERNAN: We will listen very closely for the river.
ALL: Let’s start listening now.