Most Lowell factories relied on enslaved labor for raw materials. However, the Lowell Manufacturing Company (now the Market Mills) actually made cloth specifically to sell back to slave owners. This cheap fabric, known as “negro cloth,” was uncomfortable and tore easily. In interviews with formerly enslaved people, some called this fabric “Lowell cloth.”
The Lowell Company made great profits selling this inexpensive fabric to enslavers. For plantation owners, purchasing this material further strengthened relationships with Northern businessmen. To keep the cost of cotton low, many investors in Lowell also contributed to pro-slavery causes and fought against abolitionists in the city. At the center of this economic web were the enslaved people who wore the “Lowell cloth” to pick cotton for the textile industry.
Surprisingly, one of the superintendents of this company was an anti-slavery activist. A devout Quaker, Royal Southwick (1795-1875) joined the Lowell Company in 1829 to supervise carding and spinning, securing significant profits for the company and himself. Yet he and his wife Direxa also helped establish the city’s Anti-Slavery societies. The Southwicks even invited anti-slavery speakers like Frederick Douglass and Britain’s George Thompson into their Tyler Street home. Active in the Whig party, Southwick chaired the city’s Whig committee and served in the state Senate where he petitioned for abolition. Eventually he resigned from the Lowell Company, and invested in a North Chelmsford mill which used wool, not cotton.
Second Universalist Church
Early factory workers in Lowell spent much of their precious time off work in sacred spaces, whether that be a church or out in nature. Toward the end of the Second Great Awakening, a time of great religious devotion in the United States, a new sect of Christianity was becoming increasingly popular: universalism. A Second Universalist Church was organized here in 1836, the same year this town officially became a city. Universalists met and found community on this site for more than fifty years; some of these church-goers were abolitionists.
One of the church’s early ministers was Abel Thomas (1807-1880). Though best remembered today for his early encouragement of The Lowell Offering, a magazine written entirely by “factory girls,” Thomas was also an author in his own right. In addition to theological works, Thomas wrote The Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom. In this revised gospel, Thomas indicts cotton brokers, slave traders, and ministers alike for their role in maintaining the institution of slavery. Thomas influenced Lowell by cultivating a base of strong, female leaders who published their writing and pushed for social change through abolitionist circles and labor agitation. He was also clearly influenced by Lowell, a place where northerners comfortably saw slavery as a “peculiar” and foreign institution despite their intense need for the fruits of that labor.