Reader suggests preserving historic Bemberg ruins

Published 2:47 pm Friday, July 1, 2022

To the Editor:
I am a historian pursuing my master’s from MTSU, but I grew up in Elizabethton and the surrounding Tri-Cities where my family has lived for generations.

Recently there has been a public outcry about the forgetting of our history in this country. Whether it be the removal of Civil War monuments from public spaces or the erasing of certain “controversial” topics from our history books, America is struggling to reckon with its past and interpret our history for the future. The city of Elizabethton has been sleeping on a significant part of its history — one that had national implications and still looms over the town today like a ghost of its industrial past. The labor strikes that occurred at the Bemberg and North American Rayon (formerly known as American Glanzstoff) plants in 1929 sparked a wave of protests across the Piedmont south and changed the future of labor laws in the United States. Initially it was a wildcat strike, or a strike without union representatives involved, led by women and girls (some as young as ten years old) who worked in the inspection department. The strikes that began in southern Appalachia showed the capital owners that labor was a force to be reckoned with, and that treating workers’ well-being as secondary to making a profit would no longer be tolerated or go unchallenged. The greater labor movement made incredible gains through the passage of the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, and the formation of the CIO; none of which was possible if not for the personal sacrifices of America’s industrial workers. The people of southern Appalachia, and Elizabethton especially, played a huge part in fighting those battles. Strikers and labor activists fought and even died for their rights to organize, and for the human decency that they had so long been denied. We should be proud of our local history and the sacrifices our forefathers and mothers made for us, to ensure better working conditions than what they were subjected to.

In 2015 another citizen called on city leaders to do something with the old Bemberg railroad station on the Tweetsie Trail. I say why not go one step further; the city could greatly benefit from preserving the historic Bemberg ruins and making it into something useful, rather than let it be lost to time. Tourism dollars from a history museum there would pump money into the local economy, and there is enough room on-site to create a park, public market, or other recreational space for the community to enjoy. Why not make the old factory into what it was always meant to be — a place that benefits the local people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into running it? We should not let our own history be forgotten. It does a disservice to us in the present, and insults the memory of those already gone on. City leaders: do something with Bemberg, before it is too late.

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Kayla Jenkins
Antioch, Tn.