"Civilization in Southern Mills"

South Carolina mill children

Children working in South Carolina mill

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In the early years of her involvement in the labor movement, Mother Jones traveled to several parts of the country to champion various labor causes. In addition to coal mining, there were involvements in Jacob Coxey’s “army” for jobs, railroad strikes, and textile mills. On what appear to be two occasions, Jones would find herself in Alabama assisting in strikes and working. The first time was in approximately 1894, when she was attempting to organize a coal strike. The second instance, which is of more relevance here, is her time there circa 1901. In addition to spending time in the mining camps of Birmingham, she would also work among the textile employees in Tuscaloosa during this period. In both instances, Jones would take particular note of the children working in both situations, and wrote her observations in an article that was printed in the International Socialist Review in 1901 entitled “Civilization in Southern Mills.” Jones wrote that she had heard from miners in Birmingham about the children laboring in cotton mills and decided to see for herself if it was true.

Civilization in Southern Mills

"Civilization in Southern Mills"

She took a job in a mill in Cottondale, a small community near Tuscaloosa, and then observed first-hand what she had been told. According to Jones, conditions for children were appalling in the mill. “I found that children of six and seven years of age were dragged out of bed at half-past 4 in the morning when the task-master’s whistle blew …. By 5:30 they are all behind the factory walls, where amid the whir of machinery they grind their young lives out for fourteen long hours each day.” She talked with many children, learning of the paltry wages they received and their sparse living conditions. In the end, she concluded that it was a “picture ….of the most horrible avarice, selfishness and cruelty and is fraught with present horror and promise of future degeneration.” This experience would lay the groundwork for Jones’ Philadelphia march.

 

Questions

As you read this document, reflect on the following questions:

1. Why do you think that Jones calls the mill workers "slaves"?

2. According to this document, what was Jones’ initial reaction to the stories she heard about the textile mills? Did her reaction change when she went to those mills, and if so, how?

3. Who or what did Jones’ blame for the child labor situation? How did she think it could change?

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