Lewis Hine caption: Spinners. Smallest girl – Pearlie Turner, 408 East Long Ave. Been at it 3 years and runs six and seven sides. Her Sister (largest girl) runs only four sides. I found other cases where youngest sister did much more work than oldest and family stimulated her by praising her speed and the other’s slowness. Location: Gastonia, North Carolina, November 1908.
In the summer of 1908, Lewis Hine set out on his first long journey in search of child laborers. He traveled to Indiana, West Virginia and Ohio, and he must have quickly grown weary of seeing children in coal mines, and glass and furniture factories. His captions sometimes hint at his surprise at the poor working conditions and the ages of the children. By the time he reached North Carolina in November, he would have been well prepared for what he was destined to encounter for the next nine years.
But things got worse. The North Carolina state laws at that time set the minimum age for working at 13, with no night work for 14-year-olds, and a maximum of 66 hours per week for workers under 18. According to National Child Labor Committee records, Hine discovered numerous violations, including at least one of the girls in this photograph, Pearl, who was not only two months short of her 10th birthday, but, according to Hine had, “been at it three years.”
The Loray Mill, where these three girls were working, was at one time the largest textile mill in the South. In 1929, it was the target of one of the most significant and violent strikes in the first half of the 20th century. Pearl would have been about 30 at that time, and it’s likely it would have commanded a great deal of her family’s attention.
The Library of Congress website includes 45 of Hine’s photos that were taken in Gastonia. I found this image to be one of the most eye-catching, and the caption one of the most interesting, especially the reference to the older sister being the slower worker.
In the 1910 census, Pearl and Viola (she was the only older sister who was still a child) were living with their parents, Logan and Sallie Turner, and six other siblings, as well as two children of the eldest daughter. Logan and five of the children are listed as working at the mill, although others may have been working there “unofficially.”
By 1920, Sallie (listed as Sarah) is a widow, and the crowded household included Pearl and several of her siblings, who still worked at the mill, and a daughter-in-law and several grandchildren. Also living there were seven boarders, who also worked at the mill. I was unable to find Viola in the 1920 census, and couldn’t find Pearl in the 1930 census, thus making the assumption that they had married and I couldn’t find them without knowing their last names. That’s when I tried tracking the oldest brother, Luther.
I quickly found his death record. He died in 1934. I obtained his obituary from the Gastonia library, which said in part: “Funeral services were held Sunday afternoon at the home of his sister, Mrs. Frank Jenkins, of South Oakland Street, in Gastonia.” I looked up Frank Jenkins in the 1930 census, and his wife was Pearl. Then I found the 1975 obituary for Frank, which said that Pearl had predeceased him, and it included a long list of survivors. That finally led me to Pearl’s grandson and his wife, who were astonished by the photo. They got me in contact with Pearl’s two daughters, both of whom I interviewed.
Pearl Mae Turner was born in Cleveland County, North Carolina on December 12, 1898. She married Frank Jenkins, then a Gastonia cotton mill worker, about 1924. They had two daughters, Sara and Rachel. Pearl died in Gastonia on December 28, 1964, at the age of 66. Sister Viola died less than four years after the famous 1908 photograph was taken, at age 17, a victim of consumption (tuberculosis).
Edited interview with Rachel Horton (RH), younger daughter of Pearl Turner. Conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on February 13, 2007. Transcribed by Seunghee Cha and edited by Manning.
JM: Tell me a little bit about your mother. What was she like?
RH: She had lots of friends, and she liked people. She enjoyed doing things for people. I am also that way. I love to do things for other people. She liked to have fun. She and her friends would have tacky parties. That’s what they called them. They would dress up for Halloween or something, you know, in old clothes and old hats. She always had the funniest looking hat.
JM: Did she work while you were growing up?
RH: I can’t remember that she ever worked after I was born.
JM: Did she talk at all about working in the cotton mill?
RH: She did tell me that she went to work at 10 years old. Can you believe that? That’s a child, a child going to work in the cotton mill. I think it’s terrible. But, you know, people were very poor then. Everybody lived like that. There were very few people that had anything. There were eight children in her family. During the Depression, people just didn’t have any food. They had to scrape for what they got to eat. They wouldn’t have anything to buy things like coal. People would go cold. My mother said that Dad would go and pick up coal along the railroad track.
JM: Did you know your mother’s mother and father?
RH: No, because I was five years old when my grandmother died. And as for Granddaddy, I don’t even know when he died. My grandmother was buried in King’s Mountain. We know where her grave is.
JM: What was your Aunt Viola like?
RH: She died at 16.
JM: Do you know what she died from?
RH: I heard it was something they called St. Vitas Dance.
JM: What year was your mother born?
RH: Oh, I have no idea. She wouldn’t ever tell you exactly how old she was. We know more about my dad’s family. They lived longer and we have more pictures of his family. In my mother’s family they died so young. Some of her brothers died in their early thirties. She was one of the last ones to die in the family.
JM: Your sister Sara said that your mother had a lot of health problems.
RH: She had a lot of problems, but emphysema was the worst.
JM: Do you think that that your mother might have suffered health problems from working in the mill?
RH: Probably. She had lung problems that ran in her family, too. What took her life was a blood clot. She had a blood clot that went to the lungs. She was in her sixties. Daddy died when he was 73.
JM: How tall was your mother?
RH: I’m going say about 5′ 6″. She was fairly tall. We have one picture of her father. He’s sitting in a straight chair. He had a beard, and he looked like he was a real tall guy. She looked more like her dad than she did her mother. He had a dark complexion, and my mother was dark complexioned. My sister and I are, too.
JM: In the picture of your mother, she looks like she might have been part Cherokee.
RH: I believe she did say something about her family having some Indian in them. My granddaughter saw the picture and asked me what tribe she was.
JM: Is Sara your only sibling?
RH: My mother lost an infant when it was born. It was about a week old.
JM: When you were a teenager in the forties, was your family better off then?
RH: Oh, much, much better.
JM: What did your father do for a living?
RH: He worked in a weaving mill where they made labels for clothes. He worked in the weaving room.
JM: What was the name of the company he worked for?
RH: I can’t remember the name. It’s been so many years.
JM: Where did you live most of the time when you were a girl?
RH: We lived on South Broad Street. The house sat right across from the Clara-Dunn-Armstrong mill. I think they’ve all been torn down now. All the textiles are gone.
JM: The Loray Mill, where your mother worked as a child, is being turned into condominiums.
RH: I really don’t know which mill she worked in. She never said.
JM: What did your mother like to do for recreation or fun?
RH: I remember her saying that she always liked embroidery. She was sick an awfully lot. She just had so many problems with her lungs, so she just had to stay at home. She never smoked a day in her life. My sister smoked for a while, but she never smoked around my mother. She would have killed her. My husband is deceased now. He always smoked when we first got married. And then he had a heart attack and the doctor said he could only have a couple of cigars. Then he had a real bad strep throat and a high temperature, and I looked at him and I said, ‘You don’t know how many times I have prayed that the Good Lord would take this desire away from you.’ And he laid them down and never picked one up again.
JM: Did you have a career or a job when you grew up?
RH: I worked in a dress shop before I got married. After I got married, I kept working until I was 65. I mostly worked in the sewing room. We made pant suits and coats for ladies, and boy’s suits for J.C. Penney.
JM: How far did you go in school?
RH: Eleventh grade.
JM: Do you know how far your mother went in school?
RH: I know it wasn’t very far.
JM: Could she read and write?
RH: She learned to do that herself.
JM: What was your reaction to the picture I sent to you?
RH: I really did appreciate it. I was so surprised. I had no idea that any such thing existed. We framed it, and I have it sitting on my chest of drawers.
Interview with Sara Yancey (SY), older daughter of Pearl Turner. Conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on October 10, 2006. Transcribed by Seunghee Cha and edited by Manning.
JM: I understand you were quite surprised by the photograph.
SY: I sure was. I had no idea about it. It’s something that we can show my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Let them see how it was when my mother was growing up. My mother used to tell me that she had to work. But I just couldn’t believe it. But when I saw the picture, it really hurt me to think that she had to go through that.
JM: The picture has your Aunt Viola in it as well.
SY: Right. I never did know her. She had the flu and died early.
JM: And the girl in the middle, I don’t know who she is.
SY: I don’t either. She must have been a neighbor.
JM: Did your mother ever talk about what it was like to work in the mills as a child?
SY: I think she said she was eight years old when she started in the mill. And I said, ‘How were you able to do that?’ And she said she would have to stand on a box to reach the machines. I asked her if she went to school, and she said they had certain days when they were in school.
JM: Did she tell you that the work was hard, and whether there were bad conditions or long hours?
SY: I don’t remember. As she got older she developed breathing problems. All that lint, it was not good for her health. But I’ve ended up with asthma, and I didn’t work in the mill.
JM: Did she work in the mill at any time when you were a child?
SY: She tried it one year at the mill where my dad worked. She said we needed some extra money for something. But it didn’t last long because her health wasn’t so good. After I got married, I would go with my daughter to her house during the day and watch after her so Daddy could work.
JM: Did she have medical care? Was able to afford it?
SY: Where Dad worked, they had insurance.
JM: Did you finish school?
SY: I graduated from Gastonia High School.
JM: Did you work during your life?
SY: I didn’t work that much while I had my three children. After they got into school and were older, I worked in an insurance office taking care of auto insurance.
JM: When you were growing up, were you pretty content with your life as a child?
SY: Oh, yes. We had a nice house. I think we had to rent it from the mill. They furnished it. So we were in this neighborhood with all our friends. You weren’t the only one whose parents worked in the mill.
JM: You married Paul Yancey. Did he work at the mill?
SY: When I married him, he was still in school. His dad was in the building business, so my husband got involved in it. Then he started his own business building homes. He passed away a few years ago. But I have a son that’s still running the company, Yancey Construction. It’s one of the best house-building companies in Gastonia.
JM: How did your mother meet your father, Frank Jenkins?
SY: I think she met him at a little party one night that some neighbor had. They finally took off to York, South Carolina, and got married. He got a job in a Gastonia weaving mill, where the conditions were much better than in the mill my mother worked in.
JM: What are your fondest memories of your mother?
SY: She was always having fun with us. She would tell you little jokes. Everybody loved my mother. Her friends would come see her, and she’d make them laugh, because she would entertain them.
JM: Was she called Pearl, or was she called Pearlie, like it says in the caption on the photo?
SY: I never heard anybody call her Pearlie. Her name was Pearl Mae.
JM: Was she a religious person?
SY: She was a Baptist. She loved to go to church. When she couldn’t go, she got upset about it.
JM: When you were growing up, did your family dress up to go to church?
SY: Everybody did. That’s what they were told. My mother sewed and made a lot of our clothes. She always wore hats and dressed up.
JM: The picture of her is very flattering. She is dark and has beautiful eyes.
SY: She had pretty eyes, and her hair was black. I didn’t get that black hair. I wish I had.
JM: Did you immediately recognize your mother in the photo?
JM: Had you ever seen any pictures of your mother as a little girl before?
SY: She had one similar to that.
JM: What was your father like?
SY: He was hard-working man. He was not as outgoing as my mother was. He was quiet. He’d take us to buy shoes and to the grocery store.
JM: When you were a child, did you have a car?
SY: We had one, but it got old and fell apart, and we couldn’t afford another one. We ended up having to do a lot of walking, which was alright.
JM: Have you lived all your life in Gastonia?
JM: Do you feel like you were blessed that you grew up in a small town where you knew everybody?
SY: It was great. People helped each other when someone got in a bind or something. My husband died of cancer, but I’ve got a lot of good friends here.
JM: Do you remember anything that your mother used to say that she seemed to say all the time?
SY: She would come in the door and say, ‘What have you been doing? Did you do anything bad today?’
JM: In the picture, she looks like she was very proud.
SY: Yes, sometimes she was too proud. She always wanted to look just right when she went to church or anywhere else. She got after us, too, me and my sister. She would say, ‘Always look nice when you leave.’
*Sara Yancey passed away January 28, 2008. She was 82 years old.
*Story published in 2007.