As I write the last words of this story, it has been almost 103 years since the Young family was photographed in Tifton. No doubt, it is the only picture that exists of Mrs. Young with her nine youngest children. We can thank Mr. Hine for that. With my research behind me now, and my story told, I am taking another long and careful look at this photograph, and I see so much more, especially when I zoom in on each detail.
I know now that the worker houses at Tifton Cotton Mills were one-story duplexes, two apartments side by side. The picture leaves out the other residence at the left, and does not show me how far Mrs. Young’s apartment extends. So it is bigger than it appears, though hardly adequate for a mother and nine children. The house sits on blocks. At the far right, I see clothes hanging on the line, several washtubs or buckets on a table by the house, and a washboard in the yard. Near the doorway is a stand with several buckets and a small jug or cup on it. The door to the house opens inside, to the kitchen. I see a small table, a chair and a stool. On the table there is a jug and several cups.
I notice lots of cotton lint on the clothes of Mattie, Mary and Elzy, less cotton lint on the clothes of Alex and Eddie Lou, and no cotton lint on the clothes of Mell, Seaborn, Elizabeth, Jesse and Catherine. In Hine’s two photos of the workers standing in front of the mill, Mell is missing, suggesting that she was at home caring for Seaborn, Elizabeth and Jesse. That explains why Mell has no cotton lint on her clothes.
It seems likely that Hine took the photos of the workers at the mill (including the one of Eddie Lou and the unrelated girl), and then followed the Young family back to their house when they got off from work. Perhaps Catherine decided to brush the lint off her clothes before Hine took the picture, or less likely, the job she had did not expose her to lint. All the children are barefoot except Mell. It was common for mill children to be barefoot in the mill, since they usually had only one pair of shoes, and they didn’t want to get them dirty or damaged. Since Mell had been home caring for her siblings, she was wearing her shoes, as was her mother.
In this, the second decade of the 21st century, it would be difficult for anyone in the United States of America, even the poorest among us, to imagine what life was like for the Young family. After the Depression and World War II, child labor was nearly eradicated, most factory and mine workers belonged to labor unions, the GI Bill promised life-changing benefits, educational opportunities grew in leaps and bounds, and families fled small rural towns and crowded cities for suburban houses with modern appliances and a nice car parked in front. It is not surprising that rising expectations in that era created a level of optimism that may never be equaled in this country. But for the Young family in 1909, rising expectations would have never crossed their minds.
Staring into their weary faces now, after all I have learned, I wonder what the children were thinking. In their all-too-infrequent idle moments, did they peer into the future and see their lives winding along the same troubled paths their parents took? Did the older girls see their only way out as going off and getting married, just like their sisters did? Did Alex, nine years old, and Eddie Lou, eight years old, truly grasp the level of desperation their mother was facing? Perhaps all they were thinking about was having something to eat and getting through the rest of the day.
And what was Catherine thinking? Was she already contemplating the prospect of putting her children in the orphan home? Did she think that the strange man with the camera would somehow rescue her family with his pictures? Looking at her right hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder, her left hand gently brushing against Jesse’s hair, and the resolute expression on her face, I think she must have been a courageous woman who dearly loved her children, still grieved deeply for her husband, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to enable her children to survive. But I know now that in three months, her family will never be together again, and she will live her final 48 years regretting it.
Despite this, Catherine Young pressed on, living to the age of 88, and peacefully dying in the presence of daughter Mell and her family. Except for Elzy, who succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 18, all of the children in the photographs lived past the age of 65, four of them past the age of 75. Most married, raised families, and in their later years, would have taken delight in their grandchildren.
But after that last, sad day in Tifton, many saw only one or two of their siblings ever again, and even if they did, only briefly several times over the course of their lives. Most kept in touch with their mother from time to time, but only Mell had a close and enduring relationship with her. Elizabeth apparently never saw her mother or her siblings after she walked out of the orphanage with her adoptive parents at the age of four.
Consequently, none of the descendants that I interviewed knew the names of every one of the children, or what happened to some of the ones whose names they did remember. Now that they have seen the Lewis Hine photos, and have been informed about what I have discovered in my research, they know details about their family history that they have wondered about for decades. Some are talking about having a family reunion. And since I will be sharing with them the contact information I have for several dozen family members, most of whom live in Georgia or neighboring states, they should be able to arrange it.
It’s sad that none of Mrs. Young’s children are around to see this happen, but after all, a century has passed. Jesse, the youngest, would have been 104 this year. And as fate would have it, on this very day, I have been informed that the buildings that once were called Tifton Cotton Mills are being demolished.
The Young Family
Andrew Jesse Young (not in picture): 1870 – 1907
Catherine M. Bailey Young: 1868 – 1957
Georgia Young Watson (not in picture): 1889 – 1924
Ella Young Cogan (not in picture): 1890 – 1948
Mell Diantha Young Willis: 1894 – 1971
Mattie Sylvania Young Ricks: 1895 – 1982
Mary Young Williams: 1897 – 1974
Roy Alexander Young: 1899 – 1969
Eddie Lou Young Parker: 1900 – 1979
Elzy P. Young: 1902 – 1920
Benjamin Seaborn Young: 1904 – 1974
Elizabeth Young Hunley: 1906 – 1977
Walter Jesse Young: 1907 – 1973
My feet they are sore, and my limbs they are weary;
Long is the way, and the mountains are wild;
Soon will the twilight close moonless and dreary
Over the path of the poor orphan child.
Why did they send me so far and so lonely?
Up where the moors spread and gray rocks are piled?
Men are hard-hearted, and kind angels only
Watch o’er the steps of a poor orphan child.
Yet distant and soft the night breeze is blowing,
Clouds there are none, and clear stars beam mild;
God, in His mercy, protection is showing.
Comfort and hope to the poor orphan child.
Even should I fall o’er the broken bridge passing,
Or stray in the marshes, by false lights beguiled,
Still will my Father, with promise and blessing,
Take to His bosom the poor orphan child.
There is a thought that for strength should avail me,
Though both of shelter and kindred despoiled;
Heaven is a home, and a rest will not fail me;
God is a friend to the poor orphan child.
-from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Chapter Sixteen: The reunion of the Young family, and an exhibit of their story in a Tifton museum