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The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South
By Shelley Sallee
University of Georgia Press, 2004
Paperback, $19.95 (207 pages)
ISBN: 0-8203-2570-8
 
 
 

At a time like the present when companies are cutting health care and retirement benefits and workers have little promise of job stability, Shelley Sallee's book The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South is a prescient and necessary look into the historical struggle between social progress and corporate power.  A reworked doctoral dissertation, The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform centers on the campaigns of turn of the century anti-child labor reformers in Alabama and their efforts to mold and shape the language of race, class, and gender discourse around the image of the white child working in a textile mill to redefine poverty as white and recuperate the "whiteness" from an ideology that denied the whiteness of "crackers" and thereby denied them the privileges enjoyed by whites in the South.   

Each of seven subdivided chapters tells with a refreshingly clear and surprisingly engrossing narrative the history of the first child welfare movement in the South.  "Mill Men," the first chapter, details mill operators' use of children at factories as well as the propaganda campaigns initiated by the mill owners to depict a pastoral, healthy factory scene.  Sallee proceeds to show the fascinating diversity of the southern textile mill by narrating the different environmental and demographic demands and influences surrounding large, northern-financed mills like Dwight Manufacturing Company in a rural area near Gasden and Avondale Mill in urban Birmingham, as well as locally funded Cherry Mill and Ashcraft Mill near Florence.  The composite picture Sallee creates, not only of the mills and the mill towns that surrounded them but also of the owners of the mills, adds depth and difference to the idea of the factory as a repetitive structure. 

The following chapter changes perspectives to look at the laborers, the families that worked at the mills.  Sallee brings demographic data on the numbers of child workers as well as about the families they come from to construct a tableau of the class and familial dynamics that led to the proliferation of child laborers in mills at the turn of the century as well as the financial strategies families employed to utilize their children for the survival of the family unit.  It is also in this chapter that Sallee deploys some of the theories of "whiteness studies" to analyze the rhetoric and language of class in the South.  She focuses on the word "cracker" as the site of a racialized construction of Other white.   

The remaining chapters detail the rise of child labor reform in Alabama as the movement struggled against being too closely identified with the "labor agitation" of American socialist movements and against being dismissed as purely sentimental.  Much of these chapters detail the action of Edgar Gardner Murphy to establish the Alabama Child Labor Committee.  Murphy's strategy involved a "masculine ideal" of the gentleman that was compromised by a generally low level of education due, in part, to children working rather than attending school.  The actions of the Alabama Child Labor Committee (ACLC) led to the first, albeit ineffective, twentieth-century anti-child labor legislation in Alabama.   Sallee ably delineates the major points of the legislation but also the ways mills and mill workers skirted the spirit of the laws.  Throughout these years child labor reform becomes increasingly tied to the whiteness of the laborers and less to labor reform movements, and as such, begins to gain wider support.  Women's clubs and in particular the work of Nellie Murdoch revive the ACLC and in 1919 finally accomplish the creation of the Child Welfare Department.   

Unlike the story of the civil rights movement or even the civil war--the epic climactic battles that have shaped so much of southern history--Sallee sees the "victory" of the ACLC as marginal at best.  She notes that that there was still little concern for African-American children and that after World War I, textile mills only employed a few children so they were not sacrificing much in finally conceding to reform.   

The book is thoroughly noted and indexed for the scholar, but the narrative is engaging enough that anyone who is interested in the great battles of ideas that have raged across the South will be able to enjoy it.   

Shelley Sallee teaches history and serves as the department chairperson at St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, Texas.   

 

Sean Wells
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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