Gaston & Catawba

Photos document a dark era

The haunting portraits photographer Lewis Hine made in November 1908 of Gastonia's cotton mill kids were meant to document abuses of child labor laws.

One hundred years later, the images are returning to the community as a permanent exhibit on the vanishing textile culture.

The N.C. Humanities Council, Preservation North Carolina and other sources recently awarded grants for “Standing on a Box: Lewis Hine's National Child Labor Committee Photography in Gaston County, 1908.”

The multi-part project this fall includes a photography exhibit, a scholarly panel discussion of the textile industry and culture, and a concert of mill music.

A communitywide book reading begins in September, focusing on Elizabeth Winthrop's historical novel “Counting On Grace,” inspired by Hine's photo of a girl who worked in a Vermont mill in 1910. On Nov. 12 and 13, Winthrop will do presentations in Gastonia.

Also, the library will host a 100th anniversary event, which includes a gathering of people related to the children in Hine's images.

“The project will enhance the public's understanding of our textile history and heritage as reflected in the Hine photos,” said project coordinator Carol Reinhardt with the Gaston County Public Library. “And we hope it'll spark community discussion of how that history influences us in the present and future.”

The project is a spinoff of an effort by Gastonia native and UNC Chapel Hill professor Robert Allen to trace relatives of the mill children in the pictures down to the present.

Allen, who teaches in the American Studies program at UNC, found the Gastonia images two years ago in the Library of Congress while researching an unrelated project.

Considered one of the 20th century's most important photographers, Hine was commissioned by the National Child Labor Committee to document violations of child labor laws in different industries. In 1908, there was no federal child labor law.

He photographed thousands of cotton mill children, taking careful notes about his subjects, including names and comments.

In Gastonia, Hine photographed most of the young millworkers outside of the textile plants as they were leaving their shifts.

The National Child Labor Committee donated thousands of the photos and negatives to the Library of Congress in 1954, and they are now in the public domain.

Allen located more than a dozen descendants of people shown in the photographs, including 88-year old Nita Groves, whose father, Eugene Bell, was photographed in the Loray Mill village.

Groves, who lives in Gastonia, is planning to attend the gathering of descendants with her children.

“It's exciting,” she said. “I think all my children will appreciate it.”

The exhibit of 11-by-14 photos will be shown at the Gaston County Museum of Art and History in Dallas and the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte.

The photos will return to the Gastonia library, where they'll be stored until they'll go inside the Loray Mill when the a renovation project is completed.

The 107-year-old building, sometimes called the Firestone, is owned by Preservation North Carolina and isn't open to the public. Atlanta-based developers plan to convert the 600,000 square feet of space into offices, stores, classrooms, apartments and condos.

The six-story Loray – a centerpiece of the South's textile industry – will be a permanent home for striking images taken almost in its shadow.

“These photographs were taken as a part of a national campaign to expose the wide-spread practice of child labor and to shape public opinion in New York and Washington,” Allen said. “One hundred years later, we're returning them to the communities they came from – where they were never meant to be shown. We'll also be connecting these images with the lives of some of the young people Hine memorialized in 1908. It's extremely gratifying.”