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Mystery Solved: Historian identifies child mill worker

Library of Congress Lalar Blanton was a 10-year-old spinner at the Rhodes Manufacturining Company in Lincolnton when she was photographed by journalist Lewis Hine in 1908. Her identity had been a mystery until writer and historian Joe Manning was contacted by Myra Cook, Blanton’s granddaughter.

ELIZABETH HEFFNER

Staff Writer

For more than a century, the identity of a girl photographed in a Lincolnton textile mill had remained a mystery. But through the determination and research of Massachusetts historian and author Joe Manning, the image of this young textile worker has been reunited with her descendants.

The photograph was one out of a series taken by photojournalist Lewis Hine. According to the United States Library of Congress, Hine worked as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee between 1908 and 1924. During this time, he traveled the country, documenting the working and living conditions of children. In November of 1908, Hine began photographing children working in textile mills in North Carolina and South Carolina. Only three months into his investigative work, Hine was not well known among mill owners, making it fairly easy to gain access into the mills. He typically posed as an industrial photographer, taking pictures of machines and other equipment.

In 2009, Manning reached out to the Lincoln Times-News, asking the editor to publish the photo and inquire within the community if anyone knew of the anonymous girl. Hine two took photographs of the girl: one of her standing alone and looking out a window and another of her with her sister and mother.

Although this initial attempt at identifying the girl was unsuccessful, Manning persevered.

“I began searching the 1910 Lincolnton census for all the white girls born around 1908 and had a sister that was about two years older,” Manning said. “There were 12 such girls, including one identified as Lala Blanton.”

With 12 possible identities in hand, Manning published the names under the photo on his website.

Roughly two months later, he received an email from a woman named Myra Cook, who believed the photograph was of her grandmother, Lalar Blanton.

“She said she saw a family resemblance, and it checked out in terms of the name and what she could tell me about her,” Manning said.

However, more evidence was needed to confirm Cook was related to the girl in the photograph.

After sending Manning several photos of Blanton as an adult, he took the photos to Maureen Taylor, known for her expertise in face recognition.

“Maureen said there was no question it was her — every facial feature matched up,” Manning said.

When Cook learned that the girl in the photograph was indeed her grandmother, she felt overwhelmed with emotion.

“I felt sadness that my dear granny never had a childhood, and joy that the pretty little girl captured in this poignant and iconic photograph has lived and will continue to live forever — a symbol and reminder of a terrible past in this country,” Cook said. “Because of the children in Lewis Hine’s photographs, labor laws were enacted and enforced so that subsequent generations of children would have the childhood that my granny clearly did not.”

Cook explains that she had a close relationship with her grandmother growing up.

“I lived with her as a little girl, and she treated me like I was a precious treasure, like the baby-doll she never had,” Cook said. “She was tender and kind and spoiled me with her attention and love, and she had a tremendous influence on the mother I became myself. She could not bear the mistreatment of children, and though she’d be bewildered by the attention given to this photograph, I believe she would be proud, in her heart of hearts, as I certainly am, as are her other grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She was a true-life American girl and a heroine in my eyes.”

The journey to identify Blanton is just one of many Manning has made over the past eight years. After retiring from his career as a social worker in 1999, Manning began spending his time as an author, writer and historian. It was not until the fall of 2005, however, that he discovered his current passion. According to Manning, the Lewis Hine Project started at the request of friend and fellow writer, Elizabeth Winthrop.

“She brought me this picture of a girl in a cotton mill in Vermont whose name was Addie Card,” Manning said.

Winthrop explained to Manning that she had written a fictionalized account inspired by the photograph. The novel, entitled Counting on Grace, described what it might have been like for a girl in Vermont to work in a cotton mill and be photographed by Lewis Hine. However, now that she had finished her novel, she was interested in hiring Manning to discover the true story of Addie Card.

“Within two weeks, I had located and contacted Addie’s granddaughter,” Manning said. “In two more weeks, I was standing before Addie’s grave. The family we tracked down had no idea the picture was taken and was just emotionally spent to learn that their grandmother — their great grandmother was pictured in the Library of Congress and was well known.”

Since his work on Card, Manning has identified and documented the stories of more than 350 individuals in Hine’s photographs.

“I realized I could do for these children what I did for Addie,” Manning said.

Since starting, Manning has watched his motivation behind the project evolve over the years.

“What drove me to do it in the beginning was thinking that this is historical information of great importance, to find out how the lives of child laborers fared as they grew older…how their descendants’ economic status might have changed…that was my historian brain looking at it,” Manning said. “But what I found was that the biggest motivation is that 99 percent of the descendants hadn’t known about the picture. It’s an emotional experience for them. Many are seeing their parents or grandparents as a child for the first time…it sort of reconnects them to their own past.”

While Manning does not believe he will be able to identify all of the unidentified children in Hine’s photographs, he has no plans to end the project anytime soon.

“It’s an amazing experience every time,” Manning said. “I get just as much excitement out of it now as I did when I first started the project.”

Those interested in learning more about Blanton and the others identified through Manning’s Lewis Hine Project should visit his website at www.eightsteeples.com/blanton1.html

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