Alabama: Bessie Mine



Child Labor in the American South:  Alabama: Bessie Mine

Jessica Ballantine


 Lewis Hine, a New York City schoolteacher and photographer, began to travel the country and take photographs of child labor to draw attention to the problem of child labor. He left New York and became an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee photographing the conditions of child labor in a number of industries. From the post-civil war industrial age, arose an increasing need for fossil fuels to run the new industries of locomotives, boilers and the railways. Mines were built and people from all over the countryside were drawn to them, from this mining towns began to appear and communities were formed, families moved into these communities and raised their children within them. The increasing growth of these mines lead to the the need for cheap labor, something mining is reliant on, child labor would fill this quota. At the turn of the century children of all ages were put to work all over the country in mines, factories, mills and various other types of labor. I will look at Bessie Mine in Jefferson County; Alabama one of the mines, which grew from this industrial need. 


The mining industry employed thousands of children. Young boys were desirable within the industry primarily because they could be paid very little for a large amount of labor. The work they did was manual labor that could be taught very quickly and done from as young as ten. The mining was unpredictable the movement of the coal was with basic with long hours, intense labor and little pay. And the equipment was experimental and basic which made it extremely dangerous. Mining is an extremely harsh working environment; labor intense and dangerous, the working conditions of the miners was far from ideal, breathing in the coal dust led to daily dizziness, shortness of breath and eventually chronic diseases such as brown lung. Brown lung, and lung cancers were common. Symptoms were wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and a chronic cough.  On top of this the constant noise of the work could be literally deafening. Mine owners did not want the added expense of security and accidents were common as safety was never a priority. ‘While wages remained comparatively low in the coal fields, coal mining continued to rank as one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States’ (Eller). Thousands of children were employed under these conditions with little or no provisions for their health or safety; they simply filled the quota of cheap labor. Despite this thousands of families moved and stayed in these coal towns seeking the economic opportunities. The lure of good pay, a steady income and a guaranteed job was an incentive to leave farming and move into mining.  




Within this picture is an example of young boys at work on the 'tipple', their job is to sort through the coal that has been brought above ground and stored into these carts. The tipple works by collecting the coal in small railroad carts and taking them to an unloading are. The boy’s job would have been to tip the coal out from the carts so it could be separated rocks and trash from the coal. A conveyor belt would carry the coal up to the tipple, the trams ran at high speeds and as this picture shows high up from the ground, the boys job would be to tip the trams emptying them of their content. It meant working in and amongst the trams making it very dangerous and physical work. The conveyor belt moves at a very fast pace as the coal cars move along the conveyor belt they unload them, working around and amongst them. The job is hazardous and very dangerous, the work is very physically demanding. The carts run at full speed making them very dangerous, there is always the added danger of falling coal and rubble. The risk of getting caught as the conveyor belt moves is high, the boys job is to move amongst the moving carts dangerously perched 6 feet from the ground, if you slip and fall or get caught in the conveyor belt the change of you getting seriously hurt is very high, if you make a mistake in this work it will be a serious injury as a result and something that will take a long time to recover from rather than a simple cut or fall.  




The Original caption states: Shorpy Higginbotham, a “greaser” on the tipple at Bessie Mine, of the Sloss- Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. in Alabama. “Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful”. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars. December 1910. A greaser’s job was to grease the tub axles of the trams transporting the coal and other debris from the mine above ground, making sure the carts run smoothly. It was one of the most dangerous running the gauntlet of the mine carrying heavy buckets of grease. As the picture shows the work was dirty and tough the young boy is covered in coal dust and grease. It was highly dangerous to move in between and under the heavy trams, which were filled with tons of coal. The trams moved at a fast pace and resulted in many injuries, there are a huge number of accidents recorded of children becoming trapped and crushed by the trams.   



 Children did most of the heavy labor as well as odd jobs. The nature of the job does not seem to discriminate a child doing it. As this young child shows carrying heavy steel rods across one shoulder. The boy in the front of the photography gives perspective of how far off the ground he is, precariously walking along the tramline.  This picture clearly shows how danegrous the work was and how young the children doing it were, portraying what Hine intended through his work.




‘Pushers’ had the job of moving trams and coal around the mine. Pushers had to work in and around all other aspects of the mine an extremely dangerous job both above and bellow ground as you were constantly interacting with trams, explosions and falling rock. The dangers of the un-maintained tramlines also resulted in a huge number of deaths. This picture is shows just how young these children were, each boy says he is fourteen but this is doubtful. Many children were told to lie by company’s to dodge the minim working age of fourteen or equally common was parents telling them to lie so they could work in the mine and earn money for the family.  


This picture is shows just how young these children were, each boy says he is fourteen but this is doubtful. Many children were told to lie by company’s to dodge the minim working age of fourteen or equally common was parents telling them to lie so they could work in the mine and earn money for the family.  Mining was an all day job that employed children all day leaving no time for education, employers did not encourage it and families did not see the need because there future was in mining as their fathers had been before then, on top of this many families relied on the wages they were bringing home, it "put food on the table"(Sallee). Work started very early in the morning and carried on until 7-8 at night. Children were working 12 – 14 hour days.  Child labor laws were minimal until 1903 when Edgar Gardner Murphy became involved in the movement to make change. It was through his work that the second child labor law fro Alabama was enacted, but this law was not as affective as he had hoped for, it made the age limit twelve years old but exempt orphans and children of dependent families. Other clauses included no child under ten could work under any circumstances, a child under twelve could work no more than sixty-six hours per week and no child under thirteen could be employed in night work. “It wasn’t until 1903 that a second law was enacted mostly through the earnest and zealous work of Edgar Gardner Murphy, the second child labor laws for Alabama was enacted’, it was not easy legislation to pass as those in control of the money and therefore power were the mine owners, they wanted and needed their cheap labor supply, acts such as these decreased their profits. In 1907 the law was again changed and any child under 12 was exempt from work under twelve but reform came slowly and was still rooted in the working world of labor, education of children was not being discussed. To put the amount of work into perspective children were working sixty-six hours a week which amounts to at least eleven hour days six days of the week and this is assuming all mines were following the law exactly. The strenuous and dangerous work left little time for anything besides an education. “It was not until 1938, withthe passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1941) that meaningful Federal child labor legislation was en-acted”(2). 


Child labor under mining was strenuous and dangerous work, the pictures Hine took from this time show child’s bodies but adult faces, the toil of the labor on children were massive. With low income families surviving on very little basic foods left children malnourished and underdeveloped, doing the world of men under the same conditions and same hours. Mining in the 21st century is still a dangerous job, explosions and un-predictable disasters claim lives daily. At this time under the basic crude conditions it claimed lives daily, thousands of children were caught in this work place and risked their lives daily to earn low lay and little else. Child labor laws would move slowly and painfully slow, it would take until 1910 for labor laws to be fully enacted and years more for education clauses to reach legislation. These pictures as Hine comments show the tip of the iceberg of the working conditions of thousands of young children at this time, Bessie Mine Alabama is only one example.