Child Labor in the American South: Mississippi Shrimp Pickers
In 1911, Lewis Hine visited a shrimping cannery in Biloxi, Mississippi. While there, he photographed the workers of the Dunbar, Lopez, & Dukate Company and became instrumental in changing the face of America's labor force. Lewis Hine worked for a fairly new organization that became increasingly alarmed by the perils imposed on the young work force.
The National Child Labor Committee was formed in 1904 to combat the growing number of children who were working in what would be today considered shocking and appalling conditions. Even in 1911, when these particular photos were taken, Hine and members of the NCLC realized the grim reality of child labor. In the Child Labor Bulletin for 1912 and 1913, Hine stressed the importance of bringing the abuses and mistreatment of child labor to an end. With the photographs as his evidence, Hine explained, "I wish to present to you a phase of child labor, serious in the extreme, and hope a little careful consideration will give you an accurate, sympathetic view of the situation."[i] Hine and others hoped that by revealing the realities of child labor to the masses, enough support would force changes to be made in legislation. So why document the Dunbar, Lopez, & Dukate Company of Biloxi, Mississippi?
Resting on the Gulf Coast, Biloxi was a town that possessed many alluring qualities. Aside from the beaches enjoyed by tourists, up to date amenities of a modern city, and a rich cultural atmosphere, the town had capitalized on the natural resources available to the surrounding area. The rich waters of the Gulf Coast provided Biloxi with the opportunity to create a booming seafood industry. More specifically, shrimping and oystering lent a hand in Biloxi being declared as the "Seafood Capital of the World." In fact, "the seafood industry was at the core of Biloxi's economic development and many claim that the seafood industry built Biloxi."[ii] However, Biloxi's success in the seafood industry did not rest solely on its own merit.
The Dunbar, Lopez, and Dukate Company became one of the premiere shrimping canneries in Biloxi as well as other areas in the south including Louisiana. In the late 1800's, just as the seafood industry began picking up speed, Dukate realized that in order to make his business more profitable and to out do competing canneries he needed to take a cue from other towns that had experience in the seafood industry.
In order to ensure the success of his company, Dukate traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, which had long been established as a successful model of the seafood industry. He learned the skills and techniques necessary to generate that same success in his own business. This included using not only the same business practices but the very same workers found in the Baltimore seafood factories.[iii]
Now that Dukate had a strong understanding of the shrimping business he returned home to put his new knowledge to practice. In doing so, the Dunbar, Lopez, and Dukate Company transformed shrimping production in Biloxi and brought major changes to the population. The amount of seafood that poured into the cannery quickly out numbered the original laboring residents of Biloxi. The amount of work to be done paired with Dukate's newly found labor force brought new residents to the shores of the Gulf Coast. As one article explains, "Initially Biloxi's population was not harsh enough to support the rapid growth and demand for factory employees. Faced with a shortage in the labor force, owners began importing experienced laborers from Baltimore to fill the plants."[iv] Dukate and many other owners began transporting migrants from Baltimore and placing them in temporary housing built specifically around the factories that the laborers were working in.
It was the shrimping industry that built Biloxi but it was the immigrant families from Baltimore that migrated south for the winter that built the shrimping industry. Entire families were encouraged to travel south together. This benefited not only the laboring families but the cannery owners as well. On one hand families could remain a unit while on the other hand owners could put to use people of all ages. As one supervisor of the Dunbar, Lopez, & Dukate Company of Louisiana explains:
The Poles would not come if they were not allowed to work the children. The whole families come out at four or five in the morning and shuck oysters or pick shrimp. The children under six huddle up against the steam boxes were it is warm, while the children over six work.[v]
A major characteristic of the shrimping industry is that it was very inclusive. There was a job for every member of the family, especially in the factories. The very existence of a family unit living and working together can be interpreted as a positive. In one aspect, the working families can maintain a sense of unity. Furthermore, these families were mostly migrating from the same areas and belonged to the same ethnic groups; therefore, they can preserve a strong sense of identity and culture. Many of these laborers were working side by side with friends, family, and people from their home town. It is easy to see how "a sense of community existed both in and outside of the workplace. They combined socializing with their work, not that they took their jobs any less seriously, but the work environment allowed for more social insertion."[vi] The community that these laborers had gave them a perceived sense of power in determining their fate. The workers had some leverage over the factory owners because they could make decisions as a whole and form an informal union. Factory owners had to keep them happy thanks to the booming seafood industry and the abundant canneries that lined the Gulf Coast. "The factory owners wanted the fastest pickers and shuckers so they took care of their employees, and employees in turn felt loyalty to the factory. However, if the management mistreated them, they could go down the street to another cannery."[vii] The benefits to both the families and the company were inextricably linked; however, the companies gain far outweighed that of the families.
Realistically it was the cannery owners that had any real power. The owners had incredible control over the seafood industry and everything that was affected by it. For example, "through their complete control over production and distribution, and their influence over the workforce, the factory owners held the reins on the economic growth and social and cultural development of the industry."[viii] It was solely up to the owners to decide what laborers they could exploit the most. The cannery owners would not have gone so far as to transport certain groups of immigrants from Baltimore and set them up in factory houses if they did not think that they would make the most profit from them. For example, surely Biloxi had a large black population that was able to work but despite the easily accessible black work force the benefit of shipping workers in was great enough to ignore it.
According to management, the chief advantage of hiring blacks was that it saved on the cost of transportation. The chief advantage of the whites was, ‘the whites work harder, longer hours, are more easily driven, and use the children much more.[ix]
The advantage to hiring white immigrant workers who were wiling to use the children much more goes to show what was most profitable to the owners.
The exploitation of child labor in the shrimping industry seems to be an area in which Hine felt was in most need of reforming. As a photographer for the NCLC, Hine had surely seen many kinds of abuses in many different industries; however, shrimp picking and oyster-shucking seem to be in his opinion one of the worst. Hine reported back to the NCLC, "I have witnessed many varieties of child labor horrors from Maine to Texas, but the climax, the logical conclusion of the ‘laissez faire' policy regarding the exploitation of children is to be seen among the oyster-shuckers and shrimp-pickers."[x] The shrimping industry provided an opportunity for child labor at every level. It was one of the few trades that a child could be of use from the moment the shrimp came into the factory to the moment they were being shipped out. For example, "peeling shrimp is an operation both children and adults perform. It is easily learned. The child picks up the icy shrimp, breaks off the head with one hand, squeezes out the meat into his cup with the other, and that is all."[xi] The process sounds simple enough but the children's work didn't end there. The child laborer was responsible for not only cleaning and cooking the shrimp but had to go back "through them to pick out bits of shell or whiskers that might have stuck."[xii] While it may not seem like a very daunting task, many people don't realize that while the work may not seem as labor intensive as other jobs the dangerous conditions that existed in the shrimping industry were not as immediately apparent.
It is easy to think of the south as having a hot and muggy climate even during the winter months. However, shrimping requires certain weather conditions conducive to their preservation. Shrimp have to be processed on ice; therefore, one of the most threatening aspects of shrimp picking is the cold. One worker explains, "The factories were always cold, especially in the winter during oyster season. Women wore heavy stockings and wrapped their legs in newspaper to keep warm. Their hands grew cold after working with they icy shrimp, hour after hour."[xiii] Notice the manner in which the laborers are dressed, bundled up and mostly covered. Now compared with the other pictures of children working, an important article of clothing is missing. Many of the child laborers were photographed shoeless. In a freezing factory, children were more susceptible to the dangers of working in unbearable chilly weather, especially without the necessary protections, such as shoes. The lack of proper protection on the feet was important for another reason. Other than the cold, it helped illustrate another hazardous condition in shrimping. Shrimp contain a metal called alkali and can have an affect on the laborers skin. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that, "shrimps contain some corrosive substance...It attacks the workmen's hands, causing the skin the skin to peel, and also eats through the leather of their shoes."[xiv] Refer to the picture of Manuel standing in front of a pile of oyster shells.
He can also be seen in the factories working directly with the shrimp. A substance that is strong enough to eat through leather surely would have a devastating affect on the child laborers bare feet. Aside from the physical pain that factory workers had to endure, the long hours that entire families put in had an affect on children as well. It seemed as if there were only three scenarios that families faced when it came to the kids. The children were either brought to work with the older children and adults, attended school, or they were simply left home. Factories transformed into nurseries and "since the factories lacked nurseries, women brought their small children to work with them. They constructed play pens or put the children on the floor next to them where they learned how to do their mothers work."[xv] In some cases, young babies were left behind in the shacks for hours upon hours at a time because they were too young to pay attention to while trying to work and too young to attend school.
Lewis Hine and the NCLC recognized the dreadful conditions that children and their families had to face. In response to the evidence that Hine gathered from companies like the Dunbar, Lopez, & Dukate canneries, the NCLC came up with a few main objectives. The aim of the NCLC was, "to establish a fourteen year minimum age for factory work, treat canneries as factories, and create a program of factory inspection and enforcement."[xvi] All of these measures would helped clean up the exploitation of the child labor force. However, the problem that the NCLC faced was the actual enforcement. The key to child labor and understanding the success of exploitating it was to realize that everyone was involved. Whether it was the children hiding from inspectors, the owners looking the other way, the inspectors being paid off, the parent's willingness and necessity in keeping their kids working all played a vital role in perpetuating the child labor machine.
It wasn't until 1938 that the first Federal legislation was passed with the Fair Labor Acts. Without the photographs of Lewis Hine and the work of the NCLC perhaps change would have come much later.
Manuel, The Young Shrimp-Picker, Five Years Old
Some Of The Young Shrimp-Pickers
All Of These Are Shrimp-Pickers
The Smallest Shrimp-Picker Standing On The Box
Eight Year Old Max, The Youngest Shrimp-Picker
[i] Robert H. Bremner, Children and Youth: Social Problems and Social Policy (New York: Arno Press, 1974).
[ii] Aimee Schmidt, "Down Around Biloxi: Culture and Identity in the Biloxi Seafood Industry" Http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/sout/publish/missfold/backissues/biloxi.html [accessed Feb 28,2007].
[iii] Deanne Stephens Nuwer, "The Seafood Industry in Biloxi:Its Early History, 1848-1930." Mississippi History Now. http:mshistory.k12.ms.us/features/feature75/Seafood_pf.htm [accessed March 1, 2007].
[iv] Schmidt, "Down Around Biloxi"
[v] Hugh D. Hindman, Child Labor: An American Industry (New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2002).
[vi] Schmidt, "Down Around Biloxi"
[ix] Hindman, 263
[xi] Katherine D. Lumpkin, Child Workers in America (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1939).
[xiii] Schmidt, "Down Around Biloxi"
[xiv] Hindman, 269.
[xv] Schmidt, "Down Around Biloxi"
[xvi] Hindman, 269.