The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South

Shelley Sallee

White racial solidarity and the humanitarian movement to restrict child labor in Alabama

Reviews

"The first historical treatment of child labor reform efforts in the American South. Shelley Sallee's book is an important contribution that highlights women reformers' relationship to evolving definitions of 'whiteness' during the Progressive Era."
—Kriste Lindenmeyer, author of A Right to Childhood: The U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912–46

"A thorough and unflinching account of how Progressive child labor reformers, including giants like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, took the low road and became accomplices of southern white supremacy. . . . Offers valuable lessons for the present."
—Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White


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Description
Focusing on Alabama's textile industry, this study looks at the complex motivations behind the "whites-only" route taken by the Progressive reform movement in the South. In the early 1900s, northern mill owners seeking cheaper labor and fewer regulations found the South's doors wide open. Children then comprised over 22 percent of the southern textile labor force, compared to 6 percent in New England. Shelley Sallee explains how northern and southern Progressives, who formed a transregional alliance to nudge the South toward minimal child welfare standards, had to mold their strategies around the racial and societal preoccupations of a crucial ally—white middle-class southerners.

Southern whites of the "better sort" often regarded white mill workers as something of a race unto themselves--degenerate and just above blacks in station. To enlist white middle-class support, says Sallee, reformers had to address concerns about social chaos fueled by northern interference, the empowerment of "white trash," or the alliance of poor whites and blacks. The answer was to couch reform in terms of white racial uplift—and to persuade the white middle class that to demean white children through factory work was to undermine "whiteness" generally. The lingering effect of this "whites-only" strategy was to reinforce the idea of whiteness as essential to American identity and the politics of reform.

Sallee's work is a compelling contribution to, and the only book-length treatment of, the study of child labor reform, racism, and political compromise in the Progressive-era South.

Page count: 224 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

 



Paper
List price: $25.95
978-0-8203-2570-5
2/12/2004

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