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


"Sallee’s book is a worthy work that fills an important gap in the intellectual and social history of Alabama."
Alabama Review

"Sallee presents a compelling account of child labor reform in Alabama during the Progressive Era. 'Whiteness' drives the book."
Journal of American History

"A welcome addition to the scholarship of public welfare, Progressivism, labor, and women reformers in the South . . . The arguments made in the book are provocative and have wide-ranging implications that show the way to some new areas of scholarship."
Florida Historical Quarterly

"Shelly Sallee has made an important contribution to the now flourishing scholarship concerned with the lives of southern textile workers. Her book is particularly significant in putting race squarely into the story of a southern industry in which almost all of the workers were white."
Journal of Southern History

"Sallee's book is as much cultural as social and labor history. The New South portrayed is a kaleidoscopic bricolage, a dangerous assemblage of mutual impossibilities. The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South offers both a thorough interpretation of the child reform movement and an energetic and original picture of the New South. Solidly researched, clearly presented, nicely paced, this is an important contribution to southern history."
North Carolina Historical Review

"This book makes an intriguing and potentially important argument . . . Throughout the seven short chapters of this well-organized book, Sallee presents her findings and analysis in clear and concise prose, drawing upon a respectable array of primary and secondary sources to make her case."
Journal of Interdisciplinary History

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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.