This story is about a young girl that works in the mills in Georgia, where cotton is king.
The real family that inspired this story. Library of Congress; photograph by Lewis Hine, taken from ‘Central Georgia Textile Mills’.
Annabella Smith stood in the one room that she shared with her eight siblings. It was still dark as Annabella turned toward her older sister, Lucy. Lucy was busy doing her hair in the normal Gibson girl style.
“Lucy, it’s time to go,” warned Annabella. Lucy turned from the cracked glass to Annabella, showing her careworn face.
“Did Ma send you?” asked Lucy.
“No, but she told Carrie to and Carrie sent me,” replied Annabella. Lucy sighed as she pulled on her shoes. Lucy and Ma were the only ones in the family that owned shoes; all the other children went barefoot.
They left the room, and entered into the kitchen which also served as a living room. Annabella smiled at John; who stood scowling in the doorway and turned toward her mother. Mrs. Smith was a widow and struggled to keep her family fed and dressed. To help their mother, the five oldest: Lucy, Annabella, Carrie, John, and Gwen worked at the textile mill in Tifton, Georgia. Mrs. Smith stayed at home with the four youngest: Matthew, Joseph, Mary, and Elizabeth.
“Lucy, you ready?” asked Carrie, looking up from the cornbread she was scarfing down.
“Yes, let’s go,” said Lucy in reply. Gwen, who was seven, stood up and grabbed Annabella’s hand. John swung around and walked out the door followed by Lucy and Carrie.
“The Lord be with you, my children!” Mrs. Smith called after them.
“Same with you, Ma,” answered Lucy, looking over her shoulder. Matthew and Joseph were waving goodbye. Annabella waved back to them.
On their way to the mill, they passed the cotton fields. The cotton workers were already working away. It was awful to work out in the Georgia heat but cotton must be picked if people were to live. John ran ahead to meet up with some of his friends as they got nearer the mill.
The mill was an old brick building with windows. It had a bare field behind it and a railroad track. Inside were whirling machines and cotton dust. Gwen slipped her hand out of Annabella’s and smiled up into her face.
“I’ll see you for lunch, Annabella,” whispered Gwen. Annabella smiled and nodded. As Annabella drew closer to the building, two girls came to meet her.
“Annabella, the overseer said that we would be changing our spot,” said one of the girls. Both girls were wearing ragged cotton dresses and had their hair in braids. One had a bandaged foot.
“Really? But we have one of the best spots!” moaned Annabella.
“I know, we are to be in the middle of the room,” said the other girl.
“But Elsie! We’ll be sweltering! Our last spot was next to the window,” said Annabella.
“Tell that to the overseer!” laughed Elsie. Before they could say another word, the bell started to ring. Going to work, all the children and grown-ups went into the building. The whirling and whizzing started. All the friction from the machines caused unbearable heat. It was only nine in the morning and Annabella was already sweating. Cotton stuck to her clothes and to her face.
Soon she heard Elsie yell, “So, this isn’t a bit better then our other place!”
“Yeah!” yelled Annabella, “But think of the other folks in our spot, a bunch better for them!”
“I wish I was them,” moaned Ada, the other girl. They worked tirelessly, changing bobbins and making sure the machine didn’t catch.
Soon one of the cotton cleaners came by them. He danced in and out of the isles. He looked about eight or nine, thin and malnourished like them all.
“Hey! Pete!” yelled Annabella.
“Sure, whatcha want?” said Pete, the cotton cleaner, stopping his dance long enough to look Annabella in the face. “Oh, you are Annabella Smith, the widow’s daughter! You were the one with the window spot. Sorry to see ya here!” whistled Pete.
“Who has our old spot?” asked Annabella, ignoring Pete’s remarks.
“Old Mrs. McNutt, she gotta bad cough and being a good worker, the overseer moved her to the window,” answered Pete. He turned his back to Annabella and continued his sweeping.
“So see,” said Annabella, turning towards Ada. “You don’t want to have a cough.”
“But I will have one if I don’t get outta this place!” persisted Ada. Annabella sighed and shock her head. But then there was a commotion in the mill. Someone screamed and the overseer’s voice could be heard over the whir of the machines.
“What’s going on?” asked Elsie, as she quickly changed the bobbin again.
“I don’t know! What if something happened to John or Carrie!” moaned Annabella.
“Don’t worry, Annabella, God will be with your siblings through anything,” encouraged Ada.
“I know but it’s still so hard,” said Annabella as she watched a troublesome bobbin.
Later at noon break, Matthew came bearing the lunch basket.
“Ma sent ya lunch,” panted Matthew, handing Lucy the basket. Everyone was there: Lucy, Annabella, Carrie, John, and Gwen.
“Do you know what caused that scream?” asked Carrie as she nibbled the cornbread.
“Yeah, I do,” said John who was a cotton cleaner. “It was Kate Nixon. Her hair got stuck in the machine, the braid came undone or somethin’ and ripped out her hair. She looks like an Indian scalped her.” John seemed to be enjoying this account of the damage to Kate’s hair, but Gwen had gone pale and the rest of the girls had lost their appetite.
“Oh John! How can you recount that without feeling the least bit sorry?” asked Lucy.
John looked sullen, “I do feel sorry but it was kinda cool to see.”
“John! The Bible says to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice! Would you feel ‘interested’ if it was Gwen instead of poor Kate? Do you think her mother finds it ‘interesting’! Oh, John, how can you be so heartless?” exhorted Lucy. John had been squirming through this whole lesson.
“Well, I guess I’m sorry. Do ya have to lecture a fellow so?” And with that John went to play marbles. Through all this, Matthew had been sitting wide eyed.
“Lucy, may I buy Kate a piece of candy?” asked Matthew.
“If you have a penny, I’m sure Ma would let you,” answered Lucy, smiling at Matthew’s thoughtfulness.
“I bet she would be glad to get candy any day, Matt,” said Carrie who had a huge sweet tooth. The Smith children sat talking through the rest of noon break. Then the bell rang and the children and adults went trooping back into the mill.
Lucy stopped Annabella before they were in the mill.
“John and I are gonna be doing the night shift, alright?”
“Sure, I’ll tell Ma, she won’t mind,” said Annabella, running to catch up with Elsie and Ada. Lucy looked after her, wishing their Pa was still alive and that they were still on their farm. They had to sell it after Pa died. What an awful month that was! Pa’s accident, his death, Ma’s grief, it was all like a bad dream, a real bad dream.
“Annabella Smith!” Annabella looked up, seeing a tall, gangly youth. He had tow colored hair and snapping green eyes.
“Shoot, Jonathan, whatcha doing here?” asked Annabella, looking up at the boy.
“Pa said to tell ya that tomorra’ ya got to do the night shift,” answered Jonathan.
“That’s nice to know, so why don’t you skat?” asked Annabella, after a moment’s pause.
“Cause I don’t hafta,” said Jonathan, watching Annabella’s slim form rushing from one bobbin to another.
“All you are is a lollygag,” said Annabella, putting her hands on her hips. “Just cause you’r the overseer’s son, doesn’t mean you don’t need to work.”
“I work enough,” said Jonathan shortly, turning to leave, “Pa said I could tell ya and all I get in return is my head bitten off.”
All Annabella did was snort and get back to work. The girls worked long and hard. Soon it was five o’clock, which was time for dinner. The Smith children walked home together. “Well, how was your work?” greeted Ma, standing in front of the stove.
“Fine. Kate Nixon had an accident but that was the only different thing,” said Carrie.
“No, you’r wrong,” corrected Gwen. “Annabella had to move from the window to the middle of the room.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, dear. That’s a hard change,” said Ma, walking toward their small table. It had a red and white checkered table cloth on it. Ma set down a plate of salt pork and biscuits. She also set down some collard greens.
“Mmm, mm! Collard greens! The best,” sighed Annabella as she sat down. Ma motioned for them all to sit.
Once they all sat down, Ma bowed her head and said, “Heavenly Father, thank you for keeping my children safe. Thank you for providing this meal and for giving us breath. May your angels surround and keep us. In Your Son’s holy Name, amen.” Soon all you could hear was hungry children eating which is a very loud sound.
“So who is working tonight?” asked Ma, looking straight at Annabella. Lucy hated to tell Ma who was working so it was Annabella’s ‘job’.
“Lucy and John,” said Annabella quickly.
“You should nave told me before we prayed,” said Ma gently.
“Yes m’,” murmured the children, as they started to clean up.
At a quarter to seven, Lucy and John walked towards the mill. Annabella stood in the yard watching them. She would be going tomorrow. She actually liked the night shift, it was cooler then the day shift.
“Annabella! You should go to bed, get as much sleep as you can,” said Ma from the kitchen. “It would be a help if you put the babe’s to bed as well.”
“Yes Ma,” answered Annabella.
After Annabella had helped the younger children, she got into bed with them. She sat there thinking.
“God is good to us, so good to us. I don’t know why we grumble! I shouldn’t have grumbled about changing places with Mrs. Mcnutt. She needed much more then I did. I also shouldn’t have called Jonathan a lollygag, he does work as much as the rest. Lord, be with Kate Nixon and Lucy and John. Forgive me for these sins and help me to be more Christ-like. In Christ’s Name, Amen.” And with that, Annabella fell asleep.