Watching old photos “develop” into new families

By Georgia Humanities Staff

It began so simply, when Massachusetts historian Joe Manning came across five 1909 Lewis Hine photographs of a cotton-mill worker and her nine children in Tifton, Georgia. Little did he know that the ripples he was about to set in motion would touch thousands and bring together more than 100 people who never knew they were family.

After a few years of research, Manning unearthed the identities of the woman and her children. She was one Catherine Young, widowed just two years before the photo was taken. Even though child-labor laws enacted in 1906 prohibited children under the age of 10 from working in mills and factories, Young and six of her children—including three under 10—worked in the H. H. Tift Cotton Mill for $4.50 a week.

Just months after Hine took the photos, Young placed seven of her children into an orphanage. Over time, they and their descendants dispersed to far corners of the country.

In 2013, through a Georgia Humanities grant, Polly Huff, curator of the Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village (GMA), commissioned a Tifton design company, The Big Picture, to create a portable and graphically compelling display. The display featured the five original photos, information on child-labor laws in the early 1900s, and Manning’s findings about the Young family.

With the help of several professors from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC), and a few local partners, Huff then took the exhibition to local schools. It was eventually viewed by 5,000 students and teachers—many with connections to ancestors who had also worked in the cotton mills. Huff then began planning a public event to introduce the exhibition to the larger Tifton community. But that was just a glimpse of the “living history” to come.

As part of his extensive research, Manning had tracked down 40 Young family descendants. He and Huff invited them all—some from as far away as California. In a serendipitous occurrence, Manning, a year earlier, had contacted local ABAC biology and botany professor Earl Parker, sharing the fact that one of the nine children in the picture, a young girl, was his mother, Eddie Lou Young.

On March 15, 2014, at the public debut of the exhibition, more than 100 Young descendants were in attendance—most were meeting their own flesh-and-blood kin for the first time.

Polly Huff, commenting on the impact of the Georgia Humanities grant on the unfolding of both the exhibition and the subsequent reunion, said, “The project touched an incredible number of lives while telling a story of survival and perseverance.”

Manning, the man who set all the wheels in motion, said, “Thanks to Georgia Humanities, we were able to celebrate the compelling story of the Young family at the site of its origins, and unite them for the first time in 100 years. This story reminds us that history, often viewed in purely academic terms, is all about human stories—some tragic, some triumphant, some both.”