Fate of Early 1900s Young Laborer
Reminds Us: Our Kids Are Not Alright
The harrowing life and sad death of a young child laborer, who lived in North Carolina a hundred years ago, uncovered recently by a Massachusetts researcher, may have at least some positive effects. It may bring to mind the fact that much of what we take for granted today, about labor relations and children’s rights, cost countless lives and took several decades to be achieved.
Also, even though officially no kid under 16 is allowed to be hired as a worker in this and most countries, it may serve as a reminder that in some parts of the world, such a regulation if even exists is all but a joke. Child abuse, prostitution, forced to join murderous armies or traded as a commodity, are all still rampant and very much part of the daily lives of millions.
Reading about poor 12-year-old Giles Edmund Newsom, whose picture above was taken in 1912, days before his 12th birthday and after losing his fingers in an accident at Sanders Cotton Manufacturing Co., in Bessemer City, also made us go back a couple of years. That’s when we published a quick post about child soldiers of Mogadishu, massacres in Brazil, cases of underage farm labor right here in the U.S., and the Army’s use of computer games as a recruitment tool.
We invite you to read that post keeping in mind that some of events described have had developments in the past two years, and most of the protagonists of those stories have changed. But the substance of what’s reported remains the same: child soldiers still roam the jungles of Africa, immigrants as young as 10 still work in our farms, and the Army, well, it still needs bodies.
A FACE FOR AN AMERICAN STORY
Newsom’s picture was taken by Lewis Hine of the National Child Labor Committee and served as a starting point for the research conducted by Joe Manning and a team of historians. Pouring through archives of the Gaston County Public Library, death certificates, and other documents of the time, Manning was able to put together a fairly account to what happened to the boy.
Despite some uncertainties about his real name, it all point to the fact that the boy lived to be 18 and died of Spanish flu, in Oct. 18, 1918, while working at Modena Cotton Mills. He’s buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Gastonia, possibly in an unmarked grace, since Manning was unable to locate the precise spot.
The uncertainty about his name may be attributed to poorly kept records of the period, but the name Charles Newman seems to be associated with the Newsom, even though there’s no public documents about such person in the region. Manning’s still researching and hoping new data, or even a distant relative, will come forward to help him solve the mystery.
What’s evident is that Newsom started working when most kids today are learning to write and read, even though, as Manning points out, North Carolina had passed its first child labor law back in 1904. Despite that, and the terrible accident that cost him two fingers of his right hand, he remained in the work force till the day he died.
It’s worth noting too that the picture was part of “Standing on a Box: Lewis Hine’s National Child Labor Committee Photography, Gaston County, 1908,” some years ago. It’d be cruel to slap a poster child label on Newsom’s face now, for as much as his torments are now long over, many children like him still endure similar brutal conditions and their lives just as brief as his.
Hine went on to document the harrowing working conditions of child laborers at the Turkey Knob Mine in MacDonald, West Virginia, around the same time. We’ve included some of those pictures he took of other Gileses who lived and died, most likely without ever having played with a toy, or slept in a warm bed, or eaten a hearty meal. Even though these have been taken a century ago, the brutal reality they depict is still being reenacted as we speak.
A Multifaceted War on Children (*)
“In the future, wars will be fought in air-tight rooms by underaged children. Men will still push buttons indoors, but it’ll be the kids who’ll rule the killing fields.” Delmonico Saint Croix.
* Child soldiers of Mogadishu trained by U.S. allies.
* Underage farm labor in the backward of American cities.
* The Army’s use of computer games as a recruitment tool.
NO CHILD’S PLAY
While 12-year olds roam the streets of Africa, armed with assault rifles and empowered with military authority, we wonder whether we’ll be giving our own children a new cellphone on their next birthday.
As we obsess about our kids’ meals, children younger than them pick the vegetables we want so much our own to eat. We read about another village destroyed by remote missiles and wonder why our own sons and daughters spend so much time playing video games based on war raids.
Disrespect for the integrity of children and their right to grow in a safe environment is a pervasive issue and, some say, an unavoidable legacy of the Industrial Revolution, demographic explosion, and ongoing border conflicts and/or any other reasonable cause you could come up with, locally or worldwide.
It may be originated by lack of funding for education affecting so many nations; by a global market ever hungrier for cheaper labor; or an out-of-control defense industry that will profit equally from either a legitimate struggle for peace and justice or the ambition for power of warlords the world over.
CHILDREN AS PREY
They’re forced to kill so not to be killed, and their victims can be their own parents or members of their community. They master these evil deeds before grasping what’s at stake, and that’ll cripple them emotionally for the rest of their lives.
They’re grabbed from their shacks, raped, maimed, completely subjugated, and then given an automatic rifle and told to go and roam the streets and enforce their captors’ law. There’s no way around the pain and suffering involved when such horrors happen to an adult.
But there’s also a twisted relief of sorts that happens during the time it takes for someone to grow up: with a little luck, there’s always a brief glimpse of another reality, one they can dream about it or be thankful for it. For a child who hadn’t yet had time to dream, to play, to be a child before becoming a killer, though, there’s no such redemption.
In 2000, when a desperate thug sequestered a commute bus in Rio de Janeiro, the TV cameras documented the drama live as it unfolded into a bloody gunfight. When it was all over, with several passengers killed, there was a natural public outrage that last exactly 20 minutes.
Or until a documentary about the tragedy reached theaters a few years later. The outrage took a startlingly turn, though, when it was revealed that the kidnapper was a survivor of what had become known as the Massacre of Candelaria.
The shooting of a group of street kids in downtown Rio, a few years earlier, also caused an intense but all too brief sense of outrage by the public. The main suspects, paramilitary forces hired by local retailers, never stood trial for the crimes. And everybody else just forgot all about it.
Everybody but Sandro do Nascimento, a survivor of that massacre, already a voiceless lumpen, who witnessed in silence his tragedy fade into oblivion. He could never wake up from that nightmare or leave his life in the streets. Instead, the abandoned kid became a killer too, just like child soldiers survive to become warlords. And the cycle remains unbroken.
THE WAR WITHIN
While the tragedy of children thrown at war, at forced labor or at manufactured dreams of destruction and power are an ingrained vein within the fabric of our reality, they’re by no means all there is to be startled about.
At the U.S. and Mexican border, for instance, children are the most likely to be caught in the crossfire, even when not breaking any law. Like the 15-year old, shot twice for just looking like an illegal immigrant trying to cross the border, which it turned out, he was not. It was 2010. Can you believe that things are even worst now?
At the corners of American cities, the astonishingly misguided war on drugs is carried on by underage soldiers too, stuffed with cash and loaded guns, guarding territories that don’t even belong to their wealthy underground bosses.
And equally tragic are children having children, or parents leaving theirs behind, out of immaturity or unwillingness to sacrifice personal dreams. Or kids of parents who do away with their own lives, and their legacy of suicidal chain reactions, and more and more.
Certain demons that populated this world, one can argue, are just too much for most people and it’s the children they bring about who’ll inevitably bear witness and having to navigate through the consequences of their bloody wake.
There may be very little that can be done for them, so help them god or allah or whoever they think must be on duty. But some beg to disagree. And dare to lose sleep over it. And got ready this morning just to do something about it.
If necessary, they’ll bear arms, shovels and video players to get this job done. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, they’re accepting volunteers.
(*) Originally published in Oct. 2010.