MORNINGS ON MAPLE STREET VOLUME THREE

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Lalar Blanton, Page One

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Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner. A moment's glimpse of the outer world. Said she was 10 years old. Been working over a year. Location: Lincolnton, North Carolina, November 1908, Lewis Hine.

This little girl, identified by Lewis Hine simply as "spinner," has been staring out the window for 105 years, waiting for someone to give her a name. The waiting is over. Her name is Lalar Blanton.

"Granny was my security, my safe place to fall. She was the softness and the love in my life." -Myra Cook, granddaughter of Lalar Blanton

Lewis Hine spent the whole month of November 1908, photographing children working in textile mills in North Carolina and South Carolina. He had begun traveling extensively for the National Child Labor Committee in August, first in the Midwest, and then in the South. With only three months of investigative work behind him, he was not well known among mill owners, so he generally had little trouble getting inside the mills. He usually posed as an industrial photographer looking to take pictures of machines and other equipment. He took only two pictures of child laborers in the Rhodes mill. This is the other one.

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Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. National Child Labor Committee. Girl on left said she was 10 years old and been in mill a long time more than a year. Spinner girl on right said she was 12 years. Location: Lincolnton, North Carolina, November 1908, Lewis Hine.

It appeared obvious to me right away that the girl on the left was also the girl looking out of the window, and that the two persons with her were her mother and sister.

The girl looking out of the window has become one Hine's most beloved and talked about images. For his work, he used a large camera, with a wide-angle lens and a very slow shutter speed. He had to mount it on a tripod. Consequently, he usually posed his subjects, and tried to get them to hold still, not an easy task for a child. For the flash, he had to ignite magnesium powder, not a good idea in a lint-filled cotton mill; so he had to find a spot with adequate light. Hine would have understood that having the girl facing the light-filled window was ideal.

But most people think that there was another reason. The caption said, "A moment's glimpse of the outer world." It is easy to conclude that Hine was tugging at our hearts by placing the girl in that location to create a romantic image of a poor mill worker dreaming of a better life somewhere out there, or just wishing she were home. But all of Hine's captions were field notes he jotted down in a pocket notebook, and some were later edited and/or added to by the National Child Labor Committee. Hine often complained about that. So we don't know for sure what Hine intended, but we do know that he created a picture that is unforgettable.

But for some reason, Hine did not record her name. Perhaps the family was reluctant to reveal their names to a stranger.

Almost five years ago (2009), I began a search for the girl's identity. I asked the editor of the Lincoln Times-News, the newspaper that covers Lincolnton, to publish the photos and ask if anyone knew who she was. I had already used this method successfully for several other Hine pictures. The editor agreed to do it. The article said in part:

"The little girl staring out the window has no name and a very short story. At 10 years old, she had been working at Rhodes Manufacturing Company for more than a year. ‘She has been anonymous for 101 years,' says Joe Manning, an author and historian. ‘Whoever she was, someone remembers her and probably loved her and cared about her.'"

No one responded. So I posted the pictures on the Mystery Photos page of my website. Three years went by, and nothing happened. About six months ago, I saw a painting inspired by the photograph. It was by Dawn Nelson, who contributed a number of art works to a traveling exhibit called "The Mill Children." The exhibit has its origins in North Adams, Massachusetts, and is inspired by Hine's nine photographs of child laborers in the city at the Eclipse Mill, as well as others taken by Hine. I contributed stories of some of the children, and an educator and several other artists made contributions. When I saw Ms. Nelson's painting of the girl looking out the window, I decided to make another effort to indentify her.

A couple of days later, I came up with a novel idea. I searched the 1910 Lincolnton census, and made a list of all the white girls who were born about 1898, and had a sister that was about two years older. There were 12 such girls, including one identified as Lala Blanton. I published those 12 names under the photos on my Mystery Photos page.

It occurred to me that there are thousands of people searching every day for information about their ancestors. What if the girl at the window was really one of those 12 persons, and what if someone was searching that name on Google and found the photos on my website? It was a long shot at best, but what other option did I have at that point?

Two months later, I received an email from a woman named Myra Cook.

"I think there is a real possibility that the little mystery girl in the photograph is my grandmother, Lalar Blanton. And in the other photograph, the mom and the two sisters are my great-grandmother, Susie Black Blanton, with Lalar on the left, and Ellen on the right. Susie looks very much like my father, who was her grandson. I'm not sure how to determine if I am correct, but perhaps you have some idea how to do that."

I quickly replied.

"This is very exciting, so let's work on seeing if we can establish if you are correct. The 1910 census lists Susan, Ellen and Lala (instead of Lalar) in Lincolnton. Lala is about 10 years old, and Ellen about 12 years old. Do you have any photos of Lalar, Ellen and Susan?"

A week later, she sent me several pictures of Lalar as an adult. I compared them to the girl in the Hine photos, and concluded that they were the same person. I showed them to three friends I hang out with at a local coffee shop, making sure I did not give them any hints ahead of time about what I thought. Not only did they come to the same conclusion, but several curious coffee drinkers from another table came over to see the pictures, and they agreed.

At that point, I emailed the photos to Maureen Taylor, a widely known face recognition expert whose expertise I have relied on in the past. She replied: "The faces match up perfectly!"

At the end of this story, I will illustrate how we came to this conclusion.

*Maureen Taylor's website is MaureenTaylor.com.

 

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