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In this lesson, students will read two primary source documents from Documenting the American South, a digital library collection sponsored by the UNC Libraries. One document is a pamphlet published in 1909 by the National Child Labor Committee exposing the use of child labor in the cotton mills of North Carolina. The other document is Mill News, a weekly newsletter about the Southern cotton industry that was paid for and published by the mill companies themselves. Students will also listen to oral history excerpts from mill workers to gain a third perspective. In a critical analysis, students will identify the audiences for both documents, speculate on the motivations and intentions of their authors, and examine the historical importance of each document.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • critically analyze primary sources, including oral histories and print documents, and identify the audience and intent behind these documents using clues from the texts.
  • compare multiple perspectives from a historical time period.
  • learn the historical context for these documents by researching the cotton industry during the early 20th century.

Teacher planning

Materials needed

  • Information about the Industrial Revolution and child labor around the turn of the century
  • Information about the use of child labor in Southern cotton mills, from Websites below or from your school’s library
  • Oral history excerpts:
  • Transcripts of oral history excerpts for each student (available at the links above.)
  • Computers with internet connection for each student to read primary source documents
  • Computer speakers to play oral history excerpts, or CD player if you have burned your own CD
  • Child Labor in the Carolinas pamphlet from Documenting the American South
  • Mill News from Documenting the American South

Time required for lesson

Three 50-minute class periods or two 90-minute class periods

Pre-activities

  • Teachers should familiarize themselves with the background of cotton mills in the South. A recommended resource is “The Story of Child Labor in the Cotton Mills” from the UNC Libraries.
  • Teachers should listen to the oral history excerpts and preview the discussion questions before using them in class.

Activity one: Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909)

Note: This activity will need to take place in a computer lab or other area allowing all students access to a computer and the internet.

  1. Briefly review the rise of the Industrial Revolution with students, mentioning the increase in factories and mills.
  2. Introduce students to the issue of child labor during the Industrial Revolution, especially children working in the cotton mills of the South. (For more information, see Websites below.)
  3. Read this introduction to the first primary document, Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909):
    During the early 20th century, social reformers from the National Child Labor Committee campaigned to outlaw child labor, especially in dangerous working environments like mills and factories. They sent investigators to these workplaces to find out the working conditions of child laborers, and published their findings in documents like this one. Lewis Hine was a photographer who worked for the NCLC and often had to sneak into mills to take photos of and speak with child workers. His photographs appear in this document to illustrate the plight of child workers in the cotton mills. As you read, think about who would have read this document and what the authors hoped to accomplish with it, if anything.

  4. Explain that students will critically analyze this document, and encourage them to take notes about the text. Some possible prompts include:
    • What are the authors’ motivations?
    • How do you think they feel about the cotton industry?
    • What is the central argument of the document?
    • How do the authors support this argument?
  5. Allow students time to read this document.

Activity two: Mill News (1920)

Note: This activity will need to take place in a computer lab or other area allowing all students access to a computer and the internet.

  1. Read this introduction to the second primary document, Mill News (1920):
    This document is an issue of a weekly newsletter called Mill News, distributed to cotton mill employees and managers and their families. It contains descriptions of various cotton mills around the Southeast U.S. This issue was published in 1920, eleven years after the first document we read. As you read, try to figure out who paid for the publication and distribution of this newsletter, and who wrote the articles.

  2. Explain to students that they should skim this document for the most important points, including illustrations, because it’s a fairly long document. Teachers may want to focus students on the “Peace and Prosperity” section on page three of the document, as well as the reports of various mills on pages 11-75. Encourage students again to take notes on audience, authors’ motivations and opinions of the cotton industry, and any central arguments or messages they can find in the document.
  3. Allow students time to read this document.

Activity three: Listening to oral histories

  1. Introduce the concept of oral histories, and discuss their value as we study important events. Mention that oral histories provide a chance for the “regular person” to record his or her experiences, not just the well-known or famous people often recorded in written history.
  2. Ask students to come up with more reasons we should value oral histories — such as allowing minority groups to record and publicize their experiences, making connections between generations, and passing on the art of storytelling. (For more about oral histories, see the LEARN NC guide, “Oral History in the Classroom.”)
  3. Hand out the oral history transcripts to students.
  4. Play the first oral history, from Nanny Pharis. (1 min 44 sec)

    Please upgrade your Flash Player and/or enable JavaScript in your browser to listen to this audio file.

    Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

  5. Play the second oral history, from Alice Evitt. (2 min 17 sec)

    Please upgrade your Flash Player and/or enable JavaScript in your browser to listen to this audio file.

    Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

  6. Play the third oral history, from Ila Hartsell Dodson. (2 min 5 sec)

    Please upgrade your Flash Player and/or enable JavaScript in your browser to listen to this audio file.

    Download recording (Right-click or option-click) | About the recording

  7. Discussion questions:
    • How do Ms. Pharis, Ms. Evitt, and Ms. Dodson each seem to feel about their time in the mill? How are their experiences different or similar?
    • What factors may have influenced the interviewees as they told their oral histories? (Students may mention memory changing with age, perspective created by the passing of time, desire to represent their experiences in the mills accurately, consciousness of interviewer and wider audience, and potential awkwardness of being interviewed on tape.)
    • Are any of the experiences in the oral histories reflected in the two primary documents we have read? (Students may mention children starting work at a young age, child workers missing out on an education to go to work, dangerous conditions in the mills, and other common threads.)

Assessment

Give students the following critical analysis assignment:

Thoughtfully and carefully analyzing what you read is an important skill, particularly when reading historical documents. Write a critical analysis of the two documents we’ve reviewed in class: Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909) and Mill News (1920). For each text, identify the audience, the authors’ motivation and intent, and at least two central arguments or messages for each document. Compare and contrast the two documents, and discuss how their authors’ arguments and motivations may have differed. Consider the social and historical context of the documents and discuss how that may have influenced the authors.

Students should be assessed by the level of critical analysis they perform for each document. Students should identify the audience, motivations, and argument for each of the two documents, as well as identify how the social and historical context of the time period influenced the authors.

Websites

From Documenting the American South:

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • History/Social Studies

        • Grades 11-12
          • 11-12.LH.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
          • 11-12.LH.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
        • Grades 9-10
          • 9-10.LH.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
          • 9-10.LH.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • United States History II

        • USH.H.1 Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time. USH.H.1.1 Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the...
        • USH.H.4 Analyze how conflict and compromise have shaped politics, economics and culture in the United States. USH.H.4.1 Analyze the political issues and conflicts that impacted the United States since Reconstruction and the compromises that resulted (e.g.,...