Thursday, Jan. 7, 1909: How Lewis Hine’s North Charlotte photographs changed America

For the past year, NoDa News has focused a lot of attention on the history of North Charlotte’s mill days. It has been exciting to watch the third and final historic Johnston Mill being preserved, and it’s been a pleasure to share stories and photos and maps with all of our new and old NoDa neighbors.

We are lucky to have significant documentation of the earliest days of our neighborhood available to us. Many cities have had countless generations of residents, perhaps so many that it’s hard to remember that we are part of a large tapestry of people who will occupy this place. Whether you filled up your car with gas at the Dog Bar in its former use, or fill up your belly at Haberdish, the places we call home and work were part of the past lives of just a few generations.

On Thursday, Jan. 7, 1909, a man named Lewis Hine arrived in what is now NoDa and photographed North Charlotte well into the middle of the night. Perhaps you know Lewis Hine by his iconic photography of steel workers on lunch break atop the Empire State Building. You may also have seen his striking portraits of disheveled children staring back from their jobs in America’s industry.

Lewis Hine arrived on Jan. 7 without fanfare. He wasn’t invited here, and certainly was less than welcome in certain circles of industry. The North Charlotte Mills and Villages were not part of the City of Charlotte yet, and were in fact a company town where most buildings, roads, and people were owned in some way or another by the industry and businessmen of the day. Mr. Hine’s job was to smuggle in his photography equipment, have a look around, and not get caught.

Hine was known as a muckraker. He was part of a progressive academic social movement in America that pioneered journalism to affect national policy and change. In 1907, Hine was part of the Pittsburgh Survey, a landmark of the Progressive Era (1900-1920) that activated the conscience and empathy of the American public to the human conditions of the urban environment in the Industrial Era. Lewis Hine documented the hard lives and working conditions of marginalized Americans, and this is specifically why he came to North Charlotte.

The tradition of photo-journalism muckraking exists today because of people like Lewis Hine. While muckraking may sound like a dirty word, the implication was that the raker must sort through the muck to find the objective truth. In the Progressive Era, the muck was created by corrupt practices between business and government policy, and that is likely still as relevant today. Aren’t we all muckrakers at times with our iPhones, exposing what we see to influence our peers? However, in Hine’s case, his photographs were burned onto glass slides with primitive portable equipment. And he had to ferry the glass by train or car for months on his tour of the Carolina Piedmont.

It must have been a challenge for Hine to document the wistful, exhausted gaze of children as young as six and seven years old from their dangerous overnight positions on the textile lines. Many of Hine’s photographs are of the night workers, adults and children who had only recently arrived to North Charlotte to start this new job in the brand new Southern textile mills. The children in Hine’s photographs would have cleaned the lint and grease from themselves in the community bathhouse before walking the same streets and sleeping in the same mill houses that we care for today in NoDa.

Hine and his fellow muckrakers were integral in swaying the public to demand child labor laws in the United States. According to the 1900 census, 18 percent of the American workforce were children aged 10 to 15. By 1924, the issue had legislation creeping through state and federal law, and culminated finally in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Lewis Hine’s time in North Charlotte is so valuable for the people of NoDa. We can look back at the smudged faces of children and uneducated laborers who built NoDa’s community, and see how much we have all changed in only a few generations. How much will NoDa change in the next generations?

Lewis Hine’s glass slides are now protected and celebrated in the Library of Congress, but sadly Mr. Hine never got to see his work celebrated in his lifetime. After his January 1909 trip to the Carolina Piedmont, Hine continued to document the Red Cross in WWI, the Empire State Building, the Great Depression, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But as he produced more and more damning journalism against the corporate industrial complex, he was increasingly blacklisted by paying patrons. He lost his house, applied for welfare, and died in debt in 1940. The glass slides from Thursday, Jan. 7, 1909 (along with his life’s work) were shuttled between the defunct Photo League, refused by the Museum of Modern Art, and finally cared for by George Eastman in New York. Patrons continued to push Hine’s legacy to today, wherein any search engine can return results for the faces and lives of North Charlotte’s first families.

An important part of our mission at NoDa News is to provide context for how our neighborhood is changing in real time. We always hope to document an opening or closing business, a community plan for action, or shift in the interests of the people who make up our neighborhood. We will continue to grow and change as a community, but we will eventually leave behind a document of who took care of NoDa in 2021.