The world lost an inspired and inspiring researcher last April, when Joe Manning died. Manning devoted many years to researching people depicted in historical photographs, especially those found in National Child Labor Committee and Farm Security Administration collections. He leaves, however, a rich legacy, not only of his findings but also of his techniques for uncovering a wealth of information and a rich appreciation for individuals’ lives that can start with a photograph.
The Library of Congress blog featured an interview with Manning in 2019, where he talked about his research and how he shared it on his web site, Mornings on Maple Street. Manning, who for so long pursued historical evidence and thought about historical legacies, also thought about the preservation of the stories he discovered. He was aware that his web site was captured in the Wayback Machine, an initiative of the Internet Archive to preserve web pages through time. But he also encouraged us to make the content accessible on paper in the Prints & Photographs Division, where it is available for consultation in our reference collection. Although the Mornings on Maple Street web site has the advantage of all the interlinking that enables one to jump among related topics, I recently leafed through the notebooks of printouts and gained new appreciation, through this more serial form of browsing, for all that Manning conveyed to us.
Picking up one of the notebooks that focuses on stories of Southern textile workers documented by the National Child Labor Committee, I learned about the Turner sisters, pictured below with the original caption Lewis Hine provided (which tells an interesting story of sibling competition in itself!).
I felt a wave of sadness upon learning from Manning’s research that Viola Turner (on the right) died not quite four years after this photo was taken. You can know objectively that life spans were shorter in previous generations and that many didn’t survive childhood, but the name, the face, and the story Manning was able to pull together brought Viola to life for me and, in turn, made her death more real.
As someone who has spent many hours trying to match names of people in photographs to census and other public records, I also appreciated that Manning recorded not only the stories of individuals and families, but also the saga of his attempts to find them, often requiring years of persistence, patience, and some serendipity. He embarked on a search for the sisters depicted in this photo:The original caption that came to the Library of Congress with the photo didn’t give the last name of the children, but Manning didn’t back away from a challenge, even when he hit dead ends on the first avenues he went down. This is what he recounted in the essay he wrote about the family:
I tried to find two sisters named Lacy and Savannah living together in the North Carolina census, but that didn’t happen. But I did find 12-year-old Lacy Taylor in the 1910 Gastonia census, living with 11-year-old sister Densey Taylor. I spent several weeks trying to track down descendants of Lacy Taylor (married name Rhinehart), eventually contacting a son. But he convinced me I had the wrong Lacy. He had never heard of sister Savannah, and he said the Lacy in the photo looked nothing like his late mother. So I suspended the search, planning to return to it in a few months, but it would be more than a year before I did.
In August of 2008, I searched for the girls on Google and found that the Hine photo was also posted on the website of the National Archives, which displays only a few child labor photos. At the beginning of the otherwise identical caption, I was stunned to read, “Lacy (12 years old) and Savannah (11 years old) Ballard. I wondered where they found the last name, and if it was correct.
I immediately searched all the Ballards in the 1910 Gastonia census and found two sisters, 14-year-old Lues and 12-year-old Suda. I also found the same family in the 1900 census, living in Sherril’s Ford, Catawba County, North Carolina. In that listing, the two sisters were listed as Lucy and Sadie. Then I found 32-year-old Savannah Rimmer, married and living in Mountain Creek, North Carolina, in the 1930 census. Next, I found the North Carolina death certificate for Sudie Savannah Rimmer, maiden name Ballard. Within hours, I found her daughter, Beatrice Gross, called her and sent her the photo. At last, I had the correct family.
(Note: We regularly update descriptions when positive identifications are made and are updating this one!)
Manning often led into his child labor stories with a telling quote from the descendants he contacted and interviewed. I found this one particularly thought-provoking. The web page displays the photo and the original, detailed caption about the accident (John) Alfred Padgett suffered:
Immediately following the image and caption is a quote from John Alfred Padgett’s granddaughter, Dianne Hilliard, offering a distinct memory of Padgett: “On Saturday nights, my grandfather would give each of us kids a nickel, and stand in the yard and tell us when it was safe to cross the street. And then all of us would get an ice cream cone and stand there until he would tell us it was okay to cross the street again.”
That emphasis on Padgett’s concern for safety, so close on the heels of the description of what he lost to unsafe mill conditions, drives home how early labor experiences may have shaped individuals’ whole lives, and how the habits and talents they developed, in turn, shaped the memories of those who knew them.
Manning, by reaching out to families with the photographs and facts about their relatives, helped the individuals he researched to live on vividly in the memories of family members and readers like me. Through the research he did and the stories he shared, Joe Manning will live on in our memories, as well.
- Get to know Joe Manning. In addition to the Library of Congress blog, several publications profiled Manning and his work, and Manning not only shared his findings on the web but published in historical journals as well:
- Elizabeth Winthrop, “Through the Mill,” Smithsonian Magazine (September 2006).
- Joe Manning, “Addie Card: The Search for an Anemic Little Spinner,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 36, no. 2 (Summer 2008) [pdf].
- Explore Mornings on Maple Street on the web, or make a visit to our reading room to view the printout version (view the catalog record that describes the notebooks).
- People depicted in the National Child Labor Committee photos have intrigued many researchers. Read a blog post about students at Virginia Tech who delved into the lives of child laborers and the contexts in which they lived.
- You can probably tell that we love research stories! A recent blog post by summer intern, Nina Iskandarsjach, highlighted one strategy for trying to identify Civil War photo makers, dealing philosophically with the research avenues that take one on interesting byways, even if one doesn’t reach the desired destination: “Finding Clues in Civil War Photographs.”
- Manning expertly navigated the variety of sources that illuminate family and local history. The Library’s Local History & Genealogy staff offer many resources for embarking on such a journey.
- In addition to his skill at excavating public records, Joe Manning devoted time and thought to his oral history interviews. The Library of Congress American Folklife Center and Veterans History Project offer many oral histories to explore, as well as information about conducting oral history research.