MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Historian and writer Joe Manning fell into his investigating by accident.
A friend, Elizabeth Winthrop, who is also a writer, saw a picture of a young girl who worked in a cotton mill in Vermont. She said the girl’s name was Addie Card.
The photo, by Lewis Hine, was one of many in a campaign to bring awareness to child labor. Winthrop decided she was going to write a fictional story about the girl, giving her a fictional name.
Once the book was finished, she said she could finally figure out who the real Addie Card was. She asked Manning to do some digging and he agreed.
He found Card’s granddaughter within two weeks and within three months learned Card lived to be 94 years old.
“It was a remarkable experience, and when it was over with I said to Elizabeth, ‘this is such an amazing experience I wish I could find something to do as exciting as this,” Manning told The Dominion Post last week.
Winthrop told him there were 5,130 photos taken by Hine in The Library of Congress. She encouraged him to pick out another to investigate.
He was hooked.
Manning said Hine was in a difficult situation, not always welcome when taking his photographs. They exposed child labor and oftentimes illegal child labor. Therefore, he had very little time to jot things down or ask questions, leaving many children in his photos unidentified.
Manning has researched and done stories on more than 375 of the children in those photos. He was inspired by the idea of being able to enrich families’ lives with old photographs of relatives. In many cases people did not know the pictures even existed.
One photo that stuck out to him was of a young boy working in coal mines. The photo was of an unidentified boy covered in dirt, dating back to 1908.
“It’s a magical picture and I couldn’t wait to get started with it,” said Manning.
He did his own digging until he determined this boy was Otha Porter Martin, who lived most of his life in the Morgantown area. He was 11 when the photo was taken and lived to be 87.
According to the photographer, Martin was a tipple boy at the Turkey Knob Mine in MacDonald, Fayette County.
Gloria Johnson said she and her cousin were shocked when they saw the picture. Johnson is Martin’s granddaughter.
“He never spoke about his childhood. We basically didn’t know any of this until Mr. Manning called and we all started digging in the Library of Congress,” she said.
Manning said some of these kids who were photographed in the coal mine were as young as 9 and 10 years old. These kids often worked to help support their families for little pay, but it was simply a way of life.
Martin continued to work in the mining industry. Johnson said mining was just a way of life back then. She said her grandfather was a private man and there were definitely hard times.
“I guess maybe he didn’t want to go back and remember those days. From what I understand it was very, very rough,” Johnson said.
Manning said people oftentimes tend to sentimentalize their own histories. People talk about “the good old days,” but in some respect they weren’t all that great, he said. Many of these stories are far from sentimental, but that’s what life is all about, he said.
He said most people don’t think about things like child labor much anymore, but Hine’s photos can evoke emotions about kids today who still face child labor. He said child labor is still a tremendous problem in many Asian countries.
The biggest thing for him is these photos give these children dignity. He said many of them went on and lived better lives.
Johnson said she’s glad other people will get to learn what times were like back then, and hopefully people will appreciate coal miners more.
She said her grandpa was more than a tipple boy and coal miner. He was a bare-knuckle boxing champion, something else she didn’t learn until after he died.
“I am so proud of him. To know what he went through and to know I was once part of his life. We were real close and to find out all this stuff, it excited me and my sister to no end,” she said.
She said if he were alive to see the picture today, he would probably chuckle a little bit and shrug it off. She loved hearing him laugh, which she said he did not do very often. Deep down, she said, he would have been proud.
“He never expected anyone to pat him on the back. He did what he had to do to survive,” she said.
Manning’s story on Otha Porter Martin can be read here.
This story, written by Sarah Marino, first appeared Sunday, April 8 in The Dominion Post.