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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lacy Wright, March 10, 1975. Interview E-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Working in the textile mills as a child

Wright talks about child labor in Cone Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina. Wright first went to work in the Cone textile plant at White Oak around 1917, when he was twelve years old. He explains that this was a common practice for children to begin working at this day and he remembers that approximately one-fourth of the workers at the White Oak plant were children. According to Cone, company policies facilitated children working where their parents worked. This, along with paternalism in the mill villages, ensured that work in the textile mills was a family enterprise.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lacy Wright, March 10, 1975. Interview E-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM FINGER:
Were there still young kids working there too?
LACY WRIGHT:
Yes. Now during this time, right after I went to work, I don't remember what year it was, but child labor laws come into effect. So what they did to us kids that was in the mills and wasn't sixteen years old, they let us work eight hours a day. See, a kid could work eight hours a day when he wasfourteen years old. They couldn't hire one after the child labor laws come in; you couldn't hire a child that wasn't fourteen years old. So I worked about a year and a half on eight hours a day. We'd come in at nine o'clock and work 'til noon, and they give you an hour for dinner. You go home for lunch and come back at one, and then work 'til six. So I worked about a year and a half at that, on eight hours a day.
WILLIAM FINGER:
What year was that, now? This is '33, right after you've come back to work?
LACY WRIGHT:
Let's see. I went to work in '17, when I was twelve years old. That must have been somewhere along about 1918-1919.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Oh, in the early days.
LACY WRIGHT:
During the war.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Lacy, how many kids were there in the plant? How many young boys like yourself, and young girls? Do you remember?
LACY WRIGHT:
Oh, my goodness. That company didn't raise their help, they grew their help. In other words, if you'd of lived in, like, Madison or Mayodan or High Point, Winston-Salem or anything like that and come here wanting a job, they'd tell you: "No, we don't need no help." Because everybody that had children, they gave them the jobs, don't you see, because they would stay with them then.
WILLIAM FINGER:
It was a real family thing, the whole family worked.
LACY WRIGHT:
As to how many, it's hard to tell, because they had families over there then that's unbelievable. They had families over there that had twelve to fourteen children in one family. So actually it's hard to tell how many
WILLIAM FINGER:
In the plant you worked in when you were little, do you remember, were half the people that worked there children? Or a quarter?
LACY WRIGHT:
Well, I would say it would run around 20-25 percent, at least that much. Because every kid over there went to work at an early age. Then back in those days, you know, it was quite different than it is now. There wasn't no recreation for kids, you know. They always kind of had a problem. Actually, I would have liked to went on to school. I loved school, and I got along in school good. And I would have liked to have went on. But there was numbers and numbers of children fourteen years or something; they get the idea they want to go to making them some money, so they put in to work.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did you live in a house that the Cone Mills owned?
LACY WRIGHT:
We lived in a house that the company owned all my life, with the exception of the time that I worked at the Post Office. Now that was one thing: if you quit the mill you had to leave their house. They wouldn't let you live in their house and work somewhere else.
WILLIAM FINGER:
You were in a regular mill town, weren't you?
LACY WRIGHT:
Yes. If your father worked there they wouldn't allow you to live with your father and get a job somewhere else, you see. That was against the rules. In other words, your dad either had to put you in the mill or leave, one or the other.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did the foreman tell him that? Who told him he had to do that?
LACY WRIGHT:
Well, that was a company rule.
WILLIAM FINGER:
How did you know the rule?
LACY WRIGHT:
They tell you that!
WILLIAM FINGER:
They tell you that.
LACY WRIGHT:
Yes.
WILLIAM FINGER:
They come around to your house and tell you, or they tell you on the phone.
LACY WRIGHT:
No, they tell you in the plant. In other words, if I'd of went somewhere else and got a job, they'd of told my dad right quick: "That boy can't stay with you; or you've got to quit and leave work." See. That was set rules in all the plants at that time.