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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James and Nannie Pharis, December 5, 1978; January 8 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0039. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A child is badly injured while working in the cotton mills

James Pharis recalls an injury he suffered while working in a cotton mill in Spray, North Carolina, around the turn of the twentieth century. Having gone to work at the age of nine, Pharis describes how he would play with other boys working at the mill. He describes how his hand was badly injured one day while riding on the elevator rope. Pharis's injury was treated by the company doctor, although he never enjoyed a full recovery. Pharis uses the vignette to reveal the limits working people had in procuring medical care and in confronting employers about hazardous work conditions.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James and Nannie Pharis, December 5, 1978; January 8 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0039. 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

ALLEN TULLOS:
When you started to work, what do remember about that, the mill, working, life?
JAMES PHARIS:
I don't remember too much individual things. I was about nine or ten years old when I got that hand hurt right there.
ALLEN TULLOS:
How did that happen?
JAMES PHARIS:
I was riding on an elevator rope in the mill. Me and another boy was getting the quills in the mill. He was on the bottom floor and I was on the top floor. We'd go to the spinning room to empty our quills out. The first one who would get up there would ride the elevator rope. He'd be down on the bottom floor. We'd ride the elevator rope up to the pulley and slide back down. I was riding one day and was looking round over the spinning room and my hand got caught under the wheel. That thing was mashed into jelly, all of it was just smashed all to pieces. They took me out. It happened pretty much after lunch one day. It started up after dinner, they gave forty-five minutes for dinner. They took me down to the company store—the drug store was in the front end of the company store—never even notified my people or nothing. Set me down in the front of that company store. There were only two doctors in town at that time, and both of them was out of town on country calls. I sat there until about four o'clock. Nobody done nothing in the world for me. My people was never notified. Nothing said about it. You tear yourself all to pieces then, nothing said about getting anything out of it. The doctor put a board on my hand there, had my fingers straight. One night the board slipped around the back and that thing crooked down. It's been that way ever since. Never even got straight.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Those things happened a good deal?
JAMES PHARIS:
Oh, yes, back in them days. Nothing never said about it then.
NANNIE PHARIS:
He could have sued them nowadays.
JAMES PHARIS:
You couldn't do nothing. Poor people like us, no use in us suing.
NANNIE PHARIS:
They didn't have anything to sue for, actually.
JAMES PHARIS:
No use in suing. Poor people didn't stand a chance. If a rich man wanted…. They had a system back in them days. One company owned all the mills was around there. They had agreements with one another. If they said not to hire you they wouldn't hire you. So, if you done anything—anything the company didn't like— they'd just fire you and tell the rest of them not to hire you. So, there you'd be. People who lived under them circumstances, back in them days, was nothing they could do. So they didn't try to do nothing.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Did they have a doctor the mill paid to handle you?
JAMES PHARIS:
They did pay for the doctor to fix up my hand. We never did. Never did say nothing to us about it.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Would there be one particular doctor who would be on contract?
JAMES PHARIS:
There were only two doctors in town. Either one of them was a company doctor.
NANNIE PHARIS:
Was one of them Dr. Sweeney?
JAMES PHARIS:
Dr. Sweeney and Dr. Ray was the only two doctors available.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Would these sorts of accidents happen to one group more than another, or children more than grown-ups? Who would be most likely to have an accident in the mill?
JAMES PHARIS:
So many little children working then, little bitty children. Naturally they had more accidents than the grown-ups would.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Did anybody ever complain?
JAMES PHARIS:
Didn't have no complaints back in those days.
ALLEN TULLOS:
There was nobody that came around to check on that?
JAMES PHARIS:
No. You done like they said do or you didn't do back in them days. If a man wanted to stay in town he had to do what they wanted do or he couldn't stay there.