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The short, hard life of Shorpy Higginbotham

July 8, 2011

Shorpy Higginbotham, November 1910

If you frequent history-themed weblogs—as I’m sure you do— you may have spent some time at Shorpy.com. The ‘100-year-old photo blog” showcases high-resolution photography, mostly from before the mid-20th century. The site’s archives include a fair number of very interesting Alabama pictures.

The site’s catchy name is derived from the subject of a handful of photographs taken in December 1910 by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee, which would hold its Spring 1911 conference in Birmingham. Hine spent several weeks that winter scouting out child workers, ranging from young mill workers in Avondale to couriers and buskers who worked on the bustling downtown streets, to boys employed in surface operations at the mining camps scattered throughout the Birmingham District’s coal fields. He photographed and interviewed as many as he could and wrote up brief reports, highlighting dangerous conditions, long hours, and limited opportunities for education or other means for personal improvement.

At the Bessie Mine, near Dora in Walker County, Hine encountered Henry Sharp Higginbotham, who despite the photographer’s skepticism, was every bit of the 14 years he claimed. Higginbotham was the 6th of 10 children born to Felix and Mary Jane Higginbotham of Nauvoo. He and his siblings were employed as  “greasers” at the mines; wiping dust and grit from the mine-car and tipple tracks and spreading grease from heavy buckets to keep them running smoothly. In his reports, Hine recorded Higginbotham’s nickname as “Shorpy” (perhaps in error, as surviving relatives remember his as “Sharp”, and “Sharpy” was used in census forms).

Hine’s portraits of “Shorpy” and other children working in the Birmingham District were presented to the National Conference at Birmingham’s Orpheum Theatre. Leading researchers, activists, and proponents of progressive  federal legislation participated in the conference. Florence Kelley and Jane Addams were feted at a luncheon recognizing the contributions of women to child labor reform. Former president Theodore Roosevelt was also visiting Birmingham. He delivered an address to the conference on “The Conservation of Childhood” and voiced hopes that the special conditions in the South would help the region find ways to avoid the degeneracy endemic to industrial centers of Europe and the Northeast.

Eight years after Hine packed up his cameras, the 22-year-old Higginbotham enlisted for the draft and was assigned to the 8th Company of the 1st Battalion Infantry Replacement Division at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He did not see action overseas during World War I and, after his discharge, returned to the mines, finding work in Sayre.

Higginbotham's marker at Linn's Crossing Cemetery

Just before his 31st birthday Higginbotham exchanged vows with Flora Belle Quinton. Their marriage lasted only two months before Henry was fatally injured by a falling rock. His broken body lingered in agony for 9 days at Norwood Hospital before he succumbed and his body was committed to Linn’s Crossing Cemetery in northwest Jefferson County. His widow, Flora, bore his son, William, the following summer.

The dire need for labor during the Magic City’s boom years sent not only children, but also convicts, migrants, and a large number of immigrant laborers into the ground to bring up coal and ore. The Birmingham History Center houses a display of mining equipment and other artifacts. Those interested may also want to visit the Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama at Tannehill State Park or the Alabama Mining Museum in Dora.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Donnahunt permalink
    January 3, 2014 3:35 pm

    My name is Donna Callahan Hunt. My Mother was Jennie Mae Williams-Callahan. Her mother was Susie Higginbotham-Williams. I have two sisters – Jackie Callahan Gilbert and Judy Callahan Weaver.

    Like

  2. Joyce W. Moore permalink
    April 17, 2012 7:19 am

    This Sharpy Higginbotham was my grandmother’s brother. Her name was Susie Higginbotham. She married Joseph James Williams, Jefferson County, and my daddy, Burney Charles Williams was born 1919 and he too entered the mines at the age of 14 at Bayview/Edgewater. He was born at Frog Pond, Alabama (Jefferson County). I hope this can enter the historical page. Joyce Williams Moore

    Like

  3. Liz Ellaby permalink
    July 8, 2011 12:05 pm

    That’s just a great story. A terrible, but great, story.

    Like

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