Desperately Seeking Sadie

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Joe Manning out to tell story of girl in 1908 Lews Hine photo taken at Lancaster Cotton Mill

By Greg Summers

Joe Manning never had the chance to meet Sadie Pfiefer (Phifer). But he knows there is more to her life than gets told through a 100-plus year-old photograph and Manning is desperately trying to find out about her.
The caption in the Lewis Hine photo simply reads, “Sadie Pfiefer, 48 inches high, has worked half a year. One of the many small children at work in Lancaster Cotton Mills. Nov. 30, 1908. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina.”
 Hine’s work – which is now cataloged at the Library of Congress – became the catalyst for social reform to eliminate child labor practices in the United States.
“Like all the pictures I've chosen, I stare at Sadie and think to myself, 'I know I have the ability to find out who she was.' And it's likely I'll find a son, daughter or grandchild who's never seen the picture before, so I have to get to work right away.
“I don’t want the girl to be condemned to anonymity,” Manning said.      
Manning’s passion is searching for the stories behind the 5,000-plus child labor photos that Hine took a century ago.
A Wisconsin native and former school teacher in New York City, Hine went from photographing thousands of immigrants arriving each day at Ellis Island to becoming the staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee.
In that role, Hine traveled the South between 1908 and 1916 taking dark, disturbing, true- to-life photographs of the working conditions that hundreds of children – some as young as age 6 – faced at the time. He spent much of 1908 in the Carolinas and Georgia, including several days in Lancaster.
“Because Hine did such a wonderful job of showing the humanity of these children, rather than making them pitiful tools of persuasion, I can’t help feeling an emotional connection right away,” Manning said.
This isn’t Manning's first case of seeking Sadie in Lancaster County.
In early 2008, Manning was able to positively identify 13-year-old Sadie Barton, whose photo was also taken here by Hine.
Members of Barton’s family were instrumental in helping solve the first Sadie riddle.
Manning is confident someone in Sadie Pfiefer family will be able to help tell her story.
“It (the name Sadie) would’ve been common back then,” Manning said. “Sadie is a common nickname for Sarah and was very common 100 years ago because it frequently appeared in the Bible.
“Today, if you took a photo of a high school senior class in Lancaster, you might get three or four girls named Taylor, Olivia or Kayla,” Manning said.
Based on his research, Manning has concluded Sadie Pfiefer did not attend school beyond the second grade. She apparently left school so she could work.
Manning bases that on Hine’s photos of the mill school and the public school where non-mill children went.
Sadie Pfiefer, he said, isn’t in any of Hines’ school photos.
“It’s been almost 105 years since Sadie Phifer became one of the haunting faces of child labor,” he said. “It would be hard for most Americans now to close their eyes and inhabit her dark world, but in China and other south Asian countries presently experiencing their own industrial revolution, here are millions of girls like Sadie, mostly out of sight and out of mind.”
300-plus photos and counting
So far, Manning has been able to identify 320 of the children in Hines’ photos. He maintains them on www.mornings onmaplestreet.com.
His “Lewis Hine Project” has been featured in national publications, as well as the CBS Evening News.
Manning prefers to concentrate on the story of the person in each photo, rather than the image alone.
In some cases, such as with Sadie Pfiefer, he has a name. In others, like Sadie Barton, he had little to go on.
“In 95 percent of the cases, I’ve talked to descendants,” he said. “I hope that this will be the case with Sadie (Pfiefer).”  
Manning, a retired social worker and author, has little or no interest in telling the stories of well-to-do with enough “wealth to preserve their own egos.”
He prefers learning about and sharing the stories of ordinary people such as Sadie Pfiefer. These are people, he said, who never get into history books, but are a part of America’s history.
When it comes to why he goes to such great lengths to share their stories, Manning said that's the one question he'll never answer.
“I ask myself that question a lot, and I’m really not sure,” he said. “It might be the view I acquired early in life.
“My mother and father were honorable, hard-working people who deserved more respect than they got,” Manning said. “It's also the realization that only rich, white men wind up in the history books.”

Contact copy editor Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156