King Cotton’s Vassals

This photo of a girl picking cotton in Oklahoma, c. 1919, was taken by child labor reformer, Lewis Hine. When he asked what she liked about the job, the girl responded, “Not much.” (The image on my book’s cover is also of this girl.)

I spent many childhood holidays on my grandparents’ farm in the ‘blacklands’ region of north Texas. Nana and PawPaw Joe’s house, built by my great-grandfather, was surrounded by cotton fields, which they rented to a local farmer.  I remember walking through those fields, dark earth crunching beneath my feet, “petting” the fluffy strands. The farmer even gave me sample plants, which I brought back to New York for show-and-tell.

But in researching my novel, ‘Til All These Things Be Done, I discovered a rotten core at the center of cotton’s popularity. If I’d grown up poor in the south, circa 1919, I would have had a different attitude toward that ubiquitous crop, with its history of special misery for children and people of color. Cotton has a long growing season in Texas–about two hundred days–so in the early 1900s, opportunities were plentiful to earn money in harvesting it. A teenager could pick 400 pounds of cotton in one day, earning about four dollars at a time when half a loaf of bread or two heads of cabbage cost five cents. While some children felt proud of their contributions through such labor, others, like my main character, Leola, would have resented it.   Cotton picking was backbreaking work. At the height of the harvest season, the Texas sun is merciless, the air thick with mosquitoes; stinging insects and snakes were always a threat.  On top of that, the bolls containing the cotton are sharp, and children often returned home from the fields with bloody, swollen fingers.

This photograph of a young cotton picker inspired the character, Jimmy Suggs.


Many African-Americans, prohibited in the Jim Crow south from working in other industries, had little choice but to pick cotton–which was why the fields were filled not only with Black women, children, and elders, but also men in their prime–usually assigned to more odious tasks like thinning the stubbornly rooted plants with a hoe.   Adding insult to injury, white farmers were notorious for cheating their less-educated Black pickers at weighing time.

Knowing this, and as much as Leola hates the work, she also appreciates that she’s not doomed to it forever. Eventually, she gets good enough at the task to be able to snatch the cotton from its boll neat as a pickpocket filching wallets at a county fair.  Hitting her picking-and-thinking stride, looking forward to the cold jar of Mama’s lemonade waiting under a tree, she’s able to occupy her mind with other things: reviewing material from her correspondence courses, daydreaming about her boyfriend, singing along to the hymns carried across the fields by the black workers, kept separate from whites as they were even in this shared misery.


While researching my novel, I was stunned to discover this photograph of young cotton pickers by Lewis Hine, taken at the orphanage where my grandmother would reside a few years later.


The same cotton fields as they appeared when I visited that orphanage–now a foster home–a few years ago.


2 replies
  1. William C Moyers
    William C Moyers says:

    The photo of the girl picking cotton is eerie. Why? Because I swear she looks like you! No joke.
    What about the photo of the young boy — equally eerie because of the resemblance to John or even Dad, without his glasses. Don’t you think?


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