250 Words

DOWNTRODDEN


Betsy (middle) and the cotton mill girls
Georgia, 1909
Photograph by Lewis W Hine

Carry myself with pride, as my mama taught me. My name is Elizabeth but everyone calls me Betsy. I am sixteen, pretty and full of life. This is day one of my very first paying job – working in the cotton mills. I’m lucky and oh so grateful.

Mama is home doing chores and caring for my seven little brothers and sisters. Daddy left one day and never came back.

In my lunch sack is bread, an orange and a chuck of cheese. During my break I’ll sit by the banks of the Conasauga River and splash my scorched face. Life is good.

Carry myself with stooped shoulders. I’ve been in the mill for eight months. It’s hotter inside than the blazing Georgia sun. Humid, too, to keep the thread from breaking. Boiled potatoes, cabbage and river water for lunch. I’m sixteen. Maybe I’ll meet a husband here.

Carry myself on leaden feet. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day. I earn $1.00 each week. The air is thick with cotton dust. Nobody talks anymore; we keep our mouths covered but that doesn’t stop the coughing. I have no time or energy for anything else. I’m sixteen and feel like I’m sixty.

Carry myself with doom. I’m coughing up blood now and see nothing in my future except dying in the mill. I think I’ll just walk into the river and never come out.

Carry my dead body to the graveyard. I was only sixteen and my name was Betsy.

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