1911 National Child Labor Committee Conference

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The 7th Annual Conference on Child Labor, under the auspices of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was held in Birmingham March 10-12, 1911. The Alabama Child Labor Committee, reinvigorated by the leadership of Nellie Murdoch, hosted the event at the Orpheum Theatre. The local conference committee was composed of John Kaul and Maurice Willows. Judge N. B. Feagin welcomed attendees on behalf of Mayor Culpepper Exum. A public exhibit of photographs, charts and tables was displayed in the lobby and the local papers reported extensively on the proceedings.

Two of the conference speakers were honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee with the Peace Prize for their efforts on behalf of peace between nations. Former president Theodore Roosevelt had won in 1906 "for his successful mediation to end the Russo-Japanese war and for his interest in arbitration, having provided the Hague arbitration court with its very first case," and sociologist Jane Addams went on to be awarded in 1931 "for her social reform work [and for] leading the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom".


Former President Theodore Roosevelt addresses a crowd in Ensley during the conference. Photo by Lewis Hines

The conference came at a time when regional differences in the status of child workers were being highlighted by NCLC photographers and inspectors. The South was, in general, getting the worst of the negative images. Nevertheless the conference held in Birmingham had the purpose of masking regional differences by publishing a uniform set of recommended labor laws that was supported by child protection advocates from every section of the country.

Papers were presented regarding conditions observed in various sections of the country and in various industries. Three papers paid special notice to the working conditions of children employed as stage performers. Jane Addams spoke of how the efforts of her group had evolved from campaigning for restrictive measures toward providing recreation and education to children. Papers presented on local topics included a history of child labor reform in Alabama by B. J. Baldwin, chair of the Alabama Child Labor Committee, and a report on child labor in street trades and public places by Maurice Willows, president of the Birmingham Boys Club. A few of the presentations were supplemented with stereopticon views.

The conference was notable for recognizing the contributions of female activists and researchers to the subject. Leading national figures such as Florence Kelley and Jane Addams were feted at a luncheon and reception hosted by female activists from Alabama at the Birmingham Country Club. The conference was a direct inspiration for the creation of the Birmingham Equal Suffrage Association by Pattie Ruffner Jacobs.

Saturday's program consisted of legislative proposals and the chairman's reports on the activities of the committee during the year. On Sunday evening, after addresses by Felix Adler and Jane Addams, delegates from the conference spread out to area churches to express their views from the pulpit.

One of the presenters at the Birmingham conference was photographer Lewis Hine. He spent much of the next three years visiting Alabama's factories, mills, mines and farms documenting conditions of child labor on behalf of the NCLC.

Roosevelt's speech

Former President Theodore Roosevelt, touring the region, stopped in Birmingham during the conference. He addressed crowds in Ensley, the new planned city of Corey (Fairfield) and at Capitol Park in Birmingham. He was a featured speaker for a luncheon at the Hillman Hotel with Mayor Exum and former Governor B. B. Comer in attendance. On Friday evening he addressed the convention on the topic of "The Conservation of Childhood." He voiced his support for strong laws against the employment of children outside the home. He expressed a paternalistic view toward the working classes which were prone to allow their children to labor. He expressed hope that the special conditions of the South would produce a stronger, purer class of workers than England and the Northern states had experienced: "You are asked to protect the children...of people of the same Revolutionary stock as yourselves. You are asked to see that your stock does not go down as the stock in the parent country has gone down."


Inspired by the speeches given by Jane Addams and Jean Gordon, Pattie Ruffner Jacobs and others founded the Birmingham Equal Suffrage League on October 22, 1911.



  • Sallee, Shelley (2004) The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820325708