|Bessie Hicks and children (L to R) Camilla and Joseph, Matoaca, Va, June 1911. Photo by Lewis Hine
A Suggestion for Dependent Widows. Mrs. Bessie Hicks, a widow in
the mill settlement at Matoaca, Va. She has no children large enough for the cotton mill, so she is starting a little store
in her home. Location: Matoaca, Virginia, June 1911, Lewis Hine.
Bessie Hicks may not have worked in the Matoaca cotton mill, but she most certainly
lived in the shadow of it. She was about 30 years old when this photo was taken with two of her young children, Camilla and
Joseph, but she looks more like she could be the grandmother. The caption intrigued me. “A Suggestion for Dependent
Widows,” writes Hine. He goes on. “She has no child large enough for the cotton mill, so she is starting a little
store in her home.”
I wondered: “What kind of store? How did it work out? When did her husband
The research process turned out to be long and frustrating. But I finally got lucky.
I found out that one of Bessie’s daughters, then Bessie Liskey, died in 1944, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and then obtained
her obituary. It said in part, “Surviving besides her husband are her mother, Mrs. Bessie Hicks, of Washington, DC.”
So I went down to the Smith College library and searched the Washington Post digital archives. Quickly, I found the obituary
for Bessie Hicks. Not too long after, I was talking to one of her granddaughters, Mrs. Marion Sender, who was very surprised
to learn of the photo.
Bessie A. Boyers was born in Virginia around 1880, and married Joseph B. Hicks
around 1897. In the 1900 census, they lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and had one child, Clinton E. Hicks, born in 1898.
Joseph’s occupation was listed as bee keeper. In 1910, they are still living in Harrisonburg, and Joseph is listed as
a bartender, and Bessie is listed as a seamstress.
For reasons we will apparently never know, Bessie was living
a year later in the mill village of Matoaca, on the outskirts of Petersburg, about 150 miles southeast of Harrisonburg. In
the past year, her husband had died, and she is stuck in rundown mill housing with five children, Clinton, Louisa, Bessie,
Joseph Jr., and Camilla. Clinton was the oldest, and at 12 years of age, was apparently too young to work in the Matoaca Cotton
Mill, at least according to what Bessie told Hine. My research shows that Virginia passed a child labor law in 1910 making
it illegal to hire workers under the age of 14.
In 1920, Bessie is back in Harrisonburg, occupation dressmaker,
with all her children except Clinton. Louisa, 18, is a stenographer for a lawyer; Joseph, 14, is a telegraph messenger. In
the early 1930s, she moved in with Clinton, who was living in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. Clinton’s daughter, Marion,
was born in 1930. The following interview is with Marion (now Mrs. Sender).
Interview with granddaughter, Marion Sender