After Brenda and I left New York City, we drove to Pennsylvania. We spent the day looking for work and finally found a job, on trial, for $1.50 an hour. The housing they provided was for men so we stayed in a campground.
The owner was very unsure about hiring girls but we turned out to be better pickers than the teenage boys he employed. Since he paid by the hour, they did as little work as they could get away with.
We picked peaches and nectarines for four days. One day we also worked in the evening in the packing house. The other nights I was asleep by 7:30 p.m.
I was amused by something that happened on this job. The owner was moderately conservative; very conservative about some things. Little did he know that he had a gigantic field of marijuana growing on the edge of his orchard. There were also marijuana plants scattered throughout his orchard. The kids spent more time harvesting the marijuana than they did picking his fruit. They thoroughly enjoyed THAT work!
If he only knew……..
After leaving Pennsylvania we drove on to Yakima in Washington State. Once there, we found a job with no problem; a job picking fuzzy peaches yet again!
Finding housing in Yakima was much more difficult because the state had condemned all housing that didn’t have a toilet, running water, stove and refrigerator. Most farmers couldn’t afford to provide for that level of accommodation, so there was almost no housing available.
Local people rented their yards to the migrants, at a rate of $5 a night. That seemed to us to be a big racket, especially since most of the workers and their families slept in their cars. [Note: As I think how little money we earned on these jobs, I’m realizing what a big chunk of it that $5 would have taken.]
We finally found a place to live. It was somewhat like a motel. Having a room that had a stove and a bathroom felt like unbelievable luxury!
We picked peaches for four days. We were paid the same wages in Washington State as everywhere else.
My college roommate visited us while we were there and for two days the three of us studied together for our nursing licensing exams.
One day, when we were driving around, we saw this new living area for migrant farm laborers.
I also found the bridge I had slept under when I had gone to Yakima to pick fruit while I was in college.
After our time in Yakima, we returned to Seattle. I ended my summer adventure with this scrapbook entry.
I had been surprised by the amount of racism we experienced that summer. After all, it was 1970 not 1950. Brenda and I decided we should share our story with others. We contacted a local newspaper and gave them an interview. This is the article the newspaper published. (My name at that time was Carol Smith!)
In the article, I said that in the future I wanted to spend a summer with one migrant group. While I never did that, my 1970 experience has stayed very close to my heart for the last 45 years.
With that statement, this series now comes to an end. Thank you for sharing my journey with me. I hope that you enjoyed it and had a sense of what our life was like as we crossed the country in 1970 working as migrant farm laborers.
The night we left South Carolina, we stopped in Virginia. We asked a man if he knew of any place where we could find shelter if it rained (we sleep on the ground in sleeping bags). He told us we could sleep on the front porch of his house. Then he changed his mind and said if it rained, we could sleep in the camper he had in front of his house. Still later he told us we could stay in the camper regardless of whether or not it rained. So we lived in luxury that night. I had left South Carolina filled with anger towards white people. His kindness began to restore my faith in people with white skin.
The next day we drove north of Richmond and stopped at a truck stop. Mimi and Lara were leaving us at that point so we all took showers and then Brenda and I helped them get ready to go. They found a ride to Boston with some truck drivers. Once in Boston they would find other means to get back to Seattle.
Brenda and I then drove on to Easton, Maryland. We had no trouble finding a job or a place to stay. The farm labor office wanted to make sure that we realized all of the workers in the camp were black but offered no objection to our staying there.
The camp was not as nice as the one in South Carolina. It consisted of 54 houses that were each divided into three rooms. The only thing that separated the rooms were sheets of plasterboard; plasterboard that had big holes in it. A family lived in each room. Our room had two beds, a light that wouldn’t turn off and some shelves. That’s all.
There were showers in the camp, but no way to turn them on. Several houses down there was a water spigot.
We fixed up our room by buying some flannel to put on our beds and using plastic to cover the shelves and holes in the wall.
Our home fixed up!
The first morning we picked cucumbers and earned $6. What cucumbers do to the hands is something else. They create a yellow-green-brown stain that doesn’t come off. I liked this picking better than any other we’d done. I was sure glad we were picking something other than fuzzy, itchy peaches. If it got hot we’d be in trouble though because there was no shade in the cucumber fields.
I had sworn I would never work in a cannery again but that resolve didn’t last. Since picking vegetables wouldn’t provide enough income for us, we had to also work in a corn cannery. We worked one day separating good corn from bad, several days on a machine that stripped the husks off the cobs and several more putting the cobs into machines that took the kernels off. We worked 7 pm to 1 am.
The corn cannery paid once a week, on Friday. Since we didn’t know if there would be a lot of drinking in the camp on payday, we thought Friday night would be a good night to go to Baltimore. Once there, we went to an outdoor Peter, Paul and Mary concert!
The people in the camp were very nice. Many of the men offered to “keep us company” but no one was obnoxious about it and they took “No” for an answer. It seemed inconceivable to them that we could spend a summer, or even a night, without a man, but once our answer got around no one bothered us.
The corn cannery was really different than the peach cannery. Here we could work whenever we wanted to and they hired anyone who showed up for work. We were even allowed to take frequent breaks. The product they put out seem a lot better quality too. I had fun working at the cutter. I found I could put 110 ears in the machine per minute, but that was only when the machine didn’t get clogged. I was able to remove the clog myself, most of the time.
We worked in the fields for six days. Most of that time we picked tomatoes. I calculated our pay to be:
Regular tomatoes: 92 tomatoes= 1 basket= 18 cents
Pear tomatoes: 260 tomatoes= 1 basket= 20 cents
On our best day, we picked 65 baskets of tomatoes, together. Our combined total for that day was $12.35, or $6.18 each.
We wouldn’t have minded staying in that camp all summer. It was our most stable situation and the people were fun to be with.
We found that even in those poor conditions, we had everything necessary to be happy. It was amazing, considering that there were no showers, how clean the people were and how clean and well-dressed they kept their children. In this camp, the children went to school every day.
After two weeks we were ready to take off again. We received $140 cash for our work. That sure looked like a lot of money to us. Most of it was from the cannery work. $140/ 2 people= $70 each. Since that was for two weeks, we had each earned $35 a week for picking vegetables and working in the cannery combined.
After leaving Maryland, we drove to Ocean City, New Jersey and went to a coffee house called the Purple Dragon. A team from University Presbyterian Church in Seattle wase working there. They were all friends of Brenda’s. Were they ever surprised to see us! We stayed with them for two days.
We then drove to Middletown, New Jersey to be with lifelong friends of my family. I really enjoyed spending time with them. We talked a lot about my parents’ lives when they were young. It helped me to understand many things about them.
We had no luck finding for work in New Jersey. This had once all been farm country, but by 1970 it had all been developed. The few farms that were left were very small.
In the South we had encountered racial discrimination. In New Jersey, we faced gender discrimination. No one was willing to hire “girls.”
One day, we drove to New York City. We visited the Phoenix House (a drug rehabilitation program), Harlem, and the Downstate Medical Center midwifery program. We were pleased, and surprised, that we never got lost!
After leaving New York City, we headed for our next stop, Pennsylvania!
(The next post in this series will be published on Friday January 1.)
After leaving Fort Valley, Georgia we drove to Greenville, South Carolina, but found no job there. We then drove about ten miles north and started asking people if they knew of any migrant camps. The first farmer we were directed to said his was an all-black camp and he wasn’t about to mix races; but, he gave us another name.
We followed his advice and went to the business he suggested. The owner was quite amused by us and willingly gave us a job. In fact, he let us work two hours that very afternoon.
The job issue was settled, but where would we stay? There were two crews; one black and one white. The white crew was comprised of single men. Mr. Robinson said we couldn’t stay with them, and we agreed with his decision. We had seen that the black camp had families, so we asked to stay there. He said we “wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in that camp.” I asked how that could be since there were so many children. The owner looked perplexed and told us that there were no children there. Then he thought for a moment and said, “Oh you mean the ‘n…..s’.” To him black children didn’t even qualify as “children.” I was outraged but knew it wasn’t safe to express my feelings and thoughts.
His solution to the lodging issue was to give us a cattle truck to sleep in. One night of that and we swore we’d never do it again, and meant it. The next day, we picked peaches for the whole day and earned $3.75 each. We knew we would have to wait at the packing shed for about two hours to get paid, so we decided to walk to the black camp to check it out for ourselves.
When we entered the camp, we talked to some of the people who were gathered. They had a bus, so we asked if we could sleep in it. They introduced us to Leroy, the black crew boss. He said it would be fine for us to stay in their bus. Later he told us they would be willing to set up beds in their kitchen for us.
With some hesitation, we decided to stay in the camp. The job paid so little, there didn’t seem any point to worrying about being fired when the owner found out we had disobeyed him. We had another reason for concern, however. We had been told before that the white people wouldn’t bother us for the things we did, but that they might take it out on the black workers. We talked to Leroy about our concern. He said our actions would not cause them any trouble, so we moved in.
Our new home
We made dinner and then everyone wanted Brenda to play the guitar so we could sing. We sat on the car with the kids and sang for hours.
We went to bed about 10 pm and then the night began. The black crew’s kitchen was in the same building that the white crew lived in. What separated the two rooms was a partial wall with a bit of screening above that. The white men were drinking and pretty soon were quite drunk. There was a lot of daring and betting going on and it really scared us. “They want to see what a migrant camp is like? Let’s show them what a migrant camp is like.” We had a few visitors that night, but were able to get them to leave by talking fast and shaming them. Luckily for us, they were mostly talkers, and a few of them were on our side. By 2:00 am they had given up. We slept for a while and then picked fruit the next day, earning $4 apiece.
We stopped at 1 pm and then drove to the post office in Greenville. Our checks from Ft. Valley were there. We were able to cash them by finding a minister who was willing to co-sign for us.
To prevent a repeat of the previous night, we had arranged with Leroy’s wife to lock the kitchen door from the outside and keep the key. Since we had received our checks, we planned to leave the next day.
The whites treated the blacks worse here than any place we’d been. As I mentioned, there was a white crew and a black crew. They were not allowed to mix with each other in the fields. The black workers got paid even less than we did, even though they had much more experience. The white crew had access to toilets, the black crew and their families used outhouses. The white men kept the black men up all night forcing them to do whatever they wanted. Black women were taken and used at the whim of white men. It was really ugly.
[Note: As I typed this story from the scrapbook, I was really struck with the difference in the content of the sentences in the last paragraph and Leroy’s assurance that there would no problems coming their way due to us staying in the camp. If I’m remembering right, the black men in this camp kept their distance from us, i.e. they did not interact with us. I don’t think it would have been safe for them to even speak with us. My guess is that Leroy, as crew boss, had privileges that the other men didn’t have.]
We sang again that night. This time we sang a lot of spirituals and folk songs and the people from the camp sang with us. We were having a good time; a little girl was brushing my hair. Then at 11 pm we heard a voice, turned around, and found three policemen standing behind us. One said, “We have orders from Mr. Robinson to get you off of his land.” I couldn’t believe it. We talked with them for a while but got nowhere.
I was upset, mad, furious, angry and not too happy. We couldn’t understand why Mr. Robinson hadn’t said anything to us when he saw us during the day, or why he had waited until 11 o’clock at night to throw us out. The people were as upset as we were. Leroy was there with shaving lotion all over his face and a razor in his hand. We said a lot of sad goodbyes and then left. As we were driving away, we asked the police if we could go the packing shed and talk to the owner if he was still there. (The shed was only two minutes away.) They were okay with us doing that.
When we arrived at the shed, we discovered that four of the crew members, three black and one white, were already there. The two crews had signed on for the whole season, but they were telling the owner that if he kicked us out at that time at night, by morning his camp would be empty. We were so surprised!
We talked to Mr. Robinson also. It was clear he didn’t believe it was safe for us to stay in the camp and he wouldn’t allow us to do so. We told him we were responsible for whatever happened and we felt perfectly safe. Since his crews had threatened to leave, he was under considerable pressure and finally gave in; he would let us stay until morning.
The policemen drove away. It would have been interesting to hear their thoughts about what had transpired that night.
The four of us and the representatives from the two crews triumphantly returned to the camp. It was obvious the people enjoyed us as much as we enjoyed them. We sure appreciated that they had intervened on our behalf. We sang for a while longer and then went to bed.
We had no further problems that night. The white men were noisy again, but they didn’t say a word about us. The next morning we departed the camp, and before long left South Carolina behind.
(The next post in this series will be published on Friday December 25.)
The Atlanta International Pop Festival was over at 10 a.m. Monday so we packed up, hitched a ride to our car and were off by 11:30. We decided to drive about 60 miles north, clean up and look for a job. When we got out of the car to pay our fee at a state campground, the ranger informed us that we could not camp there unless we had an adult chaperon. Since we were between 19 and 22 years of age, I was flabbergasted. He wouldn’t even let us wash up. He said this would be true in any state campground. His last remark was, “Lady, this is Georgia!”
We drove to another campground 20 miles away. They registered us without blinking an eye.
We showered and then drove to Griffin. The Farm Labor office was closed so we went to a grocery store to shop. As we pulled into the parking lot, we realized that some young back men and women were picketing the store. We asked them where they suggested we shop. They answered our question and then one man asked if we had come from the festival. When we said yes, he smiled and responded, “We like you people.” What a difference from the first park ranger!
The next day we drove around looking for work. It was not an easy task. The white farmers weren’t about to let us work with black pickers and they weren’t even nice about it.
One person suggested that we go to the farmers’ market in Atlanta, so we did. We applied for work at the office and then set up our camp stove in an empty stall. A truck driver and a younger guy came over and talked with us and then Brenda took out her guitar and we sang. Pretty soon another man, whom we found out later was a fruit inspector, came over and joined us.
When the office had not called us by 9 am, we decided to go look for a job ourselves. We were successful in that endeavor.
Brenda and I sold watermelons from 11:30-4:00. That night we slept in the back of the watermelon truck. The next morning the truck driver and his friend took us to breakfast and then we worked from 10:00-3:00.
While working at the farmers market, we ran into a new problem. Many of the white farmers assumed that white girls doing this kind of work were prostitutes and we were continually being propositioned. If we had wanted to, we could have made a fortune. By 3:00 we were sick of dealing with the men and took off.
Numerous people told us if we wanted to pick peaches, we should go to Fort Valley. The fruit inspector even gave us the names of some people to talk to when we got there.
We arrived in Ft. Valley about 6 pm and went directly to the Farm Labor office. I had a sense that if they knew we had gone to the festival, we would have been escorted out of town. We were told they would help us find a job, but it would not be picking. They also said they would help us find a place to stay. The apartment they arranged for us was fantastic. It was a garage apartment on the edge of town. There were two bedrooms plus a large living room and a kitchen. It was completely furnished. Our rent was $20 a week.
After we unpacked the car, Mimi and I headed for a laundromat. There was a 13 year-old white girl there who told us a lot about the festival even though she had not attended. If everyone believed the same things she did, it was no wonder they hated hippies. According to her, the hippies had “stripped naked in car washes, in grocery stores, in back seats of cars, and who knows where else.” While we were in the laundromat, a black man came in and put his clothes in the dryer. The girl had a fit. She made a nasty comment and then rushed to get her laundry and ran out the door. I was so angry by the time I left the laundromat, I was shaking. I had a sense that if I had spoken to the man, his life and ours could have been in danger.
The next day, we went job hunting. There were no jobs at the packing house, cannery or brewery so we decided to go to the fields and ask the black pickers where they thought we could get a job. They were thoroughly shocked at our inquiry, but were very nice. They told us where we could catch the pickers’ bus the next day.
The next morning we were on the bus, headed for the fields. The workers that filled the bus were, for the most part, younger than us. I heard a girl tell an older man that no, she did not respect him. She said that was what was wrong with the world; too much respect and too much waiting.
We arrived at the fields about 9:00 am. The whole bus load of us were told that we were too late and sent home. After we returned to the parking lot, we sat around and talked with the people. A few white policemen passed by which made me nervous but I decided to ignore them.
After a while, we decided to talk to the farm labor office staff again. We were told the cannery was hiring a third shift. We returned to the cannery but didn’t make it past the gate. We did go back to the bus parking lot to tell the pickers they were hiring at the cannery. As we started to drive away, a policeman stopped us and got out of his car. His words, “They want you at the cannery.” It had only been five minutes since we had left the cannery, but when we returned, they hired us.
Our shift would be 8 pm to 3 am starting that night. The woman who talked to us said her husband had bet her $5 that we wouldn’t last more than two days.
The first day, we worked 8:00 to 1:30 am and then picked fruit from 7 am to 1 pm. We were working with kids who were 13-16 years old. I really enjoyed myself.
I made $2.40 at the picking job. We were picking from trees where the fruit had been harvested before, so we earned less than we might have otherwise.
The cannery work was interesting. We were assigned to work on the machines that put the peaches into the cans and sealed them. Mimi and I were on one machine; Brenda and Laura on another. Our job was to make sure the cans were filled appropriately, both in quality and quantity. The fruit came to us at a rate of 120 peaches a minute. The cans also had to be the right weight, so we added or took away a peach as needed.
Brenda and I studied for our licensing exams as we worked. We hung our notes on the canning machine. That really surprised our foreman. He couldn’t believe we could study and work at the same time but we did and he allowed it.
We soon discovered it was a horrible, smelly job. We stood still for seven hours in water filled with peach juice. It was impossible to get the juice off of our shoes. Our shoe laces stood straight up and had a putrid smell.
The working conditions were unbelievable:
Everyone worked eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week. If anyone missed one day, they were fired. There was no overtime pay.
Everyone worked eight to ten hours a day with only one ten minute break; no dinner.
No one was paid when the machines weren’t working, which could be as much as four hours a shift. If anyone left, they were fired.
A few days later we decided go picking after work. We didn’t get home until 6 pm. At work that night we were told the shifts were now going to be eight hours long and our shift would be the one to start the new schedule. That meant we had to work until 6 a.m. We were hurting so bad by the end of the shift as we had been on our feet about 36 hours.
It was interesting to note that night shift workers were almost all black and the day shift was 100% white except for the black men who did the dirty work.
We quickly tired of working in the cannery. We were ready to move on, but had committed to five more days of work.
Our bosses had been really nice to us but they didn’t know what to think about us. In fact, the whole town couldn’t figure us out. I think everyone knew where we were from, what kind of car we drove and where we were living. I believe we left good impressions everywhere we’d been, except for the first Georgia state ranger.
Saturday night of our last week, the generator in the place we were living blew out and the electricity went off. Within two minutes we were off to Macon to see a movie. We hadn’t planned to go that far. We had gone to Byron and asked where the theater was. The response we heard was, “Lady, you got to be kidding.” So we went on to Macon and saw “Two Mules for Sister Sara.” It was a good movie. We made it back to work as the first whistle blew.
Sunday night we sat and talked with Larry, our boss, after our shift was over. We really liked him. He gave us each an empty peach can as a souvenir! The cannery canned under many different labels. The one he picked for us was “Pride of Georgia!”
I knew it would be a long time before I ate another canned peach. (Among other things they soaked the peaches in lye to remove the skins. The machines we ran bubbled over with lye that had not been completely washed off.)
When we went to work on Monday night we were told that the entire night shift had been laid off. Hallelujah! That night we composed two songs.
To the tune of “The ants go marching one by one.”
The cans go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah (x 3)
Eight more hours before we’re done
The cans go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah
All the peaches fell in my shoe
The cans go marching …
I close my eyes and that’s all I see
The cans go marching …
I can hardly wait till I’m out the door
The cans go marching …
It’s hard to believe I’m still alive
The cans go marching …
And I sure hope the next one sticks
The cans go marching …
What will I do, it’s only eleven?
The cans go marching …
While I stand here and curse my fate
The cans go marching …
I sure wish they were filled with wine
The cans go marching …
Tomorrow night we will do it again
And to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”
Rotten rotten little peach
Will you tell me I beseech
How past all these eyes you came?
With the rest though not the same.
In my can you’ll not be found
So I’ll throw you on the ground
But alas, you’re out of reach
Someone gets a rotten peach
The next day we left Fort Valley. We had had a good experience, but swore we would never work in a cannery again. Next stop: South Carolina!
[Note: Many years later, I saw a small article in the Seattle newspaper talking about a cannery in Georgia that had been shut down because of violations. Yes, it was the cannery where we worked!]
The next post in this series will be published on Friday December 18.
After a good night’s sleep, we said goodbye to my parents and then headed for Byron, Georgia. We were excited to attend the upcoming Atlanta International Pop Festival prior to looking for more work.
To get to the event, we had to park about three miles away and walk in. We decided to camp outside the festival grounds on our first night. We had left the hot canvas tent in Florida, so ended up sharing a tarp with some people we met.
We spent the next day at the festival roasting in the sun. The temperature was about 104 degrees. There was no shade and no breeze. There wasn’t enough water and ice was considered a luxury. Five pounds of ice cost $1 and we paid 25 cents for a popsicle. The event staff passed out salt tablets, hats and suntan lotion.
I enjoyed the music despite the physical discomfort. We were about 30 feet from the stage!
I had mixed feelings/thoughts about being there. I was super, super uptight during a lot of it. The heat as well as the lack of water and food was unbearable and I didn’t like being around so many people who were stoned.
Our skin was blistered and swollen from sunburn when we left. However listening to musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, the Chambers Brothers and the Memphis cast for Hair as well as getting to know some of the people who were there made it worth it. My favorite memory of the event was waking up the last morning to Richie Havens singing “Here Comes the Sun!”
My final conclusion was that I was glad we had gone, but didn’t think I would ever want to do it again.
The festival was over at 10 a.m. Monday so we packed up, hitched a ride to our car and were on our way by 11:30. Off to find a job!
[Note: My scrapbook says there were 200,000 people at the festival. Wikipedia said that the estimates varied from 250,000 to 600,000! Their article contains a lot of interesting information.]
(The next post in this series will be published on Friday December 11.)
There were times during my college years that I picked fruit as a way of making some money. I remember picking blueberries in Seattle and apples in Yakima. I also remember sleeping under a bridge when I picked in Yakima. I enjoyed doing the outside, physical work.
I graduated with a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree in June of 1970. I would not be able to take my licensing exams until September so I wanted to do something very different than nursing until I took the exams. Three friends and I decided to travel around the U.S. doing migrant farm labor. Brenda, who would also be taking the licensing exams, and I planned to also do a lot of studying during that time.
Over the next six weeks, I will be publishing posts about our experiences that summer. The content comes from a scrapbook I wrote soon after the trip was over.
June 9, 1970
Mimi, Laura, Brenda and I left Seattle planning to spend the summer doing migrant farm labor. Our first destination was West Palm Beach, Florida where my parents lived. We planned to surprise them on their 25th wedding anniversary.
The rest stop where we ate our first meal had a river and beautiful scenery in back of us but in front there was an automobile junk yard! We were very cold but having fun.
The second night out it was pouring. This was the first time all four of us slept in the Datsun.
Early the next morning, we had car trouble. The radiator hose broke, resulting in a burned out head gasket. We found ourselves stranded in Plankinton, South Dakota, 250 miles from nowhere. The population of the town was 500. [As I was typing this, I was curious and decided to check out how much Plankinton has grown since 1970. I learned that in 2013 there were 715 people living in the town!]
Through the help of a minister, we were able to find someone to fix our car and a place stay, the minister’s church basement. Our car was supposed to be fixed by the next day, but due to Greyhound losing three different head gaskets, we were to be in Plankinton for seven days, long past my parents’ anniversary.
The church basement was great; it had a kitchen and everything else we needed. The only problem was that the minister went on vacation without telling anyone he said we could stay there. On the second night, we received a visit from the sheriff. Luckily, once he found out why we were in the church, he was fine with us staying.
Plankinton was very boring though. The theater was available only on Saturday night, and it was filled with a million kids. The teenagers amused themselves by driving up and down main street or by watching everyone else driving up and down main street. We could swim for 50 cents per person.
There was plenty of chance for us to read and study though.
We started worrying about our mental status when, during meals, we found ourselves stripping membranes from the inside of eggs and looking at the fountains that spurted up when we squeezed lemon peels.
Our mechanic, Al, took the car apart on the day we arrived. Once the part he needed arrived, he worked from 10 am to 3 pm and the following day he worked on it from 6 am to 2pm. He only billed us $14 for his labor. Sure was great to meet friendly people.
Finally, we left Plankinton and headed on. We drove straight to Florida, making only one stop….to visit a friend. We arrived at my Aunt Muriel’s house early on Sunday morning.
We sure surprised mom when we showed up at church. Dad was happy to see us too. They didn’t seem to be upset when they found out our plans for the summer. I was surprised.
We soon had car problems again. This time we were broke, so we spent a week washing windows, cleaning houses and porches, and selling flowers. We earned $100!
We had planned to do our migrant work across the south of the U.S., but my Uncle Ted advised us to work up the east coast instead. I thought he had a better idea of what we would be facing than anyone else, so we decided to heed his advice.
One day, mom drove us to Belle Glade. We soon discovered that we would be able to work there picking oranges. We went back to West Palm Beach to get ready for our first job. A couple of days later, we headed back to Belle Glade!
We had borrowed my parents’ old heavy canvas tent. A man in a nearby campsite gave us some extra rope and a stake. He said he thought that we were living in substandard housing and wanted to help.
That first night was miserable. We were inside a canvas tent in hot weather. To make it worse we needed to sleep in hot sleeping bags in order to keep away from the mosquitoes. The tent was useless. I finally got two hours of sleep by sleeping on the hood of the car.
The next morning, we were up at 5 a.m., in the dark. We drove to the place where we would board the bus that would take us to the fields. The bus was there when we arrived and it was already packed with pickers. We were the only white people on the bus. Everyone kept asking us, “Have you got a man yet?” We were startled by the question and didn’t know what to say. We soon discovered that everyone picked the oranges in pairs, because the ladders were 20 feet long. Each pair consisted of one woman and one man.
We arrived at the orange field at 7:30 a.m. By the time it was 4:30 pm, I was so tired; my body ached through and through. My partner Joe and I had filled seven bins. We were paid for our work at 6:00 pm and were back at our campsite in Belle Glade at 8:00 pm. On the second day, we again picked 7 bins of oranges. On the third day, Brenda picked with Joe and me. We tired much faster this day. We only filled 6 bins even though three of us were working.
My partner Joe
The people we worked with were so nice. They knew the third day was our last, and they all wished us luck. Joe gave us a whole chest of fish to take home. That day, two tiny birds had fallen from the tree. We put them in a hat and took them home so my brother Bill could take care of them.
We arrived at my parents’ house at 7 pm. We were so filthy that they wouldn’t let us sit on anything.
The income we each made from our three days of work varied. The person who made the least earned $17; the one who made the most earned $31. We estimated that we had earned one cent for every 30 oranges we picked.
We were ready to leave Florida. Next stop- the Atlanta International Pop Festival!
(The next post in this series will be published on Friday December 4.)
One of the most important times of my life was the summer I spent doing migrant farm labor across the United States. It is a treasured experience, one that contributed significantly to making me the person I am today.
During fall of 2015, I was looking through the scrapbook I put together after that summer. It occurred to me that I could share the whole story of that journey, primarily using the words I wrote in 1970.
Below you will find the links to each post in the series.