1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #4 (Working in South Carolina)

South carolina 3

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.

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.

Singing with kids

 

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.

Packing Shed
Packing Shed

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.)

To read the previous posts go to:

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer (Series Intro)
1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #1  (Seattle to Florida)
1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #2 (Atlanta International Pop Festival)
1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #3 (Working in Georgia)

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #2 (Atlanta International Pop Festival)

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.

Pop festival

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.

Pop festival 6

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.)

To read the previous posts go to:

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer (Series Intro)

1970: My Migrant Farm Labor Summer #1  (Seattle to Florida)

 

 

 

 

 

 

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #1 (From Seattle to Florida)

1 pump

 

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.

Scrapbook

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.

Ready to Start!

The second night out it was pouring. This was the first time all four of us slept in the Datsun.

4 in 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!]

Main Street of Plankinton
Main Street of Plankinton

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.

We are bored!
We are bored!

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.

Our Mechanic, Al
Al

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!

Selling flowers

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!

Ready to Start!

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.

Canvas tent

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.

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.)

 

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer (Series)

Migrant worker- me!

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.

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #1 (From Seattle to Florida)

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #2 (Atlanta International Pop Festival)

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #3 (Working in Georgia)

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #4 (Working in South Carolina)

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #5 (Maryland and New Jersey)

1970: My Summer as a Migrant Farm Laborer #6 Series End (Pennsylvania and Washington State)

I hope you enjoy the series.