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

CanneryThe 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.

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These peach stained study sheets are 45 years old!

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.

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 #1 (From Seattle to Florida)

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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.

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

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.


Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

On June 29 and 30, Amma conducted programs in Atlanta for the first time.  At one point, my daughter Chaitanya asked if I wanted to visit Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church and the other buildings at the MLK National Historical Site.  I jumped at the opportunity. We went during the short break between Amma’s morning and evening programs.  Our plan was to see as much as we could this year, and view the rest the next time we go to Atlanta. The first place we visited was Ebenezer Baptist church.  Starting in 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. co-pastored that church, along with his father.  As we sat in the pews, a recording of one of Dr. King’s speeches filled the air.  I closed my eyes and imagined myself being present at the time the speech was first given.  I would have been content to stay sitting there for hours. When I looked around, I noticed many people were taking photographs.  I resisted doing the same, but in time changed my mind; I wanted to be able to share this memorable experience with others.

At King Hall there were many exhibits about the lives of Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King.  In addition, the hall contined rooms that were tributes to Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

In Rosa Parks’ room, there were many pictures and mementos.  I was particularly drawn to a quilt that was hanging on the wall.

Among the items in Mahatma Gandhi’s room were one of his walking sticks, a pair of sandals, a portable spinning wheel, and framed quotes.  I was not aware that Dr. King had so much respect for Mahatma Gandhi.  I also didn’t know he had traveled to India.  Dr.  King once said: “To other countries I may go as a tourist, to India I come as a pilgrim.”

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Next we went to the place where Dr. and Coretta King’s bodies are interred.  It was beautiful and felt like very sacred space to me.

We had planned to visit the home where Dr. King was born, but once there we discovered they only let visitors in twice a day and you have to get tickets ahead of time.  We did appreciate having the opportunity to see his house and stand on his porch, but will have to wait for a future visit to go inside. 20150629_162706 We spent the last half hour of our visit at the National Park Visitor Center.  Below you will see parts of the huge mural that is across from the entrance to that building.  I wish I had had time to look carefully at all that was contained in that artwork. Inside the Center there were enough exhibits to keep us busy for most of a day.  Several of the displays were interactive.  An example is in the picture below, where visitors were able to walk alongside statues of the civil rights marchers.  We will definitely spend more time at this Center in the future.

The night before our visit, I read about the National Historical Site in the tourist book in my hotel.  I found a story that really surprised me.  In preparation for writing this post, I learned more about it. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not everyone supported the decision.  The first ever integrated dinner in Atlanta was planned to celebrate it.  Black business owners signed up to attend but the white business establishment wanted nothing to do with it.  J. Paul Austin, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, and Mayor Ivan Allen brought some of the prominent white business leaders together.  The message Paul Austin gave them was:

“It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner.  We are an international business.  The Coca-Cola Co. does not need Atlanta.  You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Co.”

The event sold out within two hours! 20150629_165301 During our time at the Site, I experienced deep emotions and many memories.  That era had affected me and my life decisions profoundly.  There is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. contributed significantly to making me the person I am today. I feel blessed to have visited Dr. King’s memorial site and look forward to returning to it in the future.

A Time of Change

This is an amazing time in which to live.  Since June 18, the Pope took powerful stands on environmental and weapons issues and the U.S. Supreme Court voted to preserve the Affordable Care Act and to uphold the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

Due to a horrific shooting in South Carolina, Confederate flags are coming down across the South and there is a movement to have it removed from the South Carolina statehouse.  Businesses such as Walmart, eBay, Target, Sears, Etsy, and Amazon have banned sales of the flag.

A friend just sent me a video that talks about the history of the Confederate flag.  I learned much from watching it and thought some of you might also be interested in viewing it.



Experiences of Inequality

While we have made progress in addressing inequality in the world since I was a child, the work is far from done.  There are still examples of inequality all around us. It may be due to race, sexual orientation, social status, gender, religion or a myriad of other factors.

Inequality exists when African American and Hispanic citizens fill our prisons due to racial profiling and when they receive harsher jail sentences for committing the same crime as Caucasians.  Inequality exists when unarmed teenagers are shot by police, when rich children have better funded schools than poor children and when homosexual men and women suffer hate crimes, or have different privileges than heterosexuals. Inequality exists when women and children are forced into the sex trade.

When I think of inequality in my own life, two experiences come to mind. The first happened the summer of 1970, soon after I graduated from college. I decided to spend that summer doing migrant farm labor while I studied for the State Board of Nursing exams I would take in the fall. Three friends and I picked fruit and vegetables in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington State. Continue reading “Experiences of Inequality”

9 Reasons My Ancestor Would Return to Their Grave

I had to laugh when I read the Word Press Daily Post challenge for today. The challenge was to answer the following question: “If one of your late ancestors were to come back from the dead and join you for dinner, what things about your family would this person find the most shocking?”

I can just imagine the look on my ancestor’s face as they walked into my house for dinner. Since my adult children are visiting from India now, it makes it even easier to imagine. I don’t think it would matter what ancestor it was, they would likely all be shocked. Let me count the ways. Continue reading “9 Reasons My Ancestor Would Return to Their Grave”

Tearing at the Fabric of Racism

A year or two ago, my son, Sreejit, wrote a poem called A Couple of Brats.  The first line stated: “A political statement until they had us,” referring to the births of his sister and himself, kids with a white mother and a black father.  While I knew that line was true, at least to some degree, his poem still gave me plenty to reflect on.  Recently, I have been thinking of the events that occurred throughout my life that led me to make that particular “political statement.”

Karuna and Al

The earliest memory I have of experiencing racism was when I visited Florida during my early grade school years.  I grew up moving place to place in an Army family, but my mother’s home was in West Palm Beach, Florida.  When we visited there one year, probably about 1955, we had occasion to get on a city bus.  As a kid, it had been my experience that the best seats were at the back of the bus so, as always, I rushed to that prized area.  Once seated, I looked towards the front of the bus and saw the look of horror on my mother’s face.  She gestured me to come to the front of the bus, NOW!  I couldn’t imagine what was wrong but obeyed her command.  When I discovered the reason behind her demand, I was FURIOUS.  How could they treat black people, known as coloreds or Negros in those days, in such a manner?  I also remember during that time whenever we drove through the black part of town, it was referred to as N*****town.  I was disgusted, but to the southern whites of that era, it was just the normal way to speak, they knew no other.

My parents retired to West Palm Beach just before my Junior year in high school.  The following Summer, 1965, our church youth group took a trip from WPB to Seattle and back studying “Beliefs Men Live By.”  The youth minister, who was pretty revolutionary, had arranged for two black teenagers to participate in the journey.  During that period there was never any mixing of races, so that type of trip was a really big deal for both the white and black teenagers.

The minister had a difficult time finding a white family to host the black teenagers the night before we left West Palm Beach.  The white families were afraid, knowing their neighbors would have strongly disapproved.  Luckily, my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ted stepped forward to provide the necessary shelter.

The next morning we began our adventure.  I believe it was the first night, when we passed through Americus, Georgia, we glimpsed a Klu Klux Klan meeting through the trees.  That was frightening for everyone.  The van driver ordered the black teenagers to lie flat on the floor until we could get way out of town.  I remember having a strong sense we were being followed.

One of the nights early in the trip, we stopped for the night at Tougaloo College, a black college in Mississippi.  It was the first time any of us had experienced what it’s like to be in the minority in a racially divided group.  During the evening we met with a group of the college students and had an interesting dialogue.

A year later, I moved to Seattle to study Nursing. After I graduated from college in 1970, three female friends and I decided to spend the summer working as migrant farm laborers.  We would start in Florida, work up the east coast (Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania) and then head back to Washington State.  We had a multitude of experiences that summer.

Migrant worker- me!

We had serious car trouble on the way to Florida, so it took us more than a week to get there.  After having more car problems once we arrived in Florida, there was no money left to take our trip.  We spent a week washing windows, cleaning houses and porches and selling flowers.  Next, we found a job picking oranges in Belle Glade for a few days.  At night, we stayed in a heavy canvas tent.  In Florida heat, the temperature inside the tent was intolerable, so the tent went no further with us.

Each morning, we left the campsite at 5 a.m. and joined the bus taking the farm workers to the orchard.  We were the only white people on the bus, but everyone was so nice to us.  Once at the orchard, each woman was paired with a man.  The men used a 20 foot ladder to pick the oranges high in the tree; the women picked the lower ones.  During the days we worked in Belle Glade, the four of us earned between $17-31.  We figured it took 30 oranges to earn 1 cent.  We came back to my parents’ house in West Palm Beach, exhausted but feeling successful and ready for our big trip.

Atlanta festival

Our first stop was Byron, Georgia where we attended the Atlanta International Pop Festival, along with more than 200,000 other people!  We had to park 3 miles away and hike in.  There was no shade to speak of and it was 104 degrees.  We ended up 30 feet from the stage!  The artists I remember most were Jimi Hendrix, Chambers Brothers, Richie Havens and the Memphis cast for HAIR.  I remember waking up to Richie Havens singing “Here Comes the Sun.”

After the festival, we drove 60 miles north.  We stopped at a state campground and went to pay our fee.  The ranger said we could not camp there unless we had an adult chaperone.  I was flabbergasted as our ages ranged from 19 to 22!  He said that would be true of any campground in the state.  He added, “Lady, this is Georgia!”  We got back into the car drove to a campground 20 miles away.  They accepted us without question.

The next day, we started looking for work.  The white farmers refused to let us work with black pickers.  They suggested we ask for work at the farmers’ market in Atlanta.  We did find a job there.  It was tough work, made harder by the fact that the white farmers treated us like we were prostitutes; why else would white women be doing this kind of work?

We were advised that we could get farm labor work in Fort Valley, Georgia. One of the first things we did when we arrived in town was to go to a laundromat.  A 13 year old white girl told us the hippies who went to the rock festival stripped naked in the car wash, in the grocery store, in the back of trucks.  The things she said were outrageous.  While we were there, a black man walked in and put his laundry in the washer.  She was furious, grabbed her wet laundry from the machine she was using, saying N**** to him and rushed out.  I had the feeling if we had talked to him our lives would have been in danger.

We were able to get some picking work in Ft. Valley, but it was not to pay our expenses so we decided to work in a peach cannery as well.  The woman who hired us said she bet her husband $5 we wouldn’t last more than 2 days.  We definitely intended to prove her wrong.

We were assigned the night shift.  The workers on that shift were almost 100% black.  The day shift was nearly 100% white, the exception being some hard labor jobs.  To keep the job, we were required to work 7 days a week, 8-10 hours a day with one 10 minute break and no dinner.  If we didn’t show up for work, we would be fired.  If the machines didn’t work, which happened a lot, we didn’t get paid, but if we left we would be fired.  After several weeks the night shift was laid off.  By then we were very happy to leave.

Our boss, whom we liked a lot, gifted us with an empty peach can labeled Pride of Georgia.  (It was many years before I ate another canned peach.  The machine we had been running was overflowing with lye that hadn’t been completely rinsed off the peaches before they sealed the can.)

Next we went to South Carolina.  We easily found a job, but finding a place to stay was a problem.  The farm had an area for black workers to live and a separate area for the white workers.  They wouldn’t let us stay in the black camp; saying we wouldn’t last 15 minutes there.  I asked how that could be since the black camp was full of families. The farmer said there were no families in his camp.  Then he thought a moment and said, oh you mean the N******.  To him black children didn’t even qualify as “children”.  Once again, I was outraged.

They gave us cattle truck to stay in, but staying there one night was more than enough.  I decided to talk to the black crew boss, Leroy, and ask if we could sleep in their bus.  He offered us that chance to stay in their kitchen.  I asked if he would get in trouble with the farmer if we did that and he said no, there would be no trouble.  We spent our first evening in the camp singing late into the night with the kids.

Singing with Kids

It turned out that the black workers’ kitchen was in the same building as the white men’s quarters.  During the night they were drinking and we heard them saying “They want to see what a migrant camp is like; let’s show them what it is like.”  Several times, white men came into the kitchen and it was only by our quick talking and shaming that were we able to get them away from us.

After talking with Leroy, our plan for the next night was to have his wife lock us in the kitchen so that the white men couldn’t get in again.   However, around 11:00 p.m. when we were singing with the kids and a little girl was brushing my hair, someone spoke up behind me.  We turned around to find three policemen standing behind us.  They said the farmer wanted us off his land, NOW.  We were shocked.  The farmer hadn’t said a word to us about it during the day.  We asked if we could go to the packing shed to talk to him ourselves and they said gave us their permission.  When we arrived at the shed, we discovered that three black workers and one white worker had beat us there.  They had told the farmer that if he kicked us out in the middle of the night, every worker he had would be gone by morning!  Luckily, he relented and let us stay the night.

Living conditions

I will mention only one other experience from that summer; and that happened in Maryland.  We had no trouble finding a job or a place to stay there.  The labor office said we were welcome to stay in the farm workers’ camp as long as we realized everyone else would be black.  That camp consisted of 54 buildings.  Each building was divided into three rooms, and each room held a separate family.  Our room had two beds, a light that wouldn’t turn off and a few shelves.  There were huge holes in the plasterboard between our room and the room on the other side. There were showers in the camp, but they couldn’t be turned on.  The only source of water was a spigot several houses down.

I came back to Seattle after that 1970 trip with lots of positive memories, but also angry about the racism I had witnessed.  I decided that I was going to make a difference.  In my young mind, the best way to stop this nonsense was to blend the races through interracial marriage. I started pursuing Al, who by that time had been my best friend for several years.  A year later, we were married in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  The morning of the day we were going to be married, we attended Glide Memorial Methodist Church.  Roberta Flack sang during the church service, and Quincy Jones played the piano. While their appearance had nothing to do with our wedding, it made for a great memory!  After our wedding service in the park, Jane Fonda came up to us and wished us well.  What an awesome beginning to our new life!


While the mixing of races as a political stand against racism might have been a naïve way for me to look at solving racism, it always felt right to me.  When I told my father of my plans, he vowed to never speak to me again, and he didn’t.  Still my resolve never wavered.  He told my mother that she could never see me again, but she wasn’t willing to stand for that and started visiting Seattle regularly.

So, was marrying Al a Political Statement?  I’d have to say “yes”, at least in part. More than anything, it was a decision to walk my talk, to make my life a testimony to my beliefs.

As a result of the union between Al and me, two very beautiful, very talented, very loved and loving individuals were brought into this world.  Three years after our marriage, Sreejit was born, and nearly three years after that came his sister, Chaitanya.

Did our marriage and having mixed raced children end racism?  No it did not.  But certainly, between then and now, mixed marriage has gone from unacceptable to much more widespread and “acceptable”.  As individuals in each generation have more contact (of all kinds) with those of other races, we gain more understanding of each other. Every step forward makes a difference.  I am happy to have participated in an active way in the journey.