Inexplicably, at least to me, my grandfather took St. Johns County Road 207 through Hastings and Spuds. I wondered why he did not stay on U.S. 17, the best route to Jacksonville.
As we approached the first potato field, I understood. A few days before, I had worked in that very field. Dozens of migrants crawled or stooped as they gathered potatoes and tossed them into wire baskets. Others were dumping the contents of their baskets into burlap sacks.
I peered out my window and recognized several of my schoolmates in the field, boys I often had labored alongside over the years.
The simple words of my grandfather, a fruit picker, ring in my ears today: “If you go to college, you won’t have to be a slave in these fields.”
Ben Montgomery’s superb story on May 13, “Drugs, debt bind laborers in slavery,” in the Tampa Bay Times transported me back to my childhood years as a migrant farmworker. At age 6, I had joined my father and a crew of about 50 other laborers in the migrant stream, traveling from bean fields in Broward County to potato fields in Riverhead, N.Y., with several harvesting jobs in between.
We always lived in labor camps far from town. Long distances enabled abuse and peonage — out of sight, out of mind. Up and down the East Coast, the camps were dark, filthy and brutish. In some camps, our living quarters were leaky, windowless bullpens where 10 to 15 single men and boys slept on pallets. The handful of married couples and their children slept in separate quarters.
Single men were the preferred workers because they were easier to control. Families were “messy,” as a crew chief said.
We had fly-infested outhouses everywhere we went. During summer months, mosquitoes attacked us inside these stinking places, forcing many of us to relieve ourselves outside.
Store-bought toilet paper was like gold. The majority of us used newspaper that we softened by vigorously rubbing it between our hands. In some Florida camps, we used Spanish moss if we did not have newspaper. Red bugs were a problem. We never had showers or bathtubs, making cleanliness next to impossible.
A few crew chiefs were relatively humane, but I vividly remember the crooked and vicious ones. My father and I could escape much of the abuse because, besides standing well over 6 feet and weighing at least 230 pounds, he had a bad temper. He also owned a pickup, giving us the freedom to drive away when things became unbearable.
Most other workers, the alcoholics and drug addicts who did not own vehicles, were trapped. They were recruited, some shanghaied, from flophouses with promises of living wages. Crew chiefs extended credit on everything — food, soft drinks, booze, narcotics, bail, whores. The trade-off was that all loans had to be repaid with 100 percent interest or higher. Many workers had debts they could never pay off, and they could not leave. Fear and threats of bodily harm kept them enslaved. The bosses had goons who would hunt down errant workers and drag them back, whole or broken.
We had no allies, not even among local black preachers. Life outside the camps was as demoralizing as it was inside. As transients, we dared not tell local police or other authorities about the abuse. We could not rent rooms or apartments in town and were barred from some shops.
Whites despised us and were openly contemptuous. Blacks were worse. They often came to our camps to woo the women with promises of good times, to overcharge us for cheap merchandise and to otherwise get what they could for nothing.
Whenever we went to town, we traveled in groups for protection, some of the men carrying pocketknives or straight razors.
The reality of being perpetual outsiders weighed heavily on us, especially on the children. We did not fit in at school: Our clothes were odd, and some of us had body odor.
I survived it all, and I must acknowledge that the lives of migrants have improved in many ways. In some parts of the nation, however, especially in the Sunshine State, where agriculture is king and conservative politics rule, modern-day slavery thrives.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.