In 1949, two young children died in a Bridgehampton migrant camp while their parents were out working in the fields. The children, who were alone at the time, were killed when the 12-foot-by-20-foot chicken coop in which the family lived caught fire.
The tragedy was hardly the first and it would definitely not be the last of many that befell the East End’s migrant farm population in the mid-20th century. At least in this case, there was a positive outcome — the children’s deaths led directly to the creation of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center which, to this day, still cares for the children of working parents in the area.
The true story of the East End’s migrant labor camps is not an oft discussed or well-known history, and for good reason. The camps often housed laborers in deplorable slum-like conditions and, like the Appalachian coal mining company towns that preyed on workers by forcing them to overpay for food and housing, upon their arrival on the East End the migrant workers (who were usually from the deep South) found themselves trapped in a feudal system to which they were indebted and couldn’t easily escape.
At its peak, some 7,000 migrant farm workers toiled seasonally in fields throughout Suffolk County, and they lived in more than 120 camps, many of them on the East End. The long-hidden history of their plight is now the subject of a book by Arcadia Publishing — “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood,” by Mark A. Torres. On April 9, Torres will speak about his new book in a virtual talk cohosted by the Southampton History Museum and East End libraries.
Torres, a historian and labor attorney who lives in Nassau County, has summered in Greenport for many years, and it was there that he first heard of the migrant camps and set out to learn more.
“I was shocked it was never written about,” said Torres. “There are some documents and articles, but nothing comprehensive in any form. What’s striking here is it’s 90 miles from New York City and this story has never been told.”
It’s a story that began in the 1940s with most able-bodied men overseas fighting in World War II and a strong demand for farm labor at home in Long Island’s potato fields. The first migrant camp was established in Peconic on the North Fork in June 1943, one of four such camps the U.S. government sponsored in conjunction with local farmers and agricultural groups, explained Torres. The camp housed 100 workers that the government brought in from Jamaica and Barbados, and within weeks, camps also opened in Greenport, Kings Park and Port Jefferson. Later, in order to meet demand, the government would also sponsor workers from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
“The potato was like cotton to the South. Suffolk output was number one in the nation — with 14 to 18 million bushels at one point,” said Torres. “The U.S. government put up the camps, paid for the workers’ transportation, flew them to New Orleans and then they had a long train ride to Long Island.”
When the war ended, the need for farm labor didn’t, and beginning around 1947, the migrant program shifted from government-sponsored workers from the Caribbean to seasonal Black workers who came primarily from the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas. The migrant camps continued to operate in the decades that followed with successive generations of workers coming to the East End based on a promise of higher wages.
“In ’68 in Arkansas, they were paid a dollar an hour. But they were told you can make $1.35 in New York,” said Torres. “They were indebted for the ride here and everything else they had to pay for. If they were lucky, they’d break even.”
From housing and fuel charges to blanket fees, food and alcohol, the prices workers were charged for goods by those who ran the camps could be more than double the usual going rate. The low pay and high prices meant workers were often trapped in a cycle of debt. To top it off, the living conditions were generally deplorable and fires rampant because workers often resorted to using kerosene stoves for warmth or as a way to prepare their own food and avoid the cost of buying it from camp owners.
It was a recipe for disaster, as the death of the children in Bridgehampton illustrated.
“Many people died in these shacks. It was a true migrant story,” noted Torres, who said that in January 1959, there were eight fires over the course of 11 days, including one in Riverhead that killed three babies. “There was also brutal discrimination, the workers often said, let’s roll the dice and go for what may be a better option.”
The plight of migrant workers, including some on the East End, was highlighted in “Harvest of Shame,” a 1960 CBS documentary by journalist Edward R. Murrow.
“It gives a keen insight into the migrant population and reminds us that we can’t forget they feed our nation — and it still goes on,” said Torres.
Migrant labor camps in the 20th century came in all shapes and sizes, but many of the East End camps were operated by groups of farmers who formed cooperatives in order to bring in laborers.
“They would own the facility and would rent it to a crew leader who would recruit the workers, pay them, feed them, provide the housing and oversee upkeep of the camps,” Torres explained. “The farmers stepped back and outsourced all the responsibility, but they had a pool of labor nearby. A farmer would drive by, pick up six guys for the day and bring them back at the end of the day.”
Torres found that in the early years, migrant workers often came to the area with their families, though it took time for the education of migrant children to be addressed.
“Cutchogue had the only camp with a school inside. It was not optimal learning conditions, but they made an attempt,” said Torres. “Some of the migrant children integrated into the school system, so there was probably racial animus as well. Toward the latter part of the camp era, most of the workers came by themselves. They would live in abysmal conditions, be missing their family, cheated out of pay and many fell into alcoholism.”
In 1960, the South Fork had 13 camps housing 200 workers from Wainscott to Water Mill and Torres notes that the Bridgehampton migrant community was unique on the East End in that many laborers opted to stay here, settle in the area and raise families.
Ultimately, it was neither the endless series of tragedies nor the advocacy of worker rights groups that brought an end to the era of the East End’s migrant camps, but rather, simple economics. Newer and more efficient farm machinery, a drop in potato production and soaring land values that led farmers to cash out, all put an end to the need for large numbers of migrant field laborers.
But Torres hopes their history is never forgotten. In his research, he came across more than 300 newspaper articles, from both local and national publications, that offered a glimpse of migrant camp life. He also scoured the archives of libraries and historical societies and, when possible, conducted interviews with family members of migrant workers, all in an effort to preserve a piece of the past that is little known.
“I’m proud of my research as an attorney and writer. I took a deep dive, but sadly, much of it is lost to history,” he said. “Most of the people are long gone. It’s like putting together a puzzle that has never really been put together.
“I realized I had an obligation to not just get it right, but tell their stories. These people had names and lives.”
Mark. A. Torres discusses “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood” in a virtual talk on Friday, April 9 at 7 p.m. To register for the talk, visit southamptonhistory.org or your local library’s website.