Pictured Above: A shuttered former migrant camp on Edgar Avenue in Aquebogue.
If you grew up on the East End, chances are you saw a glimpse or heard stories about the migrant farm labor camps that proliferated here during the heyday of the potato industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
These camps, which were enabled to operate due to World War II-era staffing shortages, have long been a hushed stain on our region’s agricultural history, with little remaining documentation of their history.
Author Mark A. Torres combed through records from throughout Suffolk County to tell this harrowing tale in a new book, “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood,” released this spring by The History Press.
Mr. Torres, a labor and employment attorney, says in his author’s note that he is looking to lend “a voice to the thousands of migrants who came to Long Island each year in search of work, housing and dignity, only to find abuse misery, and, in some cases death.”
“For if we lack the resolve to report the full history, then that history truly disappears, leaving an irreplaceable void,” he adds.
While it might seem to the layperson that local migrant labor camps have a centuries-long history here, they actually date back to a 1942 rule by the New York State Farm Security Administration that allowed “mobile low cost migratory labor camps” in certain New York counties due to the necessity of feeding a nation whose young men were off fighting the war.
As of 1942, Suffolk County faced a shortage of 2,700 farm workers, jobs that were taken by migrant workers from Jamaica. These workers began coming to Suffolk County in fewer numbers after the U.S. government stopped paying their transportation costs at the end of the war.
By 1960, according to Mr. Torres’ research, there were 4,500 migrant workers living in camps in Suffolk County. About 3,500 of them were Black southerners, who were frequently exploited by crew leader recruiters with tales of a better life in New York, and about 1,000 of them were from Puerto Rico, whose government had negotiated for more fair living and working conditions before the laborers could begin work.
Though there are 10 towns that make up Suffolk County, by 1960, half of the migrant laborers in the county were living in Riverhead and Southold Towns, while 60 percent of the camps and 70 percent of the migrant labor force lived in the five East End towns, according to Mr. Torres’ research.
The largest labor camp, owned by a corporation comprised of local growers called the Eastern Suffolk Cooperative, was on Cox Lane in Cutchogue, and was noted in the 1960 Edward R. Murrow documentary “Harvest of Shame,” and then made infamous by a 1968 documentary, “What Harvest for the Reaper?” by Brooklyn-born documentarian Morton Silverman, which helped raise public awareness of the need for better enforcement of rules to improve living conditions in the camps. The camp operated until at least 1975, and the Eastern Suffolk Cooperative sold the land in 1983, though a nearby camp on Depot Lane continued operation until one of the largest buildings there was destroyed in a 2006 fire.
The Eastern Suffolk Cooperative also ran another labor camp on the North Road just east of Chapel Lane in Greenport at the former Conklin family mansion, which in 1966 was “destroyed by a premeditated fire at the request of the new owners,” according to Mr. Torres’ research. It is now the site of the San Simeon Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
The stories of these labor camps hew tightly to the stories of some of the biggest fires on the East End in the 1950s and 1960s, most of which had a common source: kerosene heaters brought into the living quarters by migrant workers struggling to keep warm.
It took 160 firefighters from departments throughout the North Fork to put out a fire caused by a leaky kerosene heater that swept through main barracks of the Cutchogue Labor Camp in 1961. Four laborers died.
Many of these fires proved fatal, including one in 1949 in which two children died in Bridgehampton while their parents were working in the fields, which led to the creation of the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreation Center, which still cares for local children today. Eight people died in migrant camp fires in Riverhead over the course of 11 days in January of 1959 while using kerosene heaters to keep warm.
Perhaps nowhere was the condition of migrant labor living quarters more visible than in Riverhead, and Mr. Torres minces no words in describing the lack of action on the part of Riverhead officials in improving the quality of life of the laborers, particularly 1950s-era Riverhead Town Supervisor William J. Leonard, who was quoted at the time as saying “no state or person should go socialistic and I’m not going to ask the taxpayers for money for people who are too ignorant to help themselves.”
Until 1968, Riverhead was one of the few towns on Long Island without a zoning code, and before that year, horrible living conditions were rampant.
The remains of the Hollis Warner Duck Rarm on Hubbard Avenue in Riverhead were converted to migrant labor housing as the Long Island duck industry declined in the mid-20th Century, with workers living on bunks in converted duck brooder buildings with no indoor plumbing. In the spring of 1964, the Congress on Racial Equality and filmmaker David Hoffman made a film, “Got to Move,” exposing the conditions in this camp.
In the film, one resident is quoted as saying “this is nowhere for a dog to live… It wasn’t even good enough for ducks — they moved them out.”
Suffolk County purchased much of the Hollis Warner duck ranch in the early 1960s, demolishing much of the shanty town that had been built up there. The property is now part of Indian Island County Park.
Mr. Torres also details other areas of Riverhead where shanty towns were built, including “about 40 dilapidated shacks” in an area bounded by Roanoke Avenue, Telephone Street and Griffing Avenue, just blocks away from Riverhead High School and the county courthouse, which stood throughout the 1960s.
“These structures lacked heating and plumbing and were beleaguered by faulty drainage, which often left the area flooded after heavy rains,” wrote Mr. Torres. “One resident testified that they were force to get their drinking water from a single pipe and there were only three toilets, all of which were outside.”
The town supervisor, William Leonard, was quoted as saying “we called it the Bottom of the world because everybody that dropped off the tailboard of the migrant truck seemed to sift down there eventually.”
“Sadly, it was the town’s ineffective and indifferent leadership, largely during Leonard’s tenure, that enabled the formation of these neighborhoods,” wrote Mr. Torres.
While a lack of government leadership certainly contributed to the condition of the camps, Mr. Torres talks at length about the sadistic role of crew leaders, whose job was to recruit workers from other parts of the country. The crew leaders would then garnish workers’ wages for lodging, food and alcohol and cigarettes, marked up astronomically because the farm workers had no way to leave the camps to buy goods in a proper store. The crew leaders would also charge the workers for the transportation from their homes in other states to the camps, leaving many workers indebted and trapped before they even began work — a condition that was really not far from modern slavery.
Mr. Torres’ analysis of the psychological and physical toll this took on the workers is a heartwrenching and important read for anyone who wishes to have a fuller grasp of this period in East End agriculture.
While there is much that is bleak in this unflinching look at local history, Mr. Torres does shine a light on a few people who dug in their heels and made a difference, including numerous journalists, the crusading minister Arthur Cullen Bryant of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport, who testified before the U.S. Senate in 1969, bringing nationwide attention to the plight of farm workers in Suffolk County; Helen Wright Prince, who was a teacher at the makeshift school at the Cutchogue labor camp from 1949 to 1961; and Josephine Watkins-Johnson, who served as a teacher at a migrant camp and worked with Rev. Bryant at the camp. Ms. Watkins-Johnson, who would become the first Black resident of Peconic Landing, died in her sleep in March of 2020 at the age of 99.
But in the end, says the author, it wasn’t action by government that led to the decline of labor camps on Long Island — mechanization, the decline of the potato industry, pesticide bans, the Colorado potato beetle, rising land prices and suburbanization turned out to be what caused the greatest change.
In June of 2019, New York State passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which allows farm workers to join labor unions and sets standards for working conditions.
“The law is currently being subjected to legal challenges by the agricultural industry and has a long way to go before fulfilling its true purpose,” said Mr. Torres. But for “the thousands of migrant workers who languished in Long Island’s migrant labor camps, this law arrived far too late.”
There is still much more work to be done to protect farm workers, and Mr. Torrres’ brief but thorough and empathetic account is a great place to begin to understand the true history underlying the landscape we all view every day.
“Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood,” The History Press 2021 is available at local libraries and bookstores, and through Amazon.