Mark A. Torres doesn’t mind picking at history's old wounds.
A labor lawyer and novelist, Torres was writing a cold-case murder mystery situated on the North Fork in 2014 when he learned about deadly conditions endured by thousands of migrant farmworkers on Long Island decades earlier. He said he felt motivated by "the forces of history" to look for evidence. He visited East End historical societies and graveyards, spoke to farmers and retired police officials, and filed requests for old government records.
In pandemic quarantine last year at home in Floral Park with his wife, son and two daughters, Torres scanned computer databases for periodical accounts, including more than 300 newspaper articles, and viewed stark documentary footage of squalid living conditions.
The result is "Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood," a 208-page nonfiction book released in March by The History Press. Torres focused his research on Suffolk County during and after World War II. Suffolk was the nation’s second-largest producer of potatoes — 14 million to 18 million bushels in 1949 — and every town had labor camps. Many workers were housed in barracks, shacks, garages, old barns and converted poultry brooder houses by some farming cooperatives to perform stoop labor in the burning sun and tend to filthy duck farms.
"The more I learned about the treatment of farmworkers, both then and now, it horrified me," Torres, 53, said in an interview during a visit to North Fork farm country. He said some residents are proud of the East End’s rich history but have a blind spot.
"They can tell you when the settlers landed," he said. "They can tell you when the oak tree was planted. Beautiful, amazing, precise history. But you won’t find a peep about labor camps …"
Drawing from his research, Torres’ book outlines the history of the camps. With laborers scarce during World War II, some Long Island farms hired Polish war refugees, Chinese immigrants from New York City, and workers from the Caribbean. Even German prisoners of war held at the Army’s Camp Upton in Yaphank were paid 50 cents a day to work the fields.
Eventually, the South became a steady source. Labor camp crew chiefs drove buses to poor communities in Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Florida and Virginia to recruit mostly African American men and women with promises of good wages, food and shelter.
Recruited into servitude
Depression-era migrant camps had existed in many sizes and forms around the nation, becoming infamous in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." And on Thanksgiving in 1960, journalist Edward R. Murrow shocked many Americans with "Harvest of Shame," a CBS-TV documentary about farmworker poverty.
On Long Island, Torres said, the Suffolk County Farm Bureau announced the opening of farm labor camps in Peconic, Kings Park, Port Jefferson and Greenport in 1943. He said the peak appeared to be 134 camps housing nearly 2,400 workers by 1958. "And those were registered," he said. "Likely, many were nonregistered as well."
Torres said not all farmers relied on labor camps, often choosing to house workers at their farms. Farmers who took part in the labor camp system paid crew leaders to provide field hands. These bosses had "full control over the pay, working conditions and the very lives of the workers, who were most often left irrevocably mired in debt," Torres said. Various items — transportation, lodging, meals and beverages — were deducted from weekly earnings, often at inflated prices.
One farmworker called his pay "dust for blood," the subtitle of Torres’ book. In 1961, according to an anecdote in the book, migrant laborer Betty Jean Johnson, 52, told a congressional subcommittee, "They bring us up from the South and make slaves out of us." She testified that a crew leader brought her from Virginia to Long Island and told her she would earn $1.15 an hour. Instead, she worked long hours and earned only $3 to $5 a week after deductions. She said Social Security was deducted from her pay, even though she had no Social Security number.
Torres’ book recalls the story of 15-year-old Alfonzo Mahone, whose mother reluctantly let him leave their poor community in Georgia in July 1968 when a bus pulled up and a woman promised farm work up North.
In Bridgehampton, Alfonzo received just $10 for a week’s work. At a produce company in Southampton, he worked in a potato shed, earning $40.80 for the week, but $18.40 was deducted for room and board. When he injured a hand and could not work, Alfonzo was evicted from his camp. He hitchhiked to Riverhead, where the advocacy group Long Island Volunteers arranged transportation back to Georgia. Newsday reported that the New York State Department of Labor recouped $56.20 the teenager was owed and cited the two camps for illegal use of child labor.
"As sad as that is, that’s a success story," Torres said. "The majority don’t happen that way. They never get a ride home; they never get their money recouped."
The author described a 3-acre site on Cox Lane in Cutchogue as "the largest and unquestionably most notorious migrant labor camp in Suffolk County." Built by the Eastern Suffolk Cooperative, the camp included barracks, platform tents and cabins.
In a rare occurrence, the Cutchogue camp had a schoolhouse for workers’ children. In a memoir — "My Migrant Labor Camp School: 1949-1961" — teacher Helen Wright Prince described the camp "as a one-street village of double-banked barracks and cabins, fenced from the road by barbed wire, unpainted, close-packed, drab and colorless."
Children lived with the stench of raw sewage from a leaky pipe outside their classroom. Prince said the head of the farming co-op told her, "But Helen, you don’t have to teach them anything. You just have to keep order!"
A member of the federal anti-poverty agency Volunteers in Service to America lived at the camp in 1966. He said that in one area, "we found about eight toilets for 60-70 men and every morning seven of the eight toilets were stopped up." He said cabins had no cooking or heating facilities and contained two or three small rooms for eight or 10 people.
Jack Barnes, 73, of East Patchogue, heard Torres speak during one of many online book presentations in the spring. In an interview for this story, Barnes said that as a 17-year-old in Riverhead, he was recruited by the Cutchogue camp. He said that after a day's work at a potato shed, he returned and saw two camp employees keeping farmworkers in line with a 12-gauge shotgun and an aggressive German shepherd on a leash.
"It was 1965, but I said, ‘This is the United States of America. This can’t be happening,’ " Barnes recalled. "People were held against their will … I saw them sic the dog on an old guy who wasn't moving fast enough." Barnes said he escaped into the woods and did not return to work.
In 1970, Newsday reporter Les Payne posed as a laborer named Bubba for a week at a Riverhead camp, working on an irrigation crew. He wrote that farmworkers "turned to wine out of despair, loneliness, pain, and depression brought on boredom and the alienated life-style of the camp."
Payne, who had picked cotton as a child in Alabama, wrote that workers were charged $1.50 for a pint of wine — whether they got it or not — while a bottle cost only 64 cents in Riverhead. He wrote of the availability of wine: "By controlling the flow of wine, the crew chief controlled our very lives. He dished it out at morning, noon, and night, on credit and at exaggerated prices. When the men got restless and asked for pay, the crew chief gave them wine."
Bunk beds had no linens, only a thin blanket. Mattresses "held the dirt of two generations of migrants," Payne wrote. "There were three toilet bowls, two large sinks and a three-faucet shower. All the migrants in the barracks slept in their clothes."
Reforms come slowly
In many cases illiterate and miles from any downtown, the migrants were powerless to seek better conditions. Farmworkers were excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which allowed other workers to join labor unions. They had no health insurance or worker’s compensation coverage.
And living conditions could be lethal. There were fatal shootings, stabbings and beatings from fights between workers. Torres found that in an 11-day span in 1959, fires killed three adults and five children living in East End slums occupied by migrant farmworkers. In 1961, a leaky kerosene stove caused a barracks fire at the Cutchogue camp, killing four workers. In 1963, five children died in a fire at an East Hampton camp also caused by a defective heater.
Torres said religious groups, advocates and the media tried to draw the attention of an often-indifferent public. In 1964, the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization, produced "Got to Move," a documentary that showed garbage-strewn and rat-infested worker housing at a Riverhead duck farm. That year, Lincoln O. Lynch, the Long Island chairman of CORE, was arrested at a protest over the slums. Four years later, National Educational Television presented the documentary "What Harvest for the Reaper?," which depicted Cutchogue farmworkers returning in debt to the South after harvest season.
Reforms came slowly. Laws passed in the late 1950s strengthened the state sanitary code. In the early 1960s, laws required licensing of crew leaders. After years of resistance, Riverhead Town passed a housing code in 1968.
In 1967, the owner of a Bridgehampton camp was arrested and charged with violations including inadequate heating, improper sanitary facilities and untended garbage. Six months later, three farmworkers died in a fire there. The owner died of health issues before he could be tried for the violations.
Spurred by bad publicity drawn to Suffolk, H. Lee Dennison, county executive from 1961 to 1972, advocated for an end to the migrant labor system. However, Torres said, Dennison also faced pressure from the agriculture industry and failed to initiate much change. "The migrant situation is gradually handling itself," Dennison said.
Bill Zalakar, current president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said the old-style labor camps were run by crew leaders, not farmers. "There were labor camps here on Long Island the same as there were throughout the country," he said in an interview. "The problem is that those labor camps are not run by the farmers. Those labor camps were run by individual people. And was there abuse going on? Yes, those people were charging them for cigarettes at like two, three times the rate. They charged them for water. In no way was it actually the farm owner."
Over time, Dennison was correct about reform: Efficient farm machinery required fewer workers, polluting duck farms were shut down, and worker living conditions and compensation were more tightly regulated.
As a lawyer, Torres represents a 3,500-member Teamsters local in New York City that includes skilled maintenance workers, truckers and warehouse employees. He said the historic plight of the farmworkers drove his research.
"It went on for so long in such a widespread area 90 miles outside of New York City and was never told," he said. "If this book was not written, that history could very well could have been completely lost, and then we all lose as a society …
"It’s not a perfect world. Crops had to get picked, I get it, but there were so many things that could have been different."
Book’s ‘better angels’
As a girl in Greenport in the 1960s, Grace Bryant didn’t know her father was getting death threats.
The Rev. Arthur Cullen Bryant was among the vocal critics of filthy and dangerous conditions at farm labor camps in Suffolk County. He is one of eight "better angels" profiled in Mark A. Torres’ book "Long Island Migrant Labor Camps."
From 1956 to 1971, Bryant was pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport. His daughter Grace — now Grace Bryant Dotson, 61, of Westport, Massachusetts — recalled in a recent interview that a local banker’s wife had told her father "about children who weren’t going to school and didn’t have proper clothes and shoes and health care, and were sometimes working in the fields with the parents."
The minister took an interest and became migrant chairman of the Suffolk County Human Relations Commission. He spoke often to the news media and politicians about harsh treatment of workers. Some farmers were not happy.
In "What Harvest for the Reaper?," the 1968 public-television documentary that exposed conditions at the Cutchogue labor camp, a farmer says, "I think Rev. Bryant is a very sick man." Another adds, "He does not know the farmer’s problems. He just goes picking stuff out of the wind and expressing himself in the papers."
In the film, Bryant replies, "If we’re going to say that the health of an industry is more important than the value of a human life, this sort of thing can catch on and eventually encompass all of us."
His daughter said her father sheltered his family from threats he faced.
"People just loved him — and there were some people who hated him because they didn’t want things to change," she said. "But he really believed in fighting for the people who had no voice and the little guy who had terrible living conditions and health care needs that were unmet."
Torres also salutes Helen Wright Prince, who taught labor-camp children from 1949 to 1961; Mary Chase Stone, who as the founder of Long Island Volunteers sheltered workers in Riverhead and sued to help them collect unpaid wages; Josephine Watkins-Johnson, a caterer who became the first Black member of the Greenport school board and a member of the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force; Alan Perl, a labor lawyer who negotiated for fair treatment in farmworker contracts; and Morton Silverstein, producer of "What Harvest for the Reaper?"
Torres also profiles two former Newsday staff members, Harvey Aronson and Steve Wick. "Without journalists, many of them from Newsday, this book could not have been written," Torres said.
Among his many stories about the camps, Aronson, who is retired in Fort Salonga, wrote a five-part series in 1961 titled "Long Island’s Migrants."
Wick, now executive editor of the Times Review Media Group on the East End, wrote extensively about farmers and farmworkers. "The history of the camps was waiting for someone to take a really strong look at it," Wick said recently about Torres’ book. "In that sense, Mark has succeeded — looking at where they were, how many there were, what kind of places they were … It was a horrible system. It’s over now."
Farmworker poverty has been a concern for decades, but only recently did New York State grant laborers rights many other workers take for granted.
The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, enacted in 2019, provides a day of rest, disability pay, paid family leave, unemployment insurance, the right to organize, and overtime pay after 60 hours. Similar bills failed for years, but legislation passed after Democrats took control of the state Senate that year.
"As a practical matter, 100,000 farmworkers will have better lives …," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said when he signed the legislation. "They will finally, finally have the same protections that other workers have had for 80 years."
The Suffolk County Department of Health said that in 2020, there were 33 permitted migrant farmworker housing facilities with a total capacity of 418 people. Effective Jan. 1, 2021, state law requires farm processing operations that provide housing to one or more migrant workers to follow the state sanitary code; previously, the code applied only to facilities housing five or more migrant workers. The agency estimated that the change would add 10 to 20 facilities. Housing must be inspected before it can open and is subject to surprise inspection.
Julia Schnurman, coordinator of the Family Education Outreach Program of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, helps place children of migrant workers in public schools. She said many farmworkers today come from Central America and crowd into single-family rental homes because of the scarcity of affordable housing. "Migrant farm-working families, they’ll pay $1,000 to live five people in a room on Long Island in a shared house with a shared kitchen that they have to sign up for a time to cook," she said.
Al Krupski, a fourth-generation farmer who represents the North Fork in the Suffolk County Legislature as a Democrat, stressed the need to safeguard food production by protecting farmers and farmland. He said worker protections are important, but that regulations, including those in the new state law, can be burdensome. "The problem is government makes so many regulations, so you’re turning farmers into bookkeepers," he said.
Read “Waiting for the Eagle to Fly,” Les Payne’s 1970 Newsday story about working as a migrant laborer, bit.ly/NewsdayWaitingfortheEagle.
Email LI Life at LILife@newsday.com.