When Jimmy Wilson was 14, his beloved grandmother, Julia Wilson, passed away. She had taken care of him since he was 6 years old, after his mother had died in tiny Barwick, Ga. Alone, Wilson climbed aboard the back of a truck with a group of men looking for work and two days later stepped off at a potato farm near Red Bank, N.J.
Wilson would spend more than seven decades working on potato farms, first in New Jersey, then, in 1948, in Port Jefferson, where he graded, or bagged, potatoes in a cavernous barn by the railroad tracks. By the 1960s, he was working in a grader in Calverton and after that he moved to a grader and labor camp in Cutchogue, on the North Fork, where he managed a small group of workers.
Friday, Wilson picked beans and peppers in a field behind the Cutchogue labor camp, which closed in May after a fire destroyed the grading barn, so he could stock his farmstand in nearby Aquebogue. He loaded his produce on his truck and was driving through Mattituck when he had a heart attack and died. He was 87.
"Someone, we don't know who, called 911 when they saw him drive off the road and an ambulance came and took him to the hospital in Riverhead," said Wilson's grandson, Anthony Scott, of Aquebogue. "But he didn't make it."
Standing outside the boarded-up Cutchogue camp Saturday morning, Scott said, "I don't think I will ever be able to describe how much he meant to me."
In Wilson's life is the story of a man who, like so many other Southern-born black men who worked as farm laborers, came north to escape poverty and racism and who worked up to the day he died, even as the only world he knew - potatoes and farming - slowly disappeared. He once said he felt blessed by God to work every day, "which is what a man is supposed to do."
The Cutchogue grader, where he lived and worked for the past 30 years, was the last commercial potato grading operation on Long Island, and Wilson was the very last crew boss, as the older men who supervised the workers and lived with them in labor camps were called.
In May, fire destroyed the Cutchogue grader, which had been built in 1926.
Only Wilson and Oliver Burke, who worked at the grader, were living in the camp at the time, and no one was hurt. But the fire spelled the end of the labor camp behind it, and Wilson, who had always looked out for himself, moved in with his grandson. Still, Wilson continued to plant a field behind the camp to raise vegetables for his stand.
For the past several years, a Newsday reporter visited the camp and grader to document Wilson's life, as well as Burke's and that of a third man who had lived there for decades, Frank Singleton.
In November, after nearly 40 years away from his home and family, Singleton returned to McClellanville, S.C. At first, Wilson - who had fed and clothed Singleton, who was handicapped - was angry with the reporter who took him home.
But, after the grader fire, Wilson said Singleton's return home after such a long absence, just months before he would have been homeless, was a miracle.
Wilson often spoke about being born in Barwick, Ga., of never knowing his mother or father. He recalled clearly, though, being taken to live with his grandmother, Julia Wilson, after his mother's death in 1925.
Census records suggest Julia Wilson was born a slave in Thomas County, Ga.
She could not read or write, and took in laundry to care for her young grandson. Wilson said his faith came from his grandmother. No matter how little she had, he said, she believed she had everything.
He recalled her death in 1932, and how a short time later a tramp truck, as he called it, came into town, the man behind the wheel saying he could find work for anyone who wanted it on a potato farm in New Jersey. Thus began Wilson's life up north.
Yesterday, as he planned his grandfather's funeral, Scott said he was grateful. What Julia Wilson had done for her grandson, Jimmy Wilson had done for his. "I have a strong faith, and that was his gift to me," Scott said.
Wilson is survived by his second wife, Jean, of Red Bank, N.J.; a daughter, Noreen, of Albany, a son, Jason, of Red Bank; a stepson, Clark Pittman, of Freehold, N.J.; 11 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
A wake will be held Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the First Baptist Church of Riverhead; funeral services will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at the church. He will be buried in Neptune, N.J., next to his first wife, Margaret, whom he met on a farm in New Jersey.
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