They were a hidden community, Southern-born Black men and women who spent years living and working on a farm labor camp on the North Fork washing and bagging potatoes. It was the last such camp on Long Island.
A former Newsday reporter and a photographer spent the better part of two years chronicling the lives of these forgotten workers, and even helped some reunite with their long-lost families down South.
Now, the Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library is hosting an exhibition of 25 pictures taken by award-winning photographer Viorel Florescu, who was part of a Newsday team that won two Pulitzer Prizes. The show is a tribute to both Florescu, who died in April of cancer, and the workers.
“It’s more than a story of some remarkable photographs,” said Steve Wick, the reporter who wrote the series. “It’s really a story of a people who were pretty much marginalized here and people didn’t know, but who have extraordinary stories of their own.”
He likened them to modern-day sharecroppers, living in deplorable conditions and barely eking out a living. When he helped bring one worker back to his native Georgia, all the man owned after decades of work was a plastic bag filled with clothes, Wick said.
The show opens Sept. 20, runs through the end of October and will include a reception open to the public on Oct. 1.
A knock on the door
The Newsday series ran from 2005 to 2008, and involved Wick and Florescu immersing themselves in the camp in Cutchogue. Wick said he had lived nearby for years. Hundreds of times he had passed the large barn where the laborers worked, but he had no idea what was happening inside.
Then one day he said he saw a “tall, painfully thin” Black man leaving a grocery store on a bicycle. Wick decided to follow him and arrived at the barn on Depot Lane near the railroad tracks.
The next day, Wick came back and knocked on the door. What he found amazed him. The men and women spent their days bagging potatoes brought to them by the last three potato farms left on the East End.
“They were mostly a sad lot — long separated from their families and unable to escape the lives they were living. They were poor, modern-day sharecroppers in a land of plenty,” Wick wrote in a 2017 column for The Suffolk Times-Review in Mattituck, where he is now executive editor.
Many were “oblivious to their own pasts and hometowns. Some had no birth certificates or even an idea what year they were born” or in what state, he wrote.
There used to be dozens of East End farm labor camps, with thousands of acres of potato fields when it was a major industry on Long Island. Today, they are long gone, replaced by trendy wineries, mansions and roadside agri-entertainment businesses.
Florescu’s photos show the people living in the camp, bagging potatoes in the barn and eventually being reunited with their families. One shows worker Frank Singleton (he was wrong about his surname, it turned out to be Snyder) sitting on a dilapidated bed that Wick called “shocking.”
Florescu, a native of Romania who shot photos in conflict zones around the world that included Haiti, Ukraine, Bangladesh, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, brought his sharp eye and artistic touch to the workers in Cutchogue, said John Keating, director of multimedia newsgathering at Newsday.
“When Viorel committed himself to covering a story, he went all in,” Keating said. “He empathized with the subjects he photographed, and immortalized their plight. His images of the Cutchogue farm labor camp workers are a great example of documentary photojournalism.”
Florescu and Wick got close to their subjects, and when the camp finally shut down after the barn burned in 2006, they helped some reunite with their families.
When the pair drove Singleton back to South Carolina in 2005, Wick recalls his 92-year-old mother wailing from inside as they pulled up to the house: “My son is home! My son is home!” She had not seen him since the early 1960s.
The scene seemed like something out of the Civil War era, Wick said. “The first thing I thought of was, ‘It’s 1865 and slavery has finally ended and families are being reunited.’”
Another of the workers, Oliver Burke, had left his family as a baby when his mother sent him North with cousins headed to New Jersey to pick blueberries. She couldn’t afford to raise or feed him. Wick and Florescu flew him back home in 2005 to be reunited with his family. By then he was in his 50s.
The mother “absolutely just collapsed” when she saw Burke, Wick said. She was “in complete disbelief that he was really standing there in front of her.”
The library exhibition includes two videos taken by Newsday photographer John Paraskevas of the dramatic reunions.
In a telephone interview on Monday from Georgia, where he now lives, Burke said he will never forget Wick’s efforts to connect him with his mother.
Even before he flew back to Georgia for the reunion — the first time he ever took a flight — Wick put him on the phone with her one day, Burke said. “My heart just jumped.”
Today, he is living in a $227-a-month government-run senior citizen housing complex in Savannah, and at 73 is still busy mowing lawns and cutting hedges for people.
Despite the back-breaking work on Long Island, Burke said he still has some fond memories of it, including working at a nearby tennis club, the Sea Breeze, he said. He, Stapleton and other workers forged bonds “like a family.”
Wick said he hopes the show is the first step in keeping alive memories of a lost world. He said that he spoke to Florescu about the exhibit a few days before he died in April at age 72, and that the photographer was thrilled.
“People ought to know that there were these people here and that this world existed, because it is now gone and they’re gone,” Wick said. “Even when they were here, they were completely anonymous.”