The Reconstruction of Ulysses S. Grant

How the beloved American Civil War general and two-term president failed at every attempt to make money. Except for one… Published by Damn Interesting on April 11, 2017

In the second half of the 19th century, few Americans were better known⁠—and revered⁠—than the man whose face looks out today from the $50 bill. Ulysses S. Grant led Union troops to victory in the American Civil War, then thwarted attempts by President Andrew Johnson to suppress fundamental civil rights of newly freed black Americans. Twice elected president himself, Grant stewarded a war-torn nation as it struggled to reunify. After leaving the White House, he invested his name and entire life savings to a Wall Street brokerage firm. It would make him rich, he was told, and afford him a comfortable retirement. Instead, it would leave him penniless.

Like any army commander, Grant had lost battles and had known the pain of defeat. But this loss hit personally. Never before had he found himself in straits so dire, literally destitute. Fortunately, the former president and retired general had one more fight in him⁠—because his real troubles had just begun.

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in 1822 to Ohio tannery foreman Jesse Grant and his wife, Hannah. In 1839, Jesse secured a place for his son at West Point, not so much for its esteem as a military academy, but because it was free. On his first day there, the young man found his name listed by mistake as Ulysses Simpson Grant. He had always disliked his given initials⁠—H.U.G.⁠—so he came to rather like his new name with its patriotic abbreviation: U.S. Grant.

In 1843, at the age of 21, Grant began his career as a commissioned officer in Missouri, where he fell in love with his roommate’s sister, Julia Dent. They paused their courtship when Grant was sent to fight in the Mexican-American War, in which the U.S. took by force much of the current southwestern U.S. from its neighbor to the south. Personally, Grant felt opposed to what he saw as an unjustified use of superior military force, but he kept his political views to himself. He served dutifully as a junior officer and admired the qualities of General Zachary Taylor, which would shape his own leadership style in a much more significant war two decades hence.

Ulysses and Julia
Ulysses and Julia

Ulysses and Julia married just months following the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848, a joyous occasion for all but Grant’s parents. Staunch abolitionists, they liked Julia enough, but could not stomach her father, a slave owner and staunch defender of his right to be one. Grant’s parents boycotted the wedding.

Still, the couple’s mutual affection had not wilted in the five years they waited to wed, nor would it ever. To him, she would forever be “dear Julia”, and to her, privately, he was always “Ulys”. However, she would soon discover one small problem: her husband had a remarkable inability to earn a civilian living.

Like many of his peers in the Army, Grant took to moonlighting to bolster his meager military pay. But he failed at everything, in part from trusting everyone he met. He put his money into a venture to sell ice shipped in from the Arctic; it melted en route. Potatoes and onions, planted in anticipation of a certain windfall, rotted in the ground. His partnership in an establishment selling goods to soldiers, known as a sutler’s store, ended when he naively accepted a worthless IOU when his partner wanted out.

Grant began imbibing more than he should, which for him meant just two drinks. That’s all it took to intoxicate the young man to the point of insensibility. He usually resisted having a drink before reporting for duty, but not always. One day, his commander gave the drunken officer an ultimatum: resign or be kicked out. Grant chose to resign.

Broke, the Grants and their two infant children took up residence in a shack in Missouri. He peddled firewood on the streets of St. Louis to support his family, which soon included two more children. He pawned his gold watch to buy Christmas presents. When Julia Grant’s father died, they moved into the Dent family home. They also inherited something else⁠—or rather someone else: a slave named William Jones.

Grant could have ended his financial woes by selling the man for a thousand dollars, or earned even more by renting him out. Instead, he took Jones to the local courthouse and signed manumission papers, setting him free. And then Grant went back to peddling firewood. He would later demur when asked why he did such a thing. Perhaps he was simply his father’s son.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant wanted back in the Army, but the Army wasn’t interested. His reputation as a drunkard preceded him. Eventually they did offer him a unit to lead, one nobody else wanted. The 21st Illinois Artillery was one of the rowdiest, least disciplined, and most troubled units in the Union Army. When Grant took command on 14 June 1861, the restless men were only two weeks from the end of their enlistment. They couldn’t wait to go home. Then they met Grant. At the end of June, nearly every man signed up for another three years. “We knew we had the best commander and the best regiment in the State,” remarked one of them.

Grant turned the unit around by demonstrating a leadership style borrowed from Zachary Taylor in the Mexican-American War, marked by thoughtfulness, decisiveness, simple orders, and⁠—above all⁠—humility. This, his soldiers admired most of all. Grant shunned ostentation, flamboyance, and even a commander’s uniform. He dressed like his men did and looked “plain as an old shoe,” according to one Army doctor.

Grant paid keen attention to detail and remembered everything. He was unafraid of taking risks, learned from his mistakes, and seemed to never tire. And he kept his drinking in check. Instead, he mostly took comfort from cigars. He knew not to be seen drinking, but nobody cared how much he smoked.

Grant, 1868
Grant, 1868

Ulysses S. Grant the failure became Ulysses S. Grant the towering general, regarded to this day as one of the best military leaders of all time. In addition to military prowess, he also became known for making the most of whatever he had. This caught the eye of President Abraham Lincoln, who had grown dismayed with one general after another⁠—Winfield Scott, George McClellan, Henry Halleck⁠—complaining they did not have enough troops, or supplies, or time. Grant just did his job.

Waging war was no easier for Grant than his predecessors, and more than once, it appeared the Confederacy might win the war. But Grant kept his wits about him; he’d listen carefully to every word of advice he was given, then quickly make up his mind and pen an order. He communicated more easily in writing than in speaking, and thus would write long into the night. But he always saved energy for a letter to his Julia. “I have been writing until my fingers are tired and therefore you must excuse haste and a bad pen,” he’d write. “Kiss the children for me. Ulys.”

Thus it was Grant whose smarts and stamina⁠—and hard-won victories at places like Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Richmond⁠—landed him across the desk from General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, accepting the Confederacy’s surrender and bringing the Civil War to a close. For Grant and the nation, the feeling of relief, and hope for the future, was beyond description. But it would not last long.

Abraham Lincoln thought the world of Grant. The feeling was mutual. Their wives, however, had mutual feelings of another sort. They did not get along. At times, Grant had to choose between his wife and the president, as when Lincoln invited the Grants out for an evening of leisure just days after Lee’s surrender. Grant’s wife would have none of it. So he manufactured an excuse about having to catch the next train north to visit their son. President and Mrs. Lincoln went out that evening without the Grants, taking a short carriage ride from the White House to Ford’s Theater to watch a play. There, John Wilkes Booth entered their box and assassinated Lincoln.

Grant would never forgive himself for begging off, certain that had he accepted the invitation, his bodyguards stationed outside the door would have stopped Booth. As lieutenant general of the U.S. Army he was entitled to armed protection around the clock. The president in those days was not.

Lincoln’s assassination came just five days after Lee’s surrender. Confederate sympathizers seized the opportunity to roll back many of Lincoln’s efforts to reunite the nation. Unfortunately, one of those sympathizers was his own vice president. Andrew Johnson had once been a senator from Tennessee, and Lincoln did not select him for his vice presidential running mate. He had left that to delegates to the 1864 Republican Convention, who put Johnson on the ticket in an effort to attract war-supporting Democrats. Now, unexpectedly occupying one of the most powerful offices on earth, the new commander in chief set out to influence the post-war national rebuilding effort known as Reconstruction. His top priority? Maintenance of white supremacy.

Grant (center left) depicted next to Lincoln, General Sherman (far left), and Admiral Porter (right)
Grant (center left) depicted next to Lincoln, General Sherman (far left), and Admiral Porter (right)

Grant continued serving as Johnson’s general in chief and, later, secretary of war. He found himself walking a fine line, on one hand obliged to obey orders, but on the other dismayed by Johnson’s disregard for the rights of newly emancipated slaves, or ‘freedmen’. Johnson derided the Fourteenth Amendment, refused to enforce measures of Congressional Reconstruction Acts, and fired General Philip Sheridan for seeing to the registration of thousands of black voters.

Congress fought back. Its members united in using every means at their disposal to protect the nation from a man they saw as an utter threat to the prospect of a reunified country. They liked Grant, who let his opposition to his boss be known. Congress even passed legislation essentially preventing the president from telling his war secretary what to do. Ultimately, on 24 February 1868, the House of Representatives voted for the first time ever to impeach the president of the United States. The Senate failed to eject Johnson from office by a single vote.

Four days later, Republicans met in Chicago to choose a nominee for Johnson’s successor. They nominated only one candidate: Grant. He won the votes of all 650 delegates on the first ballot. In November, he was elected the nation’s 18th president, vowing to realize Lincoln’s vision of a re-United States of America.

Grant is not generally remembered as a great president. By blocking Johnson’s attempt to all but undo the Civil War, however, some might consider him at least a very good one. His central mission was to protect “citizens of every race and color” and to ensure their “peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution.” That struggle continued well after his time⁠—indeed, to the time of this writing. But Grant allowed that struggle to at least get underway.

After leaving the White House in 1877, Grant and his family took a long tour, circumnavigating the globe. He was warmly greeted everywhere and treated as a celebrity. It was a refreshing tour, but expensive. He needed work. American presidents in those days were not entitled to a pension, and he had given up his Army pension when he entered the White House.

Grant had made friends with Mark Twain during his travels, who considered him a kindred spirit, both having gone from abject failure to the heights of success. Twain suggested that Grant write his memoirs. Grant demurred. He had no talent for writing, he said.

The Grants settled in New York. Friends bought him a four-story brownstone on East 66th Street, near the Central Park Zoo. His son Buck lived in Manhattan and had invested in a brokerage firm with Ferdinand Ward, a financier who soon convinced the elder Grant to join them. He need only invest $100,000 and his name, and he would have no job responsibilities. Grant agreed.

Before long, both he and his son would invest every dollar they had into the firm of Grant & Ward. Located at 2 Wall Street, at the intersection with Broadway across from Trinity Church, the little firm made a big splash in no time. In less than a year, the value of Grant’s share was estimated at $2.6 million, equivalent to roughly $70 million today.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

Grant had time on his hands⁠—he truly had no real work to do at the brokerage firm. The editor of Century magazine offered to pay Grant $500 per article if he would write his recollections from the Civil War. Again, he said no. He was not a writer and certainly didn’t need the money. His life of leisure seemed a fitting reward for all he had done. So he visited friends, puffed his ever-present cigar, filling many a room with haze, and put on weight, topping 200 pounds⁠—noticeably robust for someone five feet and eight inches tall.

A rare request from Ferdinand Ward interrupted Grant’s semi-retirement one day. The business faced a temporary cash shortfall of $150,000. Might Grant help? Perhaps invigorated by the chance to actually do some work for the firm, Grant rode his carriage to the home of William Vanderbilt, his friend and heir to the railroad and shipping fortune of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and got the money in no time. “I care very little about Grant & Ward,” said Vanderbilt. “But to accommodate you personally, I will draw my check for the amount you ask.”

Grant took the check home and gave it to Ward, who deposited it immediately into his personal bank account. Not 48 hours later, Grant arrived at 2 Wall Street to a sight he could hardly believe. A mob was amassing. His firm had gone under, taking with it the life savings of an unknown number of victims⁠—including Grant himself. The damage did not stop there. Across the street at the New York Stock Exchange, the market tumbled on the news. Ulysses went home and told Julia, then emptied his pockets of cash. He looked down at $81 on the table. She added $130 more. It was all they had.

Grant & Ward went bankrupt because its liabilities totaled $16.7 million on assets of $67,000. The ex-president had been kept in the dark as to the firm’s business operations. Ward had borrowed money at outrageous interest rates, pledging firm securities as collateral⁠—a practice known as rehypothecation, which was and remains a legal practice. But he would pledge the same security⁠—say a U.S. government bond⁠—over and over again to different lenders. That part was and remains illegal. He also paid off older investors with money from new ones. It would be another four decades before this scheme earned a permanent name, when Charles Ponzi did the same thing with so much publicity that he became eponymous with the technique.

The Grants were wiped out. The ex-president insisted on signing over his house to settle his $150,000 debt to Vanderbilt, who refused to take it. Instead, they reached a compromise whereby Grant would hand over his war medals⁠—indeed, every memento of value⁠—to the Smithsonian Institution. The Grants could remain in their house.

Desperate now for income, Grant contacted the editors at Century, who were still interested in his Civil War recollections. He agreed to write four articles, beginning with his personal account of the Battle of Shiloh, for $500 each. The magazine project turned into a book project, with Grant agreeing to a 10 percent royalty.

Grant was elated. His friend Mark Twain was amazed, but for a very different reason. He thought the magazine was ripping off Grant. A 10 percent royalty, said Twain, is what “they would have offered to any unknown Comanche Indian.” Twain offered to pay Grant 70 percent of book proceeds if he would sign with Webster & Company, Twain’s publishing company. Although Grant had not yet signed a book contract with Century, he felt obliged to honor his as-yet verbal agreement with Century. Twain talked him out of it.

As Grant settled into his writing routine, the words flowed more easily than he expected. But his throat bothered him. Some months earlier, while on a trip to a summer cottage, he had cried out in pain after biting a peach. A doctor found nothing amiss, but the pain not only refused to go away but grew worse. By October, his throat nagged him so much he went to see Dr. John H. Douglas, a specialist in New York. The doctor exuded admiration for Grant, then made a thorough examination and did not like what he saw. Grant may have noticed the concerned expression on his face. “Is it cancer?” asked the general. Probably, answered the doctor. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.

Alcohol may have damaged his reputation, but the cigars, it appears, took down Grant’s body with a ferocity he hadn’t experienced since the war. Grant’s throat cells were multiplying aggressively, starving normal cells for nutrients, laying siege. Grant could not win this civil war, one of the most intimate kind. Cancer was all but untreatable in those days. But the general could still battle. “This man fights,” Lincoln had once said of Grant. And so he did now.

Grant put every ounce of strength into writing, determined to leave his wife and family with a source of income when he was gone. He wrote diligently for four hours each morning. In the afternoon, one of his children would read it back or help check his facts. He insisted on getting everything right.

Twain visited whenever he could to read Grant’s drafts and offer encouragement and genuine praise. He remarked that only one writer in a hundred could write copy as clean as Grant’s. Twain was then reading Julius Caesar’s Commentaries and said, “The same high merits distinguished both books⁠—clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness, and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech.”

Not only could this man fight, he could write, too. He drew upon his keen memory for detail that had served him so well in war in accounts such as that of the lead up to the Battle of Petersburg:

“One of the most anxious periods of my experience during the rebellion was the last few weeks before Petersburg. I felt that the situation of the Confederate army was such that they would try to make an escape at the earliest practicable moment, and I was afraid, every morning, that I would awake from my sleep to hear that Lee had gone.”

Grant writing his memoirs, days before his death
Grant writing his memoirs, days before his death

The work was agonizing, as was the pain, especially from swallowing. When Grant could not sleep, his doctor applied muriate of cocaine to his throat, which brought instant relief. The doctor would turn Grant’s pillow to the cool side and instruct him to turn on his side and bring up his knees, sleeping as a child does.

Grant’s weight dropped from over 200 pounds to 130⁠—what he weighed as a young army commander. Back then, it was a sign of fitness. Now, emaciation. He chilled easily despite a shawl and knit cap. Twice a day, he went to see his doctor, by streetcar in order to save cab fare. He took morphine for the relentless pain. When that stopped working, his doctor gave him shots of brandy⁠—by hypodermic needle.

When not writing his memoirs, Grant found time for correspondence, including a farewell letter to his wife. “There are some matters about which I would like to talk but about which I cannot. The subject would be too painful,” he wrote on a sheet of paper hidden in a coat pocket, to be found after his death. “I bid you a final farewell until we meet in another, and I trust better world.”

Grant structured his memoirs into two volumes. The first he wrote entirely in longhand, in pencil, on blue-lined, yellow paper. As he began the second, he had weakened such that writing by hand took too much energy. At Twain’s suggestion, he hired a stenographer, Noble E. Dawson, the general’s former secretary then working for the U.S. Senate, who came up from Washington, D.C.

Dawson would later describe the experience:

“General Grant dictated very freely and easily. He made very few changes and never hemmed and hawed… As he went on his voice became weaker and weaker, and toward the last, I had to take my seat very close to his, and he whispered his words in my ear while I took them down in shorthand. His last dictation was on the 22nd of June, 1885… After this he would sit with his pad on his knee near me, and would write down his ideas and sometimes doodle. He was very weak, and his hand grew more and more trembling as he neared his death.”

In July 1885, Dawson told Grant’s son Fred that the writing was practically finished. Grant had written and edited the first volume and written the second, which others could edit. “I think we had better tell your father that the book is done,” Dawson advised.

Grant could hardly believe it. He asked that the entire work be read aloud. His children took turns obliging, but he was only strong enough to hear the first volume, by then too weak even to listen. He died a little past eight o’clock in the morning of 23 July 1885.

Grant had written 275,000 words in less than a year⁠—roughly three times the length of a typical novel, which an author might take several years to write. He lived just long enough to feel the relief any writer feels when completing a manuscript, but died before his memoirs were published. Grant would never know if his last venture to provide for his family would be a financial success or yet another failure.

Grant's tomb in Upper Manhattan
Grant’s tomb in Upper Manhattan

On 08 August 1885, Grant’s funeral procession began with the ringing of the bells of Trinity Church, directly across the street from 2 Wall Street. At that instant, a Western Union telegraph operator sent a signal to waiting receivers in towns across the U.S. and into Mexico so that all across North America, bells would ring 63 times, Grant’s age, at 30-second intervals.

The line of mourners marching slowly behind the casket stretched more than seven miles. Julia was too wrought with grief to be among them. In the four-person carriage at the head of the cortège rode Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, knee-to-knee with Confederate generals Joe Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner. It was a reunion once unthinkable. Now, former mortal rivals sat together, such was the universal admiration for Grant.

Four months later, the first printing of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant went on sale. Twain had orchestrated a clever subscription campaign so readers might pre-order one of three different bindings, each at a different price point, to maximize revenue. He suspected an adoring and grieving public was eager both to read Grant’s words and to help his wife. He was right.

Twain presented Julia Grant with a check for $200,000. It was then the largest royalty payment ever made and would be followed by more. In the end, she would receive roughly $450,000, or nearly $12 million in today’s dollars. Julia would pine the rest of her days for her beloved Ulys, but not for money. Ulysses S. Grant proved, at last, he could make money as a civilian, as a writer. His book remains in print to this day.

Foreign Exchange(s)

The long-forgotten story of Harry Dexter White, published by Damn Interesting on December 29, 2016

By the summer of 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel had been mothballed for two years. Nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, the sprawling resort was once a favorite getaway for wealthy New Englanders. But in the wake of the Great Depression and the second war to end all wars, the end appeared nigh for this silent relic of America’s Gilded Age.

Then the US Treasury department offered its owners a staggering $300,000 if they would host a conference⁠—to start in less than a month. An army of hotel workers and hastily recruited townspeople got to work. On the first of July, 730 delegates from 44 countries checked in and proceeded to conduct one of the most influential economic conferences of all time, carving into history the name of the sylvan outpost where it was held: Bretton Woods.

Known officially as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, the Bretton Woods talks focused primarily on foreign exchange rates (the price of US dollars, say, in British pounds) and other tedious minutia of monetary policy. With the world engulfed in war, few in those days were giving much thought to topics as arcane as these. But some people were giving it quite a lot of thought. One was US Treasury advisor Harry Dexter White, who had been toiling in relative obscurity to forge an exchange rate policy that all nations on earth would agree to. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.

Now the technocrat from humble roots was about to pull it off, earning recognition and his first official government title: Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury. Harry White would soon experience recognition of another sort, with his name splashed across newspaper headlines⁠—but for reasons having nothing to do with exchange rates, economics, or Bretton Woods.

One of the outcomes of World War 1 was, quite unfortunately, the setting of political and economic conditions that led to World War 2. There were many factors at play, but the isolationist policies of the United States⁠—such as its refusal to join the League of Nations⁠—certainly didn’t help. After the second world war the US would play a far more active political role on the world stage as a key member of the United Nations. Lesser known is how the US propelled itself into the economic center of the post-war world and indeed came to dominate global finance. The man chiefly responsible for this turnabout was a most unlikely fellow.

Harry Dexter White
Harry Dexter White

Harry Dexter White was born in 1892 to Lithuanian immigrants who ran a hardware store in Boston’s tenement district. He followed his father into the nuts and bolts business and quit his first attempt at college, returning to hardware until enlisting in the Army for an uneventful tour of duty in France during World War 1. At the age of thirty, White again strolled into the groves of academia, this time blossoming at Columbia University, then getting hooked on economics at Stanford, and finally earning his Ph.D. and a teaching position at Harvard.

Harry’s academic years were marked by decidedly liberal thinking. In the 1924 presidential race, he pledged his support to the long-shot Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette, who would run a distant third behind John Davis and victor Calvin Coolidge. His writing conveyed a passion for stabilizing economies, pointing to centralized control of trade as a potential model. Harry even went so far as to learn Russian so he might travel there to study it first hand.

But Harry would ultimately go to Washington instead. Frustrated with academia, he wanted to do more than just teach his big ideas. He wanted to put them into action. As such, he was only too happy to take advantage of an opportunity in 1934 to move to the nation’s capital to advise US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and, before long, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It was a perfect match. Neither Morgenthau nor FDR had much interest in (nor patience for) the tedium of economics. They needed someone who would work in the shadows doing endless research on arcane topics then put them into plain English. They needed what would later be known as a “wonk.” And Harry was the perfect wonk.

Much of Harry’s research centered on world trade problems brought on by the collapse of the gold standard in World War 1. This policy, whereby countries backed their currency with a fixed amount of gold, had been maintaining international price stability for quite a long time. It was conceived in 1717 by none other than Sir Isaac Newton, known famously (though apocryphally) for discovering gravity after a knock on the noggin from a falling apple. Newton gets little credit for his accomplishments, some quite impressive, as Master of the Royal Mint in London. But when one lays the groundwork for modern physics, these things happen.

With the gold standard, paper currency exists as a proxy for a country’s gold reserves. It can be tempting, however, for a country to print more money than it can back up with gold, say when it is at war. That’s what happened during World War 1. Countries needed urgently to buy armaments and pay their soldiers, and decided to unpeg their currency from gold and print as much money as they needed. As the world would soon learn, this can lead to all sorts of other problems, not the least of which is inflation. With more units of currency chasing the same quantity of stuff, the price of stuff goes up. Sometimes by quite a lot.

A United States gold certificate from 1928
A United States gold certificate from 1928

In the years between the two world wars, the price of currency fluctuated wildly⁠—and not just so a country could pay its bills. A country might launch a currency war to competitively devalue its currency, simply to make its products artificially cheaper. Even the United States fiddled with the price of gold, buying and selling it to artificially manipulate domestic prices, for reasons bordering on whimsical. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt one morning raised the price of gold by twenty-one cents. “It’s a lucky number,” he said from his bed, “because it’s three times seven.”

In September 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland. Two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany and the Second World War was underway. During the two years before officially joining the war, the United States provided massive support to Great Britain by way of the Lend Lease Program, in which the Americans essentially rented armaments to the British. It gave Great Britain a fighting chance, and put it into considerable debt, both financial and political, to the United States.

In December 1941, a mere two weeks after Pearl Harbor, US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau directed Harry White to draft a plan for economic stability following the end of the war. It was brashly forward-thinking and gave Harry Dexter White the opportunity of a lifetime. He got right to work.

What came to be known as the “White Plan” called for three things to be in place the moment the war ended: Massive capital to help war-torn countries rebuild, the resumption of international trade, and stable exchange rates. This last objective was vital. To achieve it, Harry White proposed renewal of the gold standard, fixing the value of all currency to the world’s most precious metal. Harry loved the gold standard.

Harry’s proposal was circulated among treasury officials around the world. But it was not the only one. The esteemed British economist and author John Maynard Keynes (pronounced “canes”) wrote a competing proposal. Unlike Harry, Keynes was well known and respected, even by the general public. Keynes also had an opinion of the gold standard. He hated it.

Born into British privilege, as a young boy Keynes suffered a weak constitution but showed preternatural intellect. On at least one occasion, he infused family prayers with math, using algebraic symbols to represent his mother and younger brother. “Let Mother equal x,” he intoned, “and let Geoffrey equal y”. By the age of 26 John Maynard Keynes had already earned a lifetime appointment at King’s College in Cambridge.

Like White, Keynes found his greatest calling in the field of economics. His genius and creative approach to solving the most challenging quantitative problems was compared to that of Albert Einstein. He titled what became perhaps his most influential book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

In the depths of the greatest war of all time, responsibility for post-war economic stability rested on the shoulders of these two men from starkly different backgrounds. The Keynes proposal centered on the idea of a new global currency. He called his proposed currency bancor, French for “bank gold.” Unlike traditional currency, the bancor was to be exchanged only among central banks. Private transactions would continue to use national currencies, each of which was to be equivalent to a fixed number of bancors. Nations could buy bancors with gold but not redeem them for gold, thus retiring the traditional role of the precious metal. Keynes was in essence proposing a gold standard with gold replaced by the bancor.

White, left, and Keynes, right
White, left, and Keynes, right

The White proposal called for a gold standard based on gold, and gold-convertible currency, just like the old days. Or so it seemed. Keynes was concerned about the meaning of the term “gold-convertible currency.” Might any member currency be convertible? Or only one? Or perhaps bancor?

White dodged the question. He would not answer Keynes, and instead suggested any further clarification be deferred to a conference of representatives from all allied nations. Keynes had no choice but to go along, but did make clear that he would not support any policy whereby only the US dollar was to be convertible to gold. However that is precisely what Harry White had in mind.

In addition to forging an agreement on exchange rates, there was also the matter of how to enforce it. White wanted the US to run a new body, to be named the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to see that nations adhered to what would come to be known as the Bretton Woods system. He allowed that Great Britain could run the much less influential World Bank, then known as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to lend money to developing countries and those recovering from the war. Keynes wanted it the other way around. Compared to the IMF, the World Bank position seemed like a consolation prize.

Although 730 delegates from 44 countries converged on Bretton Woods, most of them could just as well have stayed on the golf course. Many in fact did. The essential negotiations were between the United States and Great Britain. And both sides had good reason for confidence in getting their way.

Great Britain had the celebrity economist John Maynard Keynes as their chief negotiator. They could also simply walk away, should negotiations fail, and the idea of getting nations to agree to any international accord absent Great Britain was all but preposterous. They also had great national pride, stiff upper lips, and a quiet disregard for American intellect. Winston Churchill once summarized British respect for the United States by remarking that “we can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

The United States had plenty of negotiating power of their own, even in the midst of a world war. For starters the US was then the largest creditor nation on earth and it held two-thirds of the world’s gold in its reserves (in stark contrast to today, where the US is among the top debtor nations). They also had a massive IOU from the British for the food, oil, and materiel the US furnished in the war effort. And in Harry White they had a chief negotiator willing to use procedural manipulation and outright deception in order to get his way.

The practical objective of the Bretton Woods conference was to get 44 signatures on a document, known as the Joint Statement, containing the terms of a new international agreement. Delegates were organized into committees to hash out nuances of a working draft of the agreement, a draft which so far left unanswered the question of which currency was to be convertible to gold. The draft in fact made no mention of a gold-convertible currency at all, indicating only that the value of member nation currency be “expressed in terms of gold.”

Delegates in a meeting
Delegates in a meeting

Then, just before the meeting of a committee Harry knew Keynes could not attend due to a cleverly-designed scheduling conflict, Harry added the words “gold-convertible currency” to the draft. Great Britain was represented on this committee by delegate Dennis Robertson, who in verbal discussion allowed that, for practical purposes, it was acceptable “to regard the United States dollar as what was intended when we speak of gold convertible exchange.” It was all Harry needed.

When it came time to prepare the final draft of the Joint Statement, the document for signature, Harry directed his staff to finally spell out his intention by replacing “gold” with “gold and U.S. dollars” throughout the 96-page document. Delegates saw this version of the Joint Statement only as they were asked to sign it, some literally as they were checking out of the hotel, with no opportunity to see the change. Keynes would not know what White had done until well after everyone had departed Bretton Woods.

Via questionable machinations, Harry Dexter White had prevailed. And now there was to be just one currency that meant anything to most of the world, the US dollar, convertible to gold at a rate of $35 per ounce. The agreement made at Bretton Woods elevated the US dollar from a national currency to a global one, moved the financial center of the world from London to Washington, and established two governing bodies that influence world economics to this day. But although the US did indeed get what it wanted at the Bretton Woods conference, its intentions would soon be thwarted by a most unexpected turn of events.

At the time of the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were still comparatively good. They were among the allied forces, after all, that would soon defeat Adolf Hitler and bring an end to World War II. But with the breakdown of the Yalta accords in February 1945, those relations went decidedly sour. Thus began the Cold War, suspicions of espionage, and a rabid hunt for spies.

In November 1945, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a memo to the White House claiming that seven government officials were providing secret information to Soviet agents. One of those named was Treasury Department rock star and architect of the Bretton Woods conference: Harry Dexter White.

It’s unclear whether or not the memo made it to President Harry Truman, who had ascended to the office upon FDR’s death the year before. In any event, in January 1946, Truman nominated White to be the US executive director at the IMF. This was no surprise given White’s leadership at Bretton Woods. Indeed, Truman planned to later nominate White for the IMF’s top job, managing director, a nomination that would have sailed through but for the next communiqué from the FBI.

Alarmed by news of White’s nomination, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover then prepared a new and detailed memo focusing on the allegations against Harry White. According to Hoover, White was reportedly providing Treasury documents to known Soviet agents. The report claimed to be based on numerous sources but did not provide iron-clad proof of any wrongdoing. Unlike the first memo, this one certainly did make it to the president. Truman didn’t know what to believe. No big fan of Hoover, nor of the overzealous hunt for spies that put the careers of honest people at risk of ruin, he let the nomination stand.

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

The president did agree to quietly move White into a position with more limited access to government secrets⁠—just in case⁠—and he made a startling offer: Britain could appoint a head for the IMF after all, and the United States would do the same for the World Bank. The US did not give a reason. The American change of tune was an official diplomatic communiqué along the lines of, “Just kidding about the IMF thing!” The British did not question the turnaround and wasted no time in delivering an official diplomatic response along the lines of, “Sure!”

Harry Dexter White expressed outrage at the allegations of espionage. He had never even heard of the supposed informants ratting him out, he claimed, and was most certainly not a spy for the Soviets. The claims seemed particularly far-fetched considering his accomplishment at Bretton Woods, making the United States arguably the most powerful nation on earth. Would he have tried so hard if his true allegiance was to another country?

In August of 1948, White put on a rousing performance in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the US Congressional investigative body which would come to be known for flimsy accusations and political grandstanding in its relentless pursuit of Communists. HUAC had not summoned Harry White. Such was his eagerness to clear his name, Harry White had in fact asked for permission to testify. His opening statement of complete denial of the accusations, and of his steady support for all things American, was answered by spirited applause from the audience. Committee members remained stone-faced.

White deflected charges with confidence, facts, and indeed tried to discredit HUAC itself, equating its hearings to unlawful “star chamber proceedings.” When a young Congressman on the committee named Richard Nixon prodded him to admit knowing his chief accusers, Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, he was steadfast. No, he repeated, he could not recollect knowing anyone by those names.

His bravado performance in front of HUAC did not come without a cost. On the train home to New York he suffered terrible chest pains. White’s doctor diagnosed a heart attack. He died the next day. Rumors naturally swirled among his detractors of some sort of take-out by the Soviets, or that his death had been faked, but such hearsay was never substantiated.

The witch hunt for Soviet spies among American government officials and cultural elite continued with inglorious gusto. The scourge known as McCarthyism, named for Senator Joe McCarthy, would ruin numerous careers before being written into American history as one of its darker chapters. But Harry Dexter White’s name would not be among them. He had stood up to the red-baiting and prevailed.

Harry Dexter White swearing the oath
Harry Dexter White swearing the oath

Revolutionary as it was, the Bretton Woods accord would not last all that long. It was not fully operational until 1958. And soon its fatal flaw started to show. While it did insulate global prices from unwise monetary and fiscal policies of member nations, the glaring exception was the United States. The global regime would work only so long as the US exercised impeccable economic discipline at home. This meant the US had to resist the urge to get out of economic binds by printing money.

In the 1960s, other countries began to suspect the US was indeed giving in to such temptation⁠— that it was printing more money than it had gold to back up, owing in no small part to the extraordinary financial cost (not to mention human cost) of the war in Vietnam. This did not sit well with other countries. They were particularly bothered by the fact the United States, to produce more of its currency, need only fire up the printing presses. Any other nation had to actually produce goods.

Not only were these other nations perturbed, they also had to confront the very real risk that their US dollars would one day not be redeemable for gold. So in the 1960s, other countries, led by France, began redeeming US dollars for gold in rather large quantities.

In 1971, with US gold reserves at frighteningly low levels, President Richard Nixon took an axe to the central tenet of the Bretton Woods accord: the convertibility of US dollars to gold. This time, there was no conference in the woods and little or no meaningful consultation with other countries. There was only a unilateral action that came to be known as the Nixon Shock.

From that day forward, the price of most world currency has floated freely⁠—and sometimes wildly⁠—in response to market forces. A number of countries such as Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia kept (and still keep) their currency pegged to the US dollar, backed by nothing more than the full faith and credit of the United States. And some countries such as Panama and Zimbabwe simply use US dollars as their own legal tender.

Nixon’s action was not without consequence. Freed of the Bretton Woods shackles, the US could give up the pretense of having enough gold to back up its currency. The United States dollar was now a fiat currency, from the Latin term for “let it become,” created by decree. Uncle Sam could print all the dollars he wanted, and he wasted no time doing just that.

When money is created out of thin air there is suddenly more of it to allocate to the things it can buy. Prices go up not as a consequence of demand or value but only because there are more dollars to spread around. It is little surprise, then, that inflation went through the roof in the early 1970s. Subjected to pure market forces since 1971, major currencies have also more than once been the target of powerful speculation, when well-heeled traders place enormous bets aimed at artificially lowering the price of currency for their personal gain.

Most nations today are on their own when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy. And the price of gold and US dollars remain to this day free of artificial constraint, moving in response to the ebbs, flows, shocks, and follies of an ever turbulent world economy.

Harry Dexter White never lived to see his Bretton Woods creation put into action, nor of course its demise. It’s a good bet Richard Nixon’s opinion of Bretton Woods was not bolstered by his personal opinion of Harry Dexter White. From his days on HUAC onward, Nixon believed White lied to the committee. He believed White was being quite intentional and clever when he prefixed his denial of having known his accusers Chambers and Bentley with “I have no recollection of…” Nixon believed the architect of Bretton Woods was a Soviet spy.

Whittaker Chambers
Whittaker Chambers

It turns out he was right.

Harry Dexter White was indeed guilty of funneling secrets to the Soviets. He did it for quite a long time. His chief accuser was Whittaker Chambers, an editor for Time magazine and one-time Soviet agent who had renounced Communism and ratted out others, most famously senior US State Department official Alger Hiss. And White was no minor informant. According to Chambers, White’s “role as a Soviet agent was second in importance only to that of Alger Hiss⁠—if, indeed, it was second.”

According to Chambers, Harry White began providing him Treasury documents as early as 1935. White had access to not only the most sensitive Treasury documents, but to confidential documents provided by other departments of the US government. White would also provide the occasional summary of information he thought useful and his opinions on how best to reform the Soviet monetary system.

The evidence against White was extensive. The FBI gathered more than thirteen thousand pages of it⁠—much of it quite solid, including eight pages of notes in handwriting the FBI demonstrated was Harry White’s. Some evidence only came to light in 1995 with the release of transcripts of Soviet intelligence cables. These so-called “Venona transcripts” included revelations of internal discussions by members of the US delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations, revelations made to the Soviets by one of those members, Harry Dexter White.

It’s not clear what motivated White’s espionage. Some say he was out to secretly undermine American policy to help the Soviets, others that his actions were mostly appropriate, but that he occasionally crossed the line. It’s noteworthy too that he began passing information a decade before the US and Soviet became nuclear rivals. But it’s clear he shared confidential information he should not have, and that he knew he’d be in trouble were his actions revealed.

One of the more astonishing revelations in the Venona transcripts concerned White’s role in Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor. In late 1941 the Soviets wanted badly for the US to enter the war and, through intermediaries, enticed White to recommend to FDR that he deliver an ultimatum to Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The Soviets knew the one thing sure to tick off the Emperor was an ultimatum.

There were of course many factors leading up to Japan’s attack, but there is no dispute that White authored the ultimatum FDR delivered to Japan. The emperor decided promptly upon reading it to proceed with plans to bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As they did with many of their operations, the Soviets gave a nickname to this plan to draw the US into World War II. They named it Operation Snow⁠—as in Snow White.

The Soviets did not compensate White with money⁠—doing so would not be very Communist of them⁠—but with gifts. Delivery of the gifts, however, did not always go according to plan. According to author Benn Steil:

“One day (likely in 1945) a carpenter in Washington received a container of caviar at his house. Then a case of vodka was delivered. Then came an engraved invitation in the mail to attend a social event at the Soviet embassy. The carpenter was dumbfounded. Finally came a telephone call from a Harry Dexter White at the U.S. Treasury. The carpenter was also named Harry White. The Treasury-White had traced his misdirected presents. He proposed that carpenter-White send him half the goods and keep the other half. “I was going to send them all back to him,” the carpenter told a reporter. “But I thought,” after reflecting on his talk with Treasury-White, that “he’s the kind of fellow, that if I send them all back, will still think that I kept half. So I did.”

In 1997 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan led a commission that reviewed the Venona cables. Among their conclusions was that “the complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled. As does that of Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department.”

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank remain powerful institutions to this day, though not without fierce critics and growing competition⁠—the Asian Development Bank has dozens of member nations and quite a lot of money at its disposal. From time to time, there are calls for a new Bretton Woods, and perhaps one day there will be a global economic accord that includes the likes of China and India, the latter of which was still a colony of Great Britain in 1944.

If there is one day another conference like Bretton Woods, it’s a safe bet attending nations will read the final text thoroughly before agreeing, and give their representatives at the negotiating table a thorough background check.

Considering the farmworker: What I’ve learned

I’m a Wall Street technology manager. Two years ago I set out, citizen journalist style, to learn and write about people whose lives are very different from mine: migrant farmworkers. These are the men, women and children who harvest most of the fresh produce you see at America’s grocery stores.

I’ll share what I learned with the caveat I am but one observer who learned much of this secondhand, from farmworker advocates, social workers and others. My Spanish isn’t good enough to converse at length with farmworkers, though I did speak with a few and visited forty or so labor camps. I’ve not spoken with a single farm owner, or grower, who hires these workers. And though I’ve read nearly all the articles and books I can get my hands on I’ve certainly not read everything. So with that out of the way, here’s what I believe to be true.

There are around a million farmworkers in the United States, give or take a hundred thousand. Most are from Mexico or Nicaragua. Desperate for work, most risked their lives crossing into the United States. Many still refer to such immigrants as “illegal” but I’m with those who prefer “undocumented.” How can a human life be against the law?

Most farmworkers are truly migrant, moving from one corner of the country to another, following the work and living in temporary labor camps. Some workers stay put year-round. These are known as seasonal farmworkers and they tend to find non-agricultural work in the winter.

Most camps I’ve been to are sad places: filthy and ill-maintained, some with outhouses and water unsafe to drink. Don’t expect to see one yourself. Most are well out of the view of any highway, hidden beyond trees or down long dirt roads.

Farmworkers are paid very little, sometimes less than minimum wage, because someone desperate for work and ever fearful of deportation is easily exploited in this way. Some are hired directly by a grower but many are hired by contratistas or nickeleros who shield growers from direct responsibility for their workers. Some of these middlemen, if stories I’ve heard are true, are unspeakably cruel.

The paltry pay, by and large, is not due to unkind growers or contractors. It’s a system thing. U.S. growers must accept crop prices dictated by massive grocery chains and fast food buyers. These oligopolists will of course point the finger of blame at you and me: consumers who will almost always prefer the tomato or hamburger with the lowest price. And they are right.

Farmworkers on H2A temporary work visas, sometimes called guest workers, earn an hourly wage set by law, ranging from $10.00 to $13.59 depending on the state. They tend to live in nicer quarters as well. Still the program has plenty of critics. Growers think it’s overly bureaucratic. And labor advocates don’t like how guest workers are forced to remain with one employer, incenting abuse.

Naturally, most farmworkers stay mum about their job conditions no matter how bad. One exception is the man I heard last summer as he stood in front of two visiting Members of British Parliament and a U.S. Congresswoman. He told of standing atop a mobile tobacco harvester, dizzy from nearby pesticide spray. Miscalculating his reach, his hand went under the belt and into the gear mechanism. It chopped off his fingertip like a cigar cutter. It was hours before he made it to the hospital—the grower refused to take him—where he racked up a bill he couldn’t pay. Because he was fired.

Migrant farmwork is not slavery and farmworkers are not slaves. Still, as I consider all this, I can’t help but hear echoes of slavery, especially in the South where the economic reliance on ultra-cheap labor was ingrained back when slaves really did all this work. Consider the agricultural exemptions to federal labor laws.

Did you know farmworkers are not entitled to overtime pay? That there are different child labor laws for farmworkers? Kids as young as 12, in some cases 10, can work legally in the fields, subject to heat stroke, pesticide exposure and a long list of other health and safety risks. And when school is out children can work around the clock without breaking any laws.

The exemptions have been around since 1938. That’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to include them in the Fair Labor Standards Act to appease the South. Slavery had been abolished decades earlier but practices like debt peonage and share-cropping kept farmworker wages ultralow. The South liked it that way. It still does.

My lesson in migrant farmwork makes me think of Martin Luther King’s observation about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. The occupational discrimination against farmworkers in America is clearly unjust.

I know better than to expect sweeping changes any time soon. Republicans now control most state governments in the South, and both houses of Congress in Washington, and it’s usually the other party who makes things right for the working class in this country. Raising the federal minimum wage remains a pipe dream, as does immigration reform.

What to do with this knowledge? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that arc of history. I truly believe it does bend toward justice. But it is, indeed, long.

A farmworker relaxing on his tractor at sunset
Photos by Michael Durbin

The Nice Camp

VolleyballAtNiceCampFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Last summer I accompanied some college students doing educational and health care outreach at migrant farmworker camps. They were generally dismal places, ill-maintained and no place I’d ever want to spend the night.

Except for one.

It was mid July. Hot. I’d been traveling all day with Julie King and Danny Guzman-Ramos, interns with Student Action with Farmworkers, trying to register young workers for ESL classes. After several hours of hopscotching the South Carolina blacktop they had managed to register a grand total of one, living in a trailer with failing siding and a yard littered with garbage. This was a familiar site.

The front porch of another camp was strewn with beer cans, dirty laundry, and filth. At another place, a courteous but uninterested farmworking mom spoke to Danny through a screen door with holes big enough for birds to get through. On other days I had seen much worse.

Fatigued and growing miserable in the heat, Danny and Julie decided to ditch the rest of their leads. They would go instead to a peach grower’s camp where they had already registered the workers for classes, this time to conduct an interview for a documentary project.

The decision changed everything. For the first time that day they seemed genuinely excited and I soon found out why.

We rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel road, the last few pebbles crunching under our wheels. The expanse of grass surrounding the squat white building was the first I’d seen that qualified as an actual lawn. It wasn’t fancy but had clearly been mowed. And there wasn’t a spec of litter in sight.

Danny and Julie were met by a pair of men with smiles that wrapped their weather-worn faces. I couldn’t follow the rapid Spanish but the body language was clear: These people were happy to see one another.

While Danny went inside to recruit someone to interview, Julie headed to the volleyball net. Volleyball? Soon she was punching the ball to a guy on the other side, who lost sight of it in the glare of a setting sun now falling toward peach trees surrounding the camp. He laughed.

I saw things here I hadn’t seen at other camps: A pair of clean washing machines on a covered porch—they looked new. Rows of clothes lines, draped with shirts and pants, were rocked in unison by a warm breeze coming off the orchard. One worker sat on a tractor, watching the orange sun now kissing the tops of the peach trees, enjoying the simple passage of time in a gorgeous setting.

Interview_miniThe interview went off without a hitch and was followed by friendly banter inside a screened-in porch where I took in the surroundings: Clean tables. A swept floor. A bright clean kitchen with a professional stove—a Viking, the kind you see in restaurant kitchens.

Why was this camp for migrant farmworkers so nice when so many are such filthy hovels?

This was a camp for workers on H-2A guest worker visas. The government requires housing at these camps to meet certain standards. I’m told these standards are not always enforced, but here I imagine the grower was well in compliance and maybe then some (I doubt the program requires Viking stoves and volleyball nets).

The H-2A program is not without controversy. Detractors say it doesn’t address the much bigger problem of poor living and working conditions for undocumented workers (only 10% or so of migrant workers are here on H-2As) and even its proponents decry the H-2A bureaucratic complexities. I’m still learning about the program and don’t have a strong opinion.

I just wish every migrant farmworker in America could come off the fields at the end of a day to a place like this.

A version of this essay appeared on the Farmworker Advocacy Network blog on July 12, 2014

The lives of child farmworkers in their own pictures and words

FromOurHandsCUFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Each year, a little-known contest by a little-known agency in Washington, DC lets children of migrant farmworkers portray their lives in essays and drawings.

The annual contest by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs invites these children to submit essays and artwork for judging by a panel, with winners announced on the AFOP website and honored at the association’s annual conference. This year it was in San Diego. AFOP spokesperson Norma Flores described the experience:

“I could see the spark in their eyes as they received their awards at the conference.” As a former farmworker herself, she can relate to the importance of such recognition.

“It really does leave an impression, for them to know someone believes in them, which makes such a difference in their lives.”

It’s too bad the contest doesn’t reach more kids. Apparently only a few hundred or so of the 400 to 500 thousand migrant farmworking children even know about it.

Here’s hoping that changes.

Working in the fields is all we know, it’s all we think we’re good at, it’s what we do to survive… Falling behind in my studies is the main problem that I face every time I move from state to state… during my freshmen year I attended four high schools.

Zulema Lopez, 17 Laredo, TX

I feel as if I am going to faint but I know I can’t stop working… Sometimes I want to scream at the top of my lungs because the next day will be just the same. I hate the fact that no one thinks we can be anything but migrant workers

Veronica Rodriguez, age 15, Michigan

Jaqueline Vargas, 14, San Luis, AZ
Jaqueline Vargas, 14, San Luis, AZ

Javier Alejandro Soto-Gonzalez, 16, Bakersfield, CA
Javier Alejandro Soto-Gonzalez, 16, Bakersfield, CA

Jose Luis Mendoza, 12, Salinas, CA
Jose Luis Mendoza, 12, Salinas, CA

Father Tony

FrT_HandsClaspedFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

He’s collected a small mountain of donated toothbrushes and T-shirts but what he really needs are pants: About four thousand pair.

Father Jesus Antonio Rojas, known by all as Father Tony, runs the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, North Carolina. From an airy facility about an hour south of Raleigh, he and a small staff provide a long list of services to nearly 4,000 migrant farmworkers who live in temporary labor camps off the highway, all but invisible to passersby.

UNC students fill bags
UNC students fill bags

Last week my daughter Greta and I helped fill 400 grocery bags with those shirts and toothbrushes, alongside visiting college students from UNC and Duke.

Father Tony knows workers who miss a day of work waiting for their only pair of pants to dry on a clothesline. And waiting for the weekend doesn’t help when you work seven days a week. He prays now for a pants donor, so he can give an extra pair to every worker.

Our bag-stuffing was guided by Lucia, Father Tony’s wife and navigator of the white van that later hauled those bags to four camps. We followed, caravan style.

The sun sets over the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC as volunteers prepare to deliver supplies to migrant farmworker camps
The sun sets over the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC as volunteers prepare to deliver supplies to migrant farmworker camps

“Muchachos! Muchachos!” Father Tony yelled from an open window as he rolled the van to a stop, beeping the horn. Soon he was introducing us to the workers and guiding the distribution of goods.

A typical farmworker bedroom
A typical farmworker bedroom

We couldn’t help notice the squalid conditions. Kitchens were filthy. Rows of toilets lacked stalls. At one camp, a foul-smelling dumpster sat just outside the open windows of the rooms where men have to sleep.

There are thought to be at least 100,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. Nationwide there are more than a million, many living in conditions barely suitable for animals.

Father Tony doesn’t blame the farm operators, known as growers, who hire and house these men, women and, sometimes, children. He tells me how busy they are “with so many, many problems” to worry about. “They try to give workers the best they can.”

Father Tony helps a Duke student distribute clothing at a camp
Father Tony helps a Duke student distribute clothing at a camp

Clearly some growers try harder than others, but he’s wise in not pointing fingers at the growers. This is a system problem. Even we the people who enjoy the sweet potatoes and everything else provided by these men and women working for low pay and living in squalor share responsibility. We are part of the problem.

But we are also the solution. That’s the message I get from listening to Father Tony and watching him work, that we all have the capacity to help improve the lives of farmworkers, the poorest of America’s working poor, to whom he has devoted his life’s work.

Father Tony briefing farmworkers on pending immigration reform in the summer of 2013
Father Tony briefing farmworkers on pending immigration reform in the summer of 2013

“Farmworkers are a miracle,” Father Tony told me on an earlier visit. “A gift from God. Without them we have no life.”

I asked Father Tony what he wants most for the farmworkers—beyond a few thousand pair of sturdy pants. His answer? Recognition. Simple awareness of their existence by people like you and me.

“These are the most important people in the world,” he tells me, emphasizing words as if he can’t understand why this is obvious only to him.

“They feed us,” he continues. “And they are so near us. But people don’t know.”

Father Tony knows he can’t do much about that part of the problem. But he knows what part he can address. He knows where the camps are and what the farmworkers need, and he does an amazing job at getting it to them.

But he can sure use those pants.


Photos by Michael Durbin

A Chavez for here and now

20140810_BVelasquezAtFLOCFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

For many migrant farmworkers, things haven’t changed much since the 1970s when the legendary activist Cesar Chavez co-founded, with Dolores Huerta, the union known today as the United Farm Workers.

Today in North Carolina and surrounding states, the people working one of the most dangerous jobs in America live in squalor. They enjoy few of the legal protections everyone else takes for granted, such as the right to overtime pay. They are paid the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but only if the contractista or nickelero or other middleman between grower and worker doesn’t take a cut.

Why didn’t the Chavez-era changes help these farmworkers? Because California, where most UFW members live and work, is a very different place from North Carolina. As a right-to-work state unions are not welcome here. But that’s not stopping Baldemar Velasquez.

Like Cesar Chavez, the 67-year-old Velasquez knows first-hand what it’s like to be a farmworker. He started at age 6.

“The alternative was not eating,” Velasquez tells me, going on to describe a “conversion experience” in which he realized that his loss of childhood, and personal experience of abuse, called him to become the tireless spokesperson he is today.

He does a good job at it.

A 1989 recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Velasquez is the co-founder with his father of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC. Based in Toledo Ohio, this little-known union succeeded, after years of activism, strikes, and boycotting, in bringing unionization to workers for Campbell’s, Heinz, and other major buyers of agricultural products.

“We almost doubled the wages of the workers,” Velasquez says of the their success in Ohio. “We got the kids, instead of languishing in the labor camps, into Head Start and extended the hours to 6pm instead of 3 so parents could work a full day. And we renovated 65 or 70% of the squalor in labor camps thru a public-private partnership.”

In the late 1990s FLOC expanded to North Carolina. After a five-year boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company (“Don’t spend a nickel on a Mount Olive Pickle”) they signed a contract with the company and the North Carolina Growers Association, bringing union protections to some 7,000 workers in the Tarheel state.

But these represent but a small percent of all farmworkers in the region.

Earlier this year FLOC launched a campaign to sign up 5,000 new members during the 2014 harvest season. Six nights a week teams of organizers borrowed mostly from affiliated labor organizations fan out to camps—mostly run-down trailer homes and dilapidated houses—to educate workers about the benefits of joining the union. As of a few weeks ago they had signed up just under 1,000.

The union’s biggest obstacle? Worker fear.

FLOC Vice President Justin Flores speaks to union members at a meeting in Dudley, NC.
FLOC Vice President Justin Flores speaks to union members at a meeting in Dudley, NC.

According to FLOC Vice President Justin Flores, the first thing most workers ask when visited by an organizer is how FLOC can ensure they won’t be fired for joining the union. According to numerous FLOC officials, farmworkers are under constant threat of retaliation if they should speak out about working conditions, squalor in the camp, or wage theft.

Flores can rattle off a long list of examples they’ve heard about: Firing. Deportation. The worst? Contractors who remind the workers they know where their wives and children live back in back in Mexico or Guatemala, then suggesting or outright vowing to make their families suffer should the farmworker not do as he’s told.

This summer’s campaign has not been easy. In addition to farmworkers stifled by fear, their employers have not exactly rolled out the welcome mat. I wrote earlier about organizer Raul Jimenez handcuffed by a sheriff. Another team of organizers was briefly detained against their will, unable to leave the grower’s property until cell phone calls to the police made the threat-mongering detainers come to their senses. And FLOC’s Oscar Sanchez took a punch to his face from a representative of the North Carolina Grower’s Association—you can watch it on YouTube.

FLOC has singled out the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for accountability, portraying them as partly responsible for the status quo. The company is one of the largest buyer of North Carolina tobacco and could use its influence among growers, FLOC believes, to bring about change.

Velasquez wants Reynolds to recognize the union, to engage the third-party Dunlop Commission (as FLOC did in Ohio) to establish rules such as how workers can raise concerns without fear of retaliation, and to provide incentives to its growers to sign contracts with the union.

Baldemar Velasquez is ready to bring his plea to American consumers, and not just tobacco users. FLOC is considering boycotts of major outlets of Reynolds tobacco products: Convenience stores Kangaroo, WaWa and 7 Eleven.

If the boycott proceeds, customers of those chains will be asked to buy their gasoline and Slurpees somewhere else.

A spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment for this story beyond what is on their website. There, the company emphasizes that it does not employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco. It describes efforts “to ensure that our suppliers have the training and resources they need to do the right thing for the people who play an important role in our supply chain.” These include efforts to assess conditions of its farmworkers and educate its growers.

Velasquez shrugs off these efforts as “diversionary” and missing the point. Farmworkers need a voice, he reiterates.

“When men and women are not recognized and don’t have a forum to make their claims, they can’t talk about health and safety or trafficking or any of these other symptoms, like child labor.”

It’s all about having a process of recognition, says Velasquez. “If you don’t have that you don’t have nothin’.”

American history may be on the side of Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC and North Carolina farmworkers. The Chavez lettuce and grape boycotts of the 1970s brought changes to the Western farmworker few could have imagined. FLOC itself can point to success in Ohio. And the 2001 boycott of Taco Bell by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers forced their parent company to sign on to the famously successful Fair Food Program, in which tomato buyers vow to pay “a penny a pound” more for tomatoes to benefit pickers in Florida. Even Walmart signed on, earlier this year.

With income inequality at record levels and growing media coverage of the plight of the American farmworker, the time may be right for Baldemar Velasquez to call for those boycotts to force a change.

It’s worked before and may soon work again.

FLOC union members and staff preparing for contract negotiations
FLOC union members and staff preparing for contract negotiations

The Secret Lives of America’s Migrant Farmers


Published on Narratively on September 3, 2014

An innovative college program opens privileged young eyes to the million undocumented laborers who toil away in an invisible America. Story and photos by Michael Durbin

It’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.

“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.

I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.

Loosely affiliated with Duke University, SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps as interns with various educational, legal and healthcare agencies.

The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented migrant farmworkers in the U.S. and the issues they face: workplace hazards, inadequate housing, low wages.

Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.

Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?”

“There’s Delaney’s, in Five Points,” answers Christine Burke. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where Eric will be based. “They have pint nights on Wednesday.”

“Delaney’s. Got it.”

At twenty-one, Eric is among the oldest here. He is deep-voiced, slim and fit — an avid soccer player since age four — and wears glasses on a face rarely devoid of a smile. When I ask what brought him here he doesn’t hesitate:

“For me it’s all about the language.”

Eric’s Spanish is already quite good for a non-native. He started learning it in kindergarten, when his parents enrolled him in a Spanish immersion elementary school. But Eric is considering a career in the foreign service and needs all the practice he can get.

Around half of the Safistas are already fluent in Spanish. It’s their native language. Unlike Eric, these Safistas come from farmworking families. Working with SAF broadens their view of farmworker issues beyond their personal experience. Their participation also allows Safistas from more privileged backgrounds to learn about the farmworker experience not only from workers the meet in the fields, but from their peers as well.

Eric Britton was born in June 1992 — the very month SAF first sent students into the fields. Every summer since, while Safistas worked in some of the poorest counties in America where farmworkers live, Eric was growing up in one of the wealthiest.

Montgomery County, Maryland, lies just outside of Washington, D.C. Its tonier parts are home to country clubs, houses with seven-digit price tags and private schools where tuition can top $30,000. Eric and his two sisters went to public school in Rockville, one of the county’s more middle-class areas. Their upbringing on a tree-canopied street was typical of the area: nice brick house, weekend movies at the Regal cinema and summer vacations to places like the Florida Keys. He took up skydiving when he turned eighteen, something he enjoys now whenever he can.

Eric Britton spent his summer working as a Safista - an intern for Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).
Eric Britton spent his summer working as a Safista – an intern for Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).

After five rainy days in Efland, the 2013 Safistas pack their cars and disperse across a multi-state triangle spanning both Carolinas and some of Virginia, an area of more than 70,000 square miles. SAF estimates there are roughly 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, the majority of them undocumented, and two to three million nationally (other estimates put the number closer to one million).

Eric calls his parents and says he’ll be working for the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Columbia, a two-hour drive from the College of Charleston, where he’ll be a senior this fall.

Authorized by Congress in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, the MEP provides educational services — from supplemental classes to private tutoring — to migrant children who struggle to keep up as they move from one school to another.

“I think I’ll be translating documents and helping teachers,” Eric tells his parents.

He’s right about the Columbia part. The rest is just a guess, and not a very good one.

Eric is assigned to the Lowcountry District of the South Carolina MEP. His training in a sleek office tower in Columbia is brief and loaded with jargon: His job is to ID and R (identify and register) OSYs (out of school youth) on COEs (Certificates of Enrollment) then return to camps to teach ESL (English as a Second Language). That’s about the extent of formal training.

Zach Taylor is Eric's supervisor at the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which used SAF interns for this first time this year.
Zach Taylor is Eric’s supervisor at the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which used SAF interns for this first time this year.

Most of what he learns comes during ride-alongs with his supervisor, Zach Taylor. In contrast to Eric’s slim frame, Zach Taylor has the upper body of a weightlifter. With his Anglo skin and crew-cut hair, farmworkers used to mistake him for a cop. He fixed that by buying a baseball cap with Viva Mexico! on the bill. He never goes to a camp without it.

Zach is only a few years older than Eric. When he was fifteen, his father, an English teacher, moved the family from a small town in Maryland to Costa Rica, where Zach developed a fluency for Spanish and Latin American culture.

This is the first year the MEP is using SAF interns, and when Zach heard about it he had some doubts. Could they handle the long hours? The minimal supervision? Were they only here to grind a political axe or make a statement about social justice?

Zach knows as well as anyone how bad farmworkers have it, but he can’t stand so-called “toxic charity” where wealthy people give stuff away or drop in for a vacation service project. He thinks what farmworkers need most is empowerment. And that, he learned from his dad, begins with education.

Eric peers at a Google Earth map that Zach uses to record locations of farmworker camps across the state.

Fiddling with the controls, Eric thinks how easy this job will be with a map like this. “Which ones do we hit first?” he asks.

“Dude. These have already been ID and R’d,” says Zach. “That’s how they got on the map. You gotta find new camps.”

The term “camp” is misleading. It just refers to any place a farmworker might live. Finding a camp is all about profiling, Zach explains. You look for clues at rundown houses and trailers on the side of the road: clotheslines, cars with out-of-state plates and windows covered with sheets.

“I remember the first house we stopped at,” recalls Eric. “The house was right on the highway. Very run down, and a sewer line just coming right out the side of the house. There was sewage spreading onto the yard.”

A migrant farmer's home in North Carolina.
A migrant farmer’s home in North Carolina.

Inside was a Latino family with four young kids. Eric filled out COE forms as Zach explained the education program to the family and handed out extras he always keeps in the car: hygiene kits containing things like diapers, wipes, toothpaste. The mom was delighted and Eric was impressed.

“She called her two sisters and some neighbors over. We signed up three or four families, right on that one stop.”

Later they approached a house with all the right signs: clotheslines, windows blocked by droopy bed sheets and a car with Florida plates.

“Whaddya want!?”

The first thing they noticed was the stocky man’s pale skin and sleeveless white t-shirt, followed by the face of a woman, equally irritated, yanking the door wider to see who it was.

“Sorry,” they explained in retreat. “Wrong address.”

One evening Eric is looking out of Zach’s slow-moving Hyundai at some trailer homes. Only nobody calls them trailer homes. Just trailers. Which is fitting: Farmworkers are not so much housed in these aging metal boxes as stored overnight.

Eric wonders why he and Zach are here. It’s already late and the workers are inside, probably watching soccer and drinking Bud Light — the blue metal empties are everywhere. But Zach insisted they visit before calling it a night.

Just beyond the trailers is an old building made of wood, its shape vaguely familiar to Eric. They approach it on foot.

“Was this a stable?” asks Eric.

Zach bangs the door. “It still is.”

Like most stables, the central passageway is lined on either side by stalls. But most stables keep horses in their stalls.

These contain men.

It’s the kind of camp Zach calls “under the radar.” Unlike camps for workers on temporary H2A visas, which are supposed to meet minimal housing standards (though enforcement is often lacking), these out-of-sight hovels are for undocumented workers who know better than to complain about accommodations.

At under-the-radars, roofs might leak, refrigerators may not keep food cold enough to ward off gut-wrenching bacteria, and the drinking water is often unfit for human consumption.

Eric notices an air conditioner, refrigerator and microwave all connected by a single extension cord. Were all three running at once it’s a safe bet this dry wooden structure would go up in flames. The only water comes from a spigot outside, at the end of a pipe in the ground, and there’s neither a bathroom nor outhouse in sight.

Eric knows they could report this place to state inspectors. He also knows they won’t. He’s heard of outreach workers forced to contend with a cruel compromise: If you report every housing violation, the grower might not let you back.

Zach introduces Eric to a farmworker with a smiling but weather-beaten face a man of sixty might sport. Eric guesses he’s probably more like forty.

On Zach’s last visit the man implored him to sign up his teenage daughter for English classes. She is very interested, he insisted, but wasn’t at the camp that day.

¿Cómo se llama su hija?” Eric asks the cheerful man. What is your daughter’s name?

“Linda,” he answers. “Se llama Linda.” (All farmworker names have been changed for this story.)

¿Y dónde está Linda?” asks Eric. And where is Linda?

The smile falls off the father’s face. Again the girl isn’t here and it’s not clear where she is or even if her dad knows. His daughter appears to be missing.

Where Eric grew up, a missing child would set off alarms throughout the community. Police would be called and radio stations would broadcast Amber Alerts.

Eric is pretty sure those things won’t happen here.

After Zach departs for the other end of Lowcountry, where he lives, Eric, now on his own, finds ID & R more challenging. He might register one or two workers on a good day. And not every day is a good day.

Zach helps by calling and texting with places Eric might try, including known camps that haven’t been visited for a while. One is a cluster of trailers alongside a wooded highway.

Gabriela came from Mexico as a young girl so she speaks English reasonably well — a relief to Eric. Even with his strong Spanish it’s less work to speak in English.

Her four young boys swarm to Eric like puppies. He gives them books, asks about school and takes them on a nature walk at the edge of the trailer cluster. It reminds him of his own childhood escapes to the woods at the end of his street in Rockville.

Escorting the boys back to the trailer, Eric sees elements of normalcy in this family. The kids and their parents look healthy, and Gabriela seems to have things under control. She even drives the kids around in a minivan just like his own mom did. In another setting, he realizes, Gabriela might be just another soccer mom.

Standing at the door of her trailer, Eric asks Gabriela about the kids’ school when she interrupts with a question of her own.

“Do you have any food?”

This is no soccer mom. Gabriela’s refrigerator is broken and the crew leader hasn’t paid her yet. Some employers cheat undocumented immigrants and withhold pay, she explains, or pay less than minimum wage. It’s happened to her.

Gabriela and her kids have only ramen noodles and cereal — without milk — for dinner. Eric fetches a USDA emergency food box, donated by the Lowcountry Food Bank, from the trunk of his car.

Carrying the heavy box of dry goods, Eric navigates all manner of debris, spills and damp clothes hanging from a clothesline strung inside the trailer. Gabriela apologizes for the mess. Eric assures her it’s fine.

Eric had thought seventy songs on his iPod would get him through the summer. But with hours each day behind the wheel, by week three he’s hitting the skip button on the opening chords of even his favorites, from Fleetwood Mac to the Cave Singers.

He turns to audio books (free of charge, courtesy of Pirate Bay) starting with Hard Times by Charles Dickens. After that, Great Expectations.

Listening to tales of economic cruelty and social injustice in nineteenth-century England, Eric cruises the Carolina blacktop like a detective, viewing every rundown trailer as a potential opportunity to register some workers, teach some English or just hand out some food.

One evening Eric pulled off the highway at the sight of several Latino men kicking a soccer ball in the orange light of sunset. He asked the guys what team they followed in Mexico (Eric knows them all) and complimented them on their technique.

They asked if he played fútbol and he responded by gesturing for the ball. Seeing the heavy boots on his feet, they expected him to catch it with his hands. He caught it on the tip of a boot, tapped it to the other boot, and dribbled it perfectly before sending it back their way.

This impressed the guys even more than his excellent Spanish. He signed up every last one.

A group of workers at class led by Eric and others.
A group of workers at class led by Eric and others.

Eric’s soccer experience came in handy more than once. His comfort talking with strangers also helped. He stopped people at roadside fruit stands and gas stations, and hung out at stores where many Latino people shopped.

Following a lead one day from a tienda owner, Eric found a large trailer park he didn’t recognize. The camp wasn’t on Zach’s Google Earth map and may have never been scouted. He put some extra COEs on his clipboard.

Mija es una estudiante excelente,” the man at the door of his trailer beams with pride, introducing Eric to his teenage daughter. She makes very good grades but, Eric learns, they have no money for college. After high school she’ll work in los campos. The fields.

Where Eric went to high school, going to work after graduating was practically unheard of. You went to college. And for the handful of kids who did go straight to work from Richard Montgomery High, it sure wasn’t to pick vegetables.

Eric produces his clipboard and asks for their names. But the man just smiles and shakes his head. Zach told him to expect this. Someone in the family is probably undocumented, and Eric’s assurance that the information will be used only by the school system does no good.

On his way out, Eric apologizes for not being able to register the family for MEP services, but does ask the girl if she has access to a computer.

“Yes,” she answers. “At the library.”

“Google CAMP,” he tells her. “It’s the College Assistance Migrant Program.” Eric learned about the program from farmworking families, some of whom used it to get into college.

Farmworking parents Jorge and Luisa invite Eric into a front room packed with piles of clothing, secondhand toys and furniture that looks reclaimed from a dump. The arms of an overstuffed loveseat are worn down to exposed wood.

Their daughter, Rosita, is an energetic first-grader who seems as typical as any other, except for one thing: Luisa has to wave a hand in her daughter’s face to get her attention. Rosita is deaf.

Eric asks if she knows sign language but her parents don’t seem to know what he’s asking. He makes a mental note: Sign language tutor!

Eric gets to work. There is something fulfilling, bordering on selfishness, about helping someone who needs exactly what you have to give. Eric feels that buzz as he prepares a fresh COE.

Jorge and Luisa go silent. Peering at Eric’s clipboard, they too, don’t want to give their names. Moments pass. He promises the information will be used only by the schools. More moments pass and, again, Eric senses opportunity vanishing.

He wonders if everyone at this camp will refuse to give their names. This camp is a waste of time, he thinks.

Then they agree. “Está bien. Te damos los nombres.” We’ll give you our names.

He races to complete the form before they change their minds. He just needs to confirm they meet the three MEP requirements. Working in agriculture? Check. Children ages three to twenty-two? Check. Moved in the last thirty-six months?

“¿Cuánto tiempo han vivido aquí?” he asks. How long have you lived here?

“Cinco años,” says Jorge. Five years.

If this is true then they’ve lived here too long and don’t qualify.

Are you sure? Yes. You have lived here, in this same place, for five years? Yes. But didn’t you go to another place to work, even for a short time, like even for one night? Not even one, single, night? Eric feels his frustration turning to disbelief.

Driving away, Eric wonders if he should have just fudged the form. No. Zach says everyone suffers if the state does one of its routine checks. He was right not to take a chance.

He did the ID but couldn’t do the R.

One day Eric signed up an entire family — by invitation. A crew leader had called the MEP and asked to have his children registered, and the office dispatched Eric his house.

Also known as patrones or contractistas, crew leaders play a key role in the farmworking community. They are like the vassals of Medieval Europe, paying homage to their lord the grower who owns the land but wants nothing to do with supervising his peon farmworkers.

Crew leaders also allow a grower to shed virtually all responsibility for anything having to do with a farmworker. Wage complaints? Talk to the crew leader. Housing complaints? Documentation issues? Medical needs? Talk to the crew leader.

Listening to the muscular patron introduce his family, Eric sees things here he doesn’t see in other farmworker housing, things like carpeting, air-conditioning and a flat-screen TV.

Eric also notices a bedroom door ajar — with someone peeking out. It’s a girl with a low-cut shirt who looks to be in her late teens. When the girl spots Eric eyeing her, she quickly closes the door.

After Eric signs up the kids he asks if there are any other youth in the house. No, answers the crew leader, nobody else. Eric waits for the crew leader to mention the girl in the bedroom. But he doesn’t.

A few days later Eric is delivering another box of food to Gabriela. Her sister Elena is there, telling about a bossy crew leader acting strangely to her friend, a nineteen-year old girl. According to Elena, the much older crew leader is controlling her friend too much and even telling her what to wear. Eric hears Elena refer to a low-cut shirt.

Eric asks the girl’s name. “Linda,” says Elena. “Se llama Linda.”


Eric recalls the girl peeking out the bedroom at crew leader’s house, and the missing teenage daughter of the farmworker living in the stable. And now Gabriela and her sister are talking about a nineteen-year old girl and an overbearing crew leader.

Might these girls all be the same Linda? He asks the women.

Sí por supuesto,” they answer. “Of course it’s her.” According to the women, Linda used to live in the stables but now lives at the crew leader’s house.

Workers in the tobacco fields.
Workers in the tobacco fields.

Eric also learns this crew leader is a coyote, smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S. for huge fees. Coyotes have been known to entice impoverished clients with the promise of a good job, convincing them they will have money to pay the coyote in no time.

Then, when the workers arrive and learn the jobs are not so good, they have to pay off their debt another way.

Eric relays all this to Zach and together they formulate a disturbing theory: Linda’s father can’t pay for the family’s crossing — the summer of 2013 is one of the rainiest anyone can remember, and farmworkers often don’t get paid when rain keeps them off the fields — so his daughter is paying off the debt in sexual servitude to the coyote.

It’s only a theory, but a plausible one.

At the beginning of summer Eric promised his girlfriend Sara he’d come back to Charleston on weekends. He enjoys the first few trips back, hanging out with Sara and enjoying burritos and tequila shots at Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale, a popular hangout near campus.

But it doesn’t take long for Eric to notice a surreal disconnect between affluent Charleston and the much larger part of Lowcountry where farmworkers live.

“It’s only twenty miles from the center of Charleston to a tomato pickers’ camp on Jones Island,” says Eric. “And it’s like nobody in Charleston knows. Or cares.”

Walking past a King Street shop selling honey for $100 a jar, Eric thinks about the emergency food boxes. Seeing shoes at another store going for $700, Eric recalls opening the trunk of his car filled with donated clothes at a camp and watching women rush to pick through it.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster, seeing people with not a care in the world,” says Eric. “Even to my friends at school it was like, ‘Oh where am I going to go drinking tonight?’ And I was just talking to a family and their main concern is how to pay for food.”

Zach kept his promise to Linda’s father, on a visit back to the area, to help his daughter with English.

He called the crew leader and got the okay to meet with Linda and give her an MP3 player with self-guided English lessons. It also gave him an opportunity to learn more of her story, a story he shares with Eric.

Linda traveled to the U.S. from Honduras with her dad, partly by foot but mostly on the top of a train. She called it el tren de la muerte. The death train.

When they arrived in South Carolina they took shelter in a horse stall at the stable. There, she was the only woman among fourteen men. Her father offered her as a prostitute.

Eric struggled with what to do with this new information. He recognized his limitations. Linda was nineteen, no longer a child. And maybe, he wondered, she wasn’t being kept by the crew leader so much as protected from a demon of a father. He didn’t know the full story.

He never learned full stories.

One farmworker claimed to have miscarried in the fields when a crew leader wouldn’t give her a break. Was it true? Another woman had a face covered in what appeared to be bruises but she claimed it was a birthmark. Really?

More than once he was forbidden entry to camps with flimsy excuses from growers when workers were expecting him for lessons after hours, even after showing his MEP credentials. It made him think of slavery.

As summer drew to a close Eric knew he could only do so much. He was determined to help as many people as he could, starting with someone who seemed to need it the most. But he’d have to bend some rules.

Rosita sat on the floor in her silent world, playing with her baby sister. Her parents hadn’t expected to see Eric again. But here he was handing out books and food and hygiene kits and treating them much like any qualifying family.

“Puedo buscar una escuela especial para su hija. ¿Quieren que lo haga?” “I can look for a special school for your daughter. Do you want that?”

Of course they said yes.

The Kudu coffeehouse on Vanderhorst Street, where Eric goes for free wifi on his weekends in Charleston, is across from St. Matthews Church. Eric is so used to the bells he hardly notices them booming every fifteen minutes as he Googles for schools for the deaf.

And maybe the clanging from the house of worship brings good fortune into the coffee shop, because Eric can hardly believe his luck when he finds the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and gives them a call.

The principal describes a program especially for children like Rosita — free of charge — that extends through high school. It will change her life, Eric thinks. It will change her entire family’s life, all for free. They even provide transportation.

Luisa and Jorge listen as Eric describes the school. Thankful and intrigued, they interrupt him with gracias over and over.

The school is far away, Eric explains, but the school will pick up Rosita on Sundays and return her on Thursdays. Eric reminds them everything is free of charge — lodging, meals, and a private education tailored to her needs. But the parents have stopped listening.

“No,” they interrupt. “Ella no puede asistir a esa escuela.” She cannot go to this school.

Eric repeats his pitch, emphasizing how the school is just for children like Rosita. He says they need to visit — they have to visit. He’ll drive them there and back. “¿Cuándo podemos ir?” When can we go?

They tell him again: Rosita cannot go to this school. Eric wants to tell them they are making a big mistake. But he doesn’t. He can tell the parents won’t budge.

Walking to his car, Eric realizes what he hadn’t considered: Rosita can neither hear nor read — in any language. Nobody could explain why she was being taken away from her mom, dad and baby sister. The first time she was put on that bus, Eric realized, would be not just baffling but terrifying.

Walking to his car he hears someone yelling his name. It’s the girl he told about CAMP.

“Hey, I looked up the program like you said,” she tells him. “I never heard about it but I got the application.”

Eric wishes her luck and thanks her for telling him.

“Sure, it’s cliché to say I grew a lot this summer,” Eric tells me. “But I did.”

We’re at the Kudu, talking about the summer between bell chimes from St. Matthews.

“A lot of things I used to find really fun and fulfilling, like going out and getting hammered on the weekends, I find trivial now. It’s like, why do that when there’s actually real stuff to do?”

After his last days with SAF, and a celebration on the lawn of Duke University where Safistas gathered to swap stories, eat and dance late into the night, Eric joined his family at the beach to unwind. And to jump from a plane.

Plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, Eric feels the skin on his face ripple. The rush of air is like sticking your head from a speeding car — only way more intense. And the view from high above the Outer Banks of North Carolina is stunning: Endless blue ocean on one side and vast, flat land — farmland — on the other.

There are thousands of farms down there. The last time Eric fell to earth he didn’t think about those farms and certainly not the farmworkers. Now he can’t help it.

Eric Britton on the dance floor at the SAF end-of-summer celebration.
Eric Britton on the dance floor at the SAF end-of-summer celebration.

These vecinos are more than just neighbors

Vecinos_HeightScaleFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

We were lost. That’s what I concluded from the back of the minivan going up and down mountain roads in western North Carolina, past tiny homes and trailer parks that tourists rarely see.

“The note says look for an RV next to a dumpster.” Devereaux was in the passenger seat trying to help driver Maria.

“I have a hunch it’s down here.” The car leaned precariously to the left as Maria made a sharp turn from the pavement onto a steep gravel road. “Oops!”

She righted the minivan as my stomach took its own precarious turn.

I was traveling with an outreach team from Vecinos (Spanish for neighbors), an agency that provides primary and preventative healthcare to migrant farmworkers. They were following a tip that a new migrant worker had arrived in the area, hoping to sign him up for the program.

Maria’s hunch was right. They found the RV with not one but two new workers, both eager to sign up, and soon answering questions and getting their blood pressure, height and weight checked by the Vecinos team: Interns Devereaux Swaim (on a Student Action with Farmworkers fellowship) and Maria Vargas (herself a former farmworker) and staffer Wess Roberts. A handful of other workers at the camp teased their campesinos as they looked on.

As night began to fall a neighboring farmworker strolled over with his wife and daughter. Would they see him too? Sí, por supuesto. Of course.

Devereaux Swaim checks the blood pressure of a migrant farmworker as his daughter looks on
Devereaux Swaim checks the blood pressure of a migrant farmworker as his daughter looks on

Nurse practitioner Kathy Hefner inside the Vecinos van
Nurse practitioner Kathy Hefner inside the Vecinos van

Executive Director Amy Schmidt
Executive Director Amy Schmidt being briefed by the outreach team

The skies were pitch black by the time the white Vecinos van arrived. Executive Director Amy Schmidt and Nurse Practitioner Kathy Hefner had been at another camp giving exams; the van is equipped with a complete examination facility under a pop-up roof.

Amy’s eyes widened when she recognized one of the onlookers and went to say hello.

Soon this farmworker was inside the van getting a checkup and a clean bill of health, which relieved Amy and Kathy more than usual.

They hadn’t seen this man since the year before, when he arrived from Florida just days after major surgery. He needed time to recuperate, his doctors told him. But like many farmworkers he needed wages even more. I think Amy was happy just to see him alive.

These farmworkers earn around $250 a week, not near enough to afford preventive medical care. Health insurance is out of the question. Without Vecinos dropping in to offer free care and health education, I imagine many would find themselves in the ER one day, or worse.

I’m not sure vecinos is the right word for these caregivers. They seem more like ángeles to me.

Text and photos by Michael Durbin

Cultivating farmworker advocates, one student at a time

saflogoFrom my 2014 blog The Considerate Omnivore…

Like many farmworker advocates, Melinda Wiggins can rattle off a long list of injustices faced by the people who harvest America’s food — stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, housing often unfit for human habitation, and one she finds particularly unconscionable: Many farmworkers aren’t allowed visitors in the camps where they live.

“I’ve had a grower tell me it’s just like his kids who want to have visitors,” she told me. “They need to ask him for permission. And I’m like, farmworkers are not your children! What are you saying? But the growers see their worker as a child. As property.”

Two decades of advocacy have not weakened Melinda’s incredulity, which fuels her work as Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a non-profit that sends college interns into migrant farmworker camps for a summer of healthcare, legal, and education outreach.

Last summer I followed a bunch of SAF interns — they call themselves safistas — around camps in North and South Carolina. I was so impressed it took all of a moment last week to decide to become a regular donor when Melinda put out the call. (They don’t ask for much: only $10 or more a month. Here’s where you can donate.)

Melinda was raised on her grandparents cotton farm near Phillipstown, Mississippi. Surrounded as a kid by farms and farming, it was only when she left that rural and isolated place that she saw a distressing side of agriculture.

In 1993 Melinda departed the Mississippi delta for divinity school at Duke University. There she applied for a stint with the newly formed Student Action with Farmworkers, a chance encounter that opened her eyes to the systemic injustice suffered by farmworkers. Realizing her true calling, Melinda gave up the ministry for a permanent job with SAF.

SAF is unique among organizations that help farmworkers. There is no permanent team of outreach workers. Instead, every summer they hand-pick twenty or so college students from schools across the United States. After a week of training they provide much needed services for ten weeks, then disperse for careers as varied as you can imagine.

By rebuilding their team each summer, SAF provides to the world a perennial crop of witnesses to the plight of farmworkers.

SAF has sent more than 700 college students into farmworker communities since its founding in 1992. That’s when it emerged from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, which had been incubating the concept behind SAF since the 1970s, and incorporated as an independent non-profit.

The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF
The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF

Safistas do more than provide services. Most produce documentaries about their experience, a nod to their origin in the Center for Documentary Studies, which still houses SAF in a converted 19th century mansion on Duke’s campus. Some stage theatrical productions modeled after the social protest works of playwright Luis Valdez. They all can contribute to a Tumblr blog, allowing anyone to follow their work in the camps.

When Melinda joined SAF, interns were mostly Duke students from privileged backgrounds. One grew up in a farmworking family. Now that ratio has nearly flipped, with a majority of Safistas having farmworking backgrounds. Many have worked the fields themselves, like Daniel Guzman who I wrote about here a few weeks back.

Safistas from farmworker households often arrive with a sense of shame. They know what it’s like to miss school, to miss meals, and to be called out by other kids for working in the fields—harvesting potatoes is not likely to make a kid popular at school. But after ten weeks of sharing their stories with eager listeners, of indeed being honored, they can take away from SAF something far too few farmworkers are allowed: a sense of pride.

All Safistas leave with a new sense of perspective on the plight of farmworkers. “We contextualize it,” Melinda explains. “We talk about the history of agriculture, and how this is happening all over the country.”

Melinda and the other SAF leaders do more than bombard the students with how bad things are for farmworkers. The shock and outrage is inevitable. But by discovering and commiserating and brainstorming as a team, they get a collective sense that they can do something about it.

“Most people who learn about farmworker issues don’t know what to do,” Melinda tells me. “But Safistas leave here knowing something can be done. And what their role might be.”

Melinda may have given up a career in ministry when she took a job with SAF, but I don’t think she strayed too far from whatever drew her to divinity school in the first place. She runs an organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the working poor, and to opening the eyes of young people at the cusps of their careers so they might spread the word wherever they go.

That sounds plenty divine to me.

Melinda Wiggins with 2013 Safistas at a midsummer retreat at Wake Forest University
Melinda Wiggins advising 2013 Safistas at a midsummer retreat at Wake Forest University

P.S. Next Saturday I’ll join the 2014 Safistas as they celebrate the end of summer at a public event at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. This should be a great event where we can watch the documentaries, enjoy great food, and meet SAF students and staff. Here’s a link to more information.