A Brief History of American Farm Labor

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The observance of Labor Day, which was declared a national holiday in 1894, is usually associated more with the organized labor movement in industry than in agriculture. But some of America's most significant labor milestones have taken place in the fields, not the factories.

In the colonial era, most farm labor was provided by indentured servants from Great Britain—white men and women, even children, who exchanged four to seven years of hard labor for passage to the colonies. Some of these workers were recruited through trickery or force and were kept and sold as property, with few rights. In a letter in the collection at Virtual Jamestown (which also includes a searchable database of records of indentured servants), dated 1623, Richard Frethorne describes to his parents the miserable conditions of his servitude and begs them to purchase his freedom or at least send food. "And when we are sick there is nothing to comfort us; for since I came out of the ship I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie ," he writes. "As for deer or venison I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get it, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef."

By the 1600s, indentured servants weren't plentiful enough to provide all the labor needed, so plantation owners turned to an even crueler method of workforce recruitment: the forceable capture of Africans to be used as slaves. Instead of a fixed period of enslavement, these unwilling immigrants had almost no promise of eventual freedom. Over the next two centuries, African slaves became the primary source of farm labor in the colonies. According to the Colonial Williamsburg Web site, by the dawn of the American Revolution, 20 percent of the population in the 13 colonies was of African descent, the majority of them slaves.

As the nation grew and expanded westward, so did slavery, especially in the South. But abolitionist sentiment also took root. By the 1800s a deep rift had developed between the states with slave-dependent economies and those that opposed the practice. In 1808 Congress banned the international slave trade, though not the practice of slavery itself—that took another 55 years and the Civil War.

As the Wall Street Journal's Douglas A. Blackmon asserts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book Slavery By Another Name, though, the Emancipation Proclamation did not lead to freedom for all American blacks. From the end of the Civil War through World War II, he writes, hundreds of thousands of African Americans endured new forms of involuntary servitude with the aid of legal loopholes and discriminatory federal policies. Some were "arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines and charged for the costs of their own arrests," which they were forced to pay through labor in the fields and elsewhere, and others were flat-out kidnapped and compelled into what Blackmon calls neoslavery.

Even those African Americans who were ostensibly free hardly had it easy. General William T. Sherman ordered that freed slaves be granted 40 acres per family on abandoned land along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, but following Lincoln's assassination a few months later, the new president, Andrew Johnson, reversed the order. Many former slaves became sharecroppers, or tenant farmers, trading a portion of the harvest for the use of land and equipment.

California became a major agricultural center after the Civil War. There, farm labor was mostly imported from Asia. By the 1930s, the immigrant labor force had begun to shift to Mexico, and during the World War II labor shortage the Bracero Program was initiated, which allowed Mexicans to work temporarily on U.S. farms. The program was ended in 1964, although Latin American immigrants—legal and illegal—continue to make up the vast majority of the U.S. agricultural workforce.

The Mexican-American community organizer and activist César Chávez became a hero of the farm labor movement by fighting for the rights of migrant workers from the 1960s through the 1980s. Along with Dolores Huerta, he founded the National Farm Workers Association, later called the United Farm Workers, which led a five-year strike of grape pickers and a national grape boycott that eventually succeeded in securing higher wages for the workers. Later protests targeted the exposure of workers to harmful pesticides.

Today Chávez's birthday, March 31, is declared a holiday in California and several other states, and there is a campaign to make it a national holiday, for which President Obama expressed support as a candidate.

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