- Check out podcast of this blog story as told on NPR radio station https://www.wlrn.org/programs/public-storyteller
Last fall a colleague, Linda J. invited me to partake in a round table forum hosted by the Miami Foundation called My Miami Story. Our group of about 15 professionals gathered at one of many assigned sites in Miami and given a basic (but deeply layered) discussion question: What brought you to Miami?
The room was well represented with every culture, race and income level, all sharing one common denominator, we were all immigrants (albeit some were American migrants from others states). We all now lived or worked as transplants in Miami. What magnetic force drew us here?
For the first in a long time I began to deeply trace my immigrant roots. Those ancient roots, planted firmly before I was a spec in my mother’s eye. Roots that sprang from the shores of Jamaica to the sugar cane farmlands of central florida and now firmly planted in Miami. Marcus Garvey said it best, “a people without a knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots.”
As I flipped through the pages of my mind, I recognized my journey to Miami was more than simple serendipity. It was the offspring of a well orchestrated devine plan; like predestined seeds planted in times past, my Miami Story bears fruits today from the amazing sacrifice and influence of generations past.
Based on my Uncle Hugh (our family historian’s) account, my family’s first entry to the great land of opportunity (specifically Florida) dates back to my grandfather, papa David in the 1940s.
America was in the midst of World War II and President Franklin D Roosevelt declared a state of national emergency as many Americans were drafted in the military to fight the war overseas. This created a severe farm labor shortage. In the course of the war its reported that approximately 15 million men and women were called into the military.
Historians suggest over 20% of the pre-war workforce were now in the military, which left a significant shortage in the agricultural industry and national food supply.
Eventually the US in desperation sought the assistance of migratory labor. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would eventually solicit the help of other countries and authorize the temporary importation of 75,000 Bahamians and Jamaicans to work in the Florida fields.
Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, my grandfather saw an advertisement inviting Jamaican farmers to be part of a farm worker’s program in the US. He and many other seasoned famers were lured in by the prospect of earning quick US dollars which they planned to take back to Jamaica to further invest in and expand their businesses. Having been an avid farmer in Manchester, Jamaica owning over 40 acres of farmland, and having his own small business, my grandfather saw this as a golden opportunity.
In the early 1940s papa David left his wife and two kids in Jamaica, boarded a ship and headed to Florida. He later recounted to the family how frightful the journey was. The trip was very long, quarters cramped, the ocean waves were rough and the temperature was hot and clammy. Given the fact that America was at war the route was plagued with great danger. Hearing the description of my grandfather’s journey triggered a thought… how ironic it was that my grandfather would travel across the same Atlantic ocean, by boat, like many of our enslaved foreparents centuries before. This time the journey was not as a slave, not in physical chains, not against his will, but as a free man. One of many immigrants seeking opportunities in the great United States.
Florida was viewed as an important first line of defense for the southern United States, the Caribbean, and the Panama Canal. Sadly German boats sank over twenty-four ships off of Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts during that period. Historians report that Many ships could be seen burning from areas along the coast.
My grandfather would later recount how frightened the passengers on board the ship were as a US fighter plane hovered over their vessel from the time it left Jamaica to when it arrived in Florida. This was the US Military’s way of ensuring safe passage for the crew and passengers.
My grandfather arrived in the US unharmed and was given a new identity. He was now a migratory laborer of the US government, assigned a dog tag ID with a tracking number (see pic) and would work under a government contract. During the chilly winter season he would work long shifts with non existent labor rights, racial discrimination, less than favorable accommodations and isolation from family and friends. Above all, my grandfather said he was home sick.
He eventually returned to Jamaica six months later. With all he had experienced in the US he was definitely enlightened. However my grandfather was more than grateful for the US funds he raised and was able to expand his business with more crops and equipment. He was even more grateful for the joy and basic freedoms he enjoyed back home in Jamaica. He did not renew his US government migrant labor contract or ever return to the US again.
It’s hard to imagine what thoughts must have gone through his mind as he worked tirelessly in the sugar cane fields of Florida and harvested then prepared the fruits and vegetables for market. He like many of us could not fully comprehend what God had in instore for his children and grandchildren.. Im reminded of a text in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that says “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him. “
Its likely Grandpa David did not fully comprehend the significant role, the bigger picture of how his work directly connected to the happenings on the international stage. He and other thousands of workers may not have fully grasped the magnitude of their service and sacrifice to the United States economy, during a critical time when the nation was at war.
While battles were being fought on the military front overseas, another battle was being fought back home in the US. The agricultural sector was in a state of emergency and the nation depended on immigrants like Grandpa David to stand in the gap, while ensuring the US farmlands continued to generate sufficient food to feed the nation.
This timely reflection is noteworthy given the current national debate about immigration and the less than favorable light immigrants are viewed in. I recognize he did not bear arms but my grandfather’s determination and diligence to serve as a US migratory laborer during World War II solidified his place in American history. I am eternally grateful for the sacrifice of my grandfather and so many other farm workers who toiled and labored in the farmlands of Florida, supporting the agricultural sector and providing sustenance to so many American families.
I suppose you and i are immigrants or foreigners in some way. Recent or distant. We are all at sometime transplants. The bible has a great deal to say about immigrants and how we should treat foreigners in our midst. Those not like ourselves. “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)“ and “I am the Lord, and I consider all people the same, whether they are Israelites or foreigners living among you.”(Numbers 15:16)
As global citizens our histories are all interconnected in some way. Maybe your family served in World War 2 or maybe like me, you have deep roots from someplace else. We represent the legacy and fulfilled hope of those who walked before us. None of us can honestly hoard the credit for our successes today. We owe our gratitude and hommage to those who have toiled and laid the foundation for us. Give thanks!
My grandfather was the first, but certainly not the last in our family to respond to the call, to join the American labor force in a critical service role. In 1978, thirty eight (38) years after my grandfather’s stint in Florida, my mother was recruited to work as an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse in Miami. God continued to weave together parts of my history and would later draw me into the line of immigrants with my own Miami story, another forty (40) years after my mother’s arrival.
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