Around the Island

Friday Night Dialogue: “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood”

It would not be an exaggeration to say that without the thousands of migrant workers who traveled from the Midwest to Suffolk County, between World War II and the 1960s, the potato crops on the thousands of acres of farms would not have been harvested.

And to a somewhat lesser degree, the grape harvest in the vineyards that succeeded the potato farms also depended on migrant labor.

Mark Torres is a labor employment attorney and an author. He has written two crime novels: “A Stirring in the North Fork” (2015) and “Adeline” (2019). In his latest book, which is nonfiction, “Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood,” Torres details the never-before-told history of migrant workers on Long Island. It’s the first book ever published on migrant labor in this area, and as the subtitle suggests, it’s not a pretty story.

Mr. Torres’ book covers the saga of generations of migrant workers who traveled to Long Island in search of good wages and decent housing, but instead were often cheated out of pay and housed in slum-like labor camps. He writes of how often the workers were preyed upon by corrupt camp operators and entrapped in a feudal system of manipulation and abuse that left them irrevocably mired in debt, or what Torres describes as “a 20th century form of slavery.”

Mr. Torres includes a 1956 quote from Ruth Schier in the Suffolk County News relating to the many fires that continuously swept through the camps: “When you crowd people in unsuitable quarters with inadequate facilities, tragedy is bound to strike, and it did. Even the most hostile communities can no longer feel complacent when they contemplate the charred bodies of children who have been trapped in dwellings away from good water pressure.” 

Mr. Torres also notes in his book: “Industry has always been more important than human life.”

The first migrant labor camp began in 1943 in Peconic with 100 workers from the island of Jamaica. By 1951 there were 28 camps in Peconic. In 1958 there were 134 camps including one on Shelter Island on Menantic Avenue with 15 workers.

In 1960 the number of camps in Peconic had decreased to 120. By 1968 the number of camps was down to 87 with 1,300 workers. By 1975 the number of camps had dropped to 68. And by 1985 only 45 remained.

The decline, Mr. Torres writes, was due to the decline of potato farming, the harvesting being done more by machines than by migrant workers. And by 1966, many of the potato farms had been replaced by vineyards which, yes, need migrant workers but far fewer.

In terms of the conditions on the Peconic migrant farms improving, Mr. Torres notes that pre-1985 the inspection checklist included just 47 items to be checked. After 1987 the list of items to be checked had grown to 77.

By the end of the 20th century, Mr. Torres writes, there were fewer migrant camps, fewer workers, less production and more oversight.

Maybe not perfect, but a different era altogether.

Mark Torres will talk about this interesting subject at the Friday Night Dialogue on April 9 at 7 p.m. To register for the event, which will be on Zoom, go to shelterislandlibrary.org and click on Calendar Events. You should register 30 minutes before the event.