50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE
Nineteen ninety three marked the fiftieth anniversary of the launching of “The Contract”. Also known as “The Project”, the Contract was a farm labour programme established on March 16, 1943 by the governments of The Bahamas and the United States of America. The programme continued, with changes in its organization, until 1966. It allowed thousands of Bahamian men and women from islands throughout the archipelago to carry out agricultural work in many American states. Bahamians cultivated and harvested a variety of crops, from tobacco in Tennessee and peaches in Georgia to corn in Minnesota, citrus in Florida, and peanuts in North Carolina. Some workers returned to the Bahamas. Others settled in communities located around the United States, particularly in the state of Florida and New York. Bahamian society as a whole felt the impact of The Contract. Mr. Cordell Thompson, an authority on the programme, has pointed to some of its social effects. Dr. D. Gail Saunders, a distinguished Bahamian historian, has pointed to the economic impact of the programme, noting the wages earned on The Contract enabled significant numbers of black Bahamians, for the first time in history, to leave industries in which they worked primarily for others and to start their own businesses.
The Oral History Department of the Library Division of The College of the Bahamas planned a three-year REMEMBERING THE CONTRACT Golden Jubilee series of publications and activities aimed at acquainting the public with the nature and impact of The Contract and at developing the body of literature which examines the programme. The Jubilee ran from 1993 to 1995 under the patronage of His Excellency Sir Clifford Darling, Governor General of the Bahamas and a former Contract worker. This commemorative postage stamp issue, produced by The College in collaboration with the Bahamas Ministry of Transport, was the first of the Jubilee’s publications.
Other publications and activities included wall and desk calendars, photographic exhibitions and displays, video documentaries, a musical production, and a coffee-table monograph.
The College invited former Contract workers and their children and spouses, former Contract employers and persons who were involved in the administration of the programme in The Bahamas and in the United States to contact the Oral History Department of the Library Division for more information.
“We haven’t probed enough of what happened to Bahamian family life: the tremendous disruption that took place. Some men, having left behind a wife and children when they went on The Contract, came home to find a wife and more children than they had left. Some of them accepted it. Some of them did not. Some men had sent home large portions of their earnings to wives or other persons while they were away working and when they came home could find neither their wives nor their earnings. Some came home with money which they used to build a start in life and are still benefitting from. Others came home with experience alone. “
Mr. Cordell Thompson, 1990
HOME FROM THE CONTRACT
My Uncle Bertie
I was entering my teens when I first noticed the effect of the contract on the little community where I lived. I had several uncles who had made trips on the contract. They were special people, because for one, they had the experience. They had in fact travelled. My favorite relative was Uncle Bertie.
I remember one day shortly after he came off The Contract I gave him some sass and he looked at me rather sternly and said, “I bet you believe you think you different cause your ma got you in high school but that ain’t nothing boy”.
He said “I travelled boy, you ain’t been nowhere, I been to America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the only country God blessed.”
I was totally humbled, because even at that age I felt that this statement truly summed up the enormity of the experiences of most of those men and women, many of whom were sometimes catapulted from small family Island Village, direct to the heart of America.
Mind you, very few of them even saw a large city or town, but the fact is they were able to see the country, America. I later came to admire and respect my uncle and the many others like him for their experience, even though he still made me laugh.
Uncle Bertie couldn’t read and write and for several months after he returned I used to have to write letters for him back to his girlfriend in the States. I also had to read the replies too. What he lacked in education, he more than made up for in emotions and descriptions.
One time I had to write a letter about his taking care of the horses at the race track where he worked as a groom. Thus, he said: “boy put pen to paper”.
He went on “My dear, when my eyes first lighted upon you, my heart fluttered like a butterfly under a fruit jar, and I was sore afraid that I would not contain myself. Since I have returned home I have been helping my father who has a horse and dray. All day long I am going “sound” after those animals”.
I said Uncle Bertie, “I can’t spell “sound”. He says, that’s a word, what you mean you can’t spell that and your ma sending you to Government High. You can spell “he made another sound). I said Uncle Bertie they ain’t words. He said they is so words and I want you to learn how to spell them cause I want her to understand what I doing now. These womens does want to know everything you doing, otherwise they leave you for someone else.
Mamma told me later that she used to beat Uncle Bertie every day and he just wouldn’t go to school. Mamma was from Mastic Point Andros and had Seminole Indian in her blood. She met and had five children for my grandfather, Frederick Smith, a white Bahamian of Loyalist stock who migrated to Andros from Exuma, during the boom days of the sponge industry.
Papa was a well educated well rounded gentleman of the day, a seaman, carpenter, and farmer who later became the first director of Agriculture in a pre independent Bahamas.
When the contact started, nearly every Bahamian of every class, color and educational status signed up to go, it was real money they were after and the Bahamas was in a severe depression following the end of prohibition and the collapse of the sponge industry.
By anyone’s estimates or boasts, there must be at least 20,000 Bahamian Americans in the Southern United States as a result of the exploits of the Bahamians who went on the Contract.
If you visited places today like West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, Boynton Beach, Homestead, Delray, you only have to turn on your radio to the local black station and wait for the gospel hour and the name and accent of the preacher, would tell you he has a Bahamian connection. Now some of the preachers and other upstanding citizens of the communities mentioned could also be Bahamians who did not come back or who “jumped “the contract and sort of went underground.
It wasn’t hard for Bahamians to do this especially as they moved to central or northern Florida into Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, where they could pass off as “Gullahs” or “Geechies”. The term Geechies refer to communities of Blacks who live on Islands off the coast of Southeastern Georgia and their culture, speech pattern and even their food is very similar to that of certain islands of the Bahamians. It wasn’t hard for many Bahamians to pick up the Gullah/Geechie speech patterns; if they wanted to jump the contract many of the returning Contract workers are still talking like Geechie in their late 70’s. They still got the “Merican” slang on the tongue. Naturally if you jump the contract you ran the risk of getting caught and the American authorities had their own way of tracking down Bahamians.
If they walked up to a group of Black men, all speaking Geechie, they would give each one in turn a metal bucket to go to the spigot and get water. The Bahamians would invariably be the one to turn the bucket upside down and beat it. That comes from our Junkanoo tradition. Bahamians can’t help beating drums or any container with his flat palms.
Uncle Bertie was typical of the many thousand of simi-literate and illiterate young men who left the Bahamas for the chance to make some real money. The construction of the Air Force Base at Windsor Field and Oakes Field was providing employment for several hundred unskilled Bahamian workers, but no other activity in the Bahamas at that time held the same kind of economic promise for young Bahamians.
First of all only the strongest and the fittest got to go. The contract was interested in strong black and able hands. The physical exam was most exhaustive; they were not taking any weaklings. Also, consider that for 15 years out of the life of a country, the Bahamas was absent the energy of a population who could have been contributing to the agricultural effort of America. This was one of the negative effects of the contract, and when they returned to The Bahamas there was no way they could or would engage in farming as it was and still is practiced in The Bahamas.
The immediate effect of the contract was economic, real money. When you signed up to go if you were single, you could assign some of your earnings to a family member, but if single, it was compulsory to assign an amount to your mother. If married, then naturally assignments were made to wives, but the system ensured that some of your earnings were remitted to the Bahamas. That’s not to say that it ran smoothly. Many men returned home to find girlfriends, wives and money gone, and themselves only richer for the experience. But by and large, good sums of money flowed to the Bahamas into small communities and villages that heretofore had no relationship to a wage scale or regular earnings.
In Nassau, relatives had to collect the money from the Labour Office in Oakes Field or the Post Office Savings Bank. Those days when your name was called out was a big day in the communities and on Bay Street because the money allowed households to purchase the necessities of life in quantities, like a case of lard, sack of flour, sack of grits, a side of salt pork and a case of corned beef. Also around Easter or Christmas time if a son or husband was truly attentive you would go and pick up something that was ordered through the Sears Catalogue. In the family islands you collected the money from the commissioner’s office.
Life for the contract workers in the United States probably was no better or worse than that of the Haitians who migrated to the Bahamas in the late 60’s and 70’s looking for work.
Their labour was contracted to large and small farmers and their living and working conditions were determined by the size of the operation and the attitude and disposition of the overseers or owners. There is no doubt that there were confrontation where race was involved, but if you believe their stories the Bahamian always come out on top. Nearly every person who went on the contract told you:
- He never travelled without a razor or gun
- He back talked Cracker
- Or worse, he slapped a cracker.
You could believe all the above if you wanted to.
The majority of Bahamian worked in citrus and fruit groves and vegetable farms in Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Minnesota to pick beans and corn, and undoubted saw the worst of kind of segregation but undoubtedly, acts of kindness and understanding.
On their return home many of them symbolically noted their favorite or longest place of work by writing it on the chain guard of a three speed or “tick tike bike”.
The tick tick bike in the 50’s and 60’s was like the BMW or Mercedes in the Bahamas today. To own one you had to be a person of substance. To the returnee it was a visual display of them having travelled and especially after they dressed up the bike, which also had to be a Raleigh on BSA.
I got my first real lesson in Geography from those bikes, when I started noticing from example, “Pahokee, Fla.”, or Belle Glade, Fla., “Twin Lakes, Minn.”, or Cedar Rapid, Iowa”. They also couldn’t leave the bike they way it was made; it had to be dressed up with chrome clips, like “hood wrenching” a car fender. Normally the bikes came from the shop with one or two clips to hold the wire from the small generator to the headlight, but after some of these bikes were dressed, you couldn’t see the frame at all.
These dressed town bikes became personal statements about the owners and returnees would be able to stand a block away and pick out his bike from a row of 20. The economic benefits surrounding the care and attention of bikes also filtered down to my friends and I who used to be engaged to “watch” bikes for owners while they attended the movies at the Capitol or Paul Meeres Theatre. They paid us about three pence (truppence) to watch the bikes and make sure no clips were removed by other bike owners or other bike watchers. The bikes were more than transportation, they were status symbols and more than one lady’s heart was won by a man who had the best dressed bike or who could pedal straight up Farm Road Hill with her on the bike, crinoline slip blowing, and without getting off to push. These were real men.
Men who had been on the contract were also marked by a distinct dress code in two styles; Zoot Suits and Coveralls. The Zoot Suits was usually reserved for when they came home off the plane, for the Joe Billy dance on Saturday nights or the dances at the Silver Slipper. For those of us who don’t know what the zoot suit was, it was a style influenced by Jazz and Rhythm and Blues artists in America. It was basically a double breasted suit with pleats, full in the knees but tapering down to pegs at the ankles with cuffs. It was usually adorned with a gold chain that hung from the vest of the suit travelling past the knee and back up to the side pocket. It was worn with two-tone shoes, and topped off with the widest had that the wearer can find, either felt or panama straw.
The Zoot Suit was almost like a uniform and the outfit was worn especially if the wearer could Boogie-Woogie or Jitterbug. It was like you only wore the suit to do the Boogie-Woogie or Jitterbug if you had the Zoot Suit. The two were inseparable.
The casual attire for the contract returnees were a pair of overalls and Brogans. Brogans were a big thick U.S. army issued boots, and with the coveralls, was also a standard uniform for agriculture workers in North America.
On their return home the men wore well-kept versions of the two. Both outfits were usually topped off with some kind of head gear and the Bepop Glasses. Some of these glasses were clear and some were tinted, but you had to have a pair. They were called Bepop Glasses as the period of the contract coincided with the Bepop era in American cultural when Jazz were changing from the syncopated New Orleans style of music to the more improvised sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach and others.
The men who came from the contract also brought these musical influence with them, and they had their favourite artist in the rhythm and blues tradition like Ruth Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter and to the lesser extent Ray Charles.
In essence, they brought back a profound African American exposure with them during a time period when Americans would just preparing themselves for the great civil rights confrontation that took place in the 60’s.
Not all the returnees were Bepop artist and Jitterbug (mind you, the Jitterbugs were probably the most artistic and interesting dance to watch and take part in, and has a lot in common with the acrobatic style of the break-dance that we see today), except in Jitterbug you have to have a partner, I use to sit for hours and watch the men fling ladies over their shoulders and through their legs.
You had to be very nimble, quick and strong to do the Jitterbug.
Aside from the cultural effect, the foundation of true Black Bahamian entrepreneurship could say to have started with the first contract returnees. While some of their brothers were Jitterbugging, the story was told that our Acklins and Crooked Island brothers, mostly Church of God oriented, did not fool with the song and dance in America, and as a result when they came home, they had a nice little piece of change. It wasn’t uncommon for a hard working person to come home after a four or five years experience with three or four thousand dollars in the Post Office Bank, and in the early 50’s and 60’s that was a lot of money to have in one place.
Most of the housing for working class Bahamians south of Wulff Road in the Englerston and Coconut Grove area was built by men who had been on the Contract. Many of them got a good head start, and have not looked back yet. But as noted earlier, many of them were only richer for the experience.
“TRIBUTE TO CONTRACT WORKERS”
Mr. James M. Moss
Mr. Moss a resident of Miami, Florida was President of the Bahamian American Association in 1993 and addressed a special lecture series at The College of Bahamas
This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the signing of an agreement between the War Food Department of the United States of America and the Bahamas Government to recruit Bahamian farm workers to help with nurturing, reaping and securing food mostly because of the great demand brought about by one of the most devastating wars in the history of mankind – World War II.
Because, most of America’s young men and women were actively involved on the battle field and in the war factories, and most of America’s allies were having a hard time, it was necessary and indeed helpful for America to recruit outsiders to help with preparations for a decisive victory.
Written records are sketchy about this agreement, but accordingly, I was able to gather information that the War Food Department recruited 90,000 Mexicans, Jamaicans and Bahamians, 6,000 of which were out Bahamian men and yes Bahamian women. Bahamians, despite the different culture in America, were able to cope with this new
experience and environment, because of their knowledge of the language, and I might add that by nature Bahamians are hard and dependable workers.
Conditions of need, more so to speak, and a burning desire for achievement and progress, were the driving hammer behind the accomplishment of the “contract” workers. They have done more for the Bahamas than any economic apparatus except for tourism.
For one to know the extent of the economic stimulation and joy brought about by the contract participants, one has to take a look back in history from the 1930’s up to today.
I can remember in 1935, when I was at the age of eight, my grandmother walking with a stick to a depot for two quarts of red grits and a couple pounds of flour, her allowance for old age pension.
I am reminded of Sir Harry Oakes; the soft hearted millionaire who at times hired people to work when actually there was no meaningful work to be done, that would have been helpful to his business. Sir Harry Oakes would hire a number of people for a couple of days and say to them pickup sticks and then drive off. All of this happened when he was building Oaks Airfield. At 4’0’clock in the morning, you would find many people at the Oakes Airfield sight waiting for Sir Harry; knowing within themselves, that there was only a slight possibility that Sir Harry would hire any number of them. Those were the tough days.
I am reminded of Weinergren and his ship The Southern Cross. He had work going on Hog Island, now better known as Paradise Island – I can see his foreman as he comes near to Malcolm Park and anchored his boar about 8 to 10 feet from the shore. And I can remember hundreds of unemployed men gathered on the park hoping that they would be able to get a chance for a few days works. Despite, they were there from first foul crow and they knew that with so many people trying for the same thing, the possibility was nil, they still kept the faith.
In trying to get their names on the work list, I have seen men because of the surge of the crowds, push into the bay; pieces of “Johnnie Cake” that were intended for lunch floating on the surface of the water. Coincidentally, most of those who were pushed into the water were able to get their names on the hired list because of their proximity to the recruiter; the recruiter’s compassion and the temporary indignity suffered. Those were the tough days.
There were times when the Public Works Department would hire a number of labourers for two to three days; lay them off, and then hire a new set of labourers for another two to three days and then lay them off etc., the reason behind this was so that the opportunity to earn a few shillings would spread around to more people.
Following these hard times, Oakes Airfield and the surrounding area became a Military base for the U.S. and her allies along with the Satellite Airfield which is now your international airport. The building of the two airfields was helpful to many who were unemployed including me as you will hear later.
Shortly, after the slowing down of construction activities at Oakes Airfield and “Burma Road” Satellite Airfield the agreement between the U.S. Government and the Bahamas Government recruiting labourers to the United States was signed. Recruiting was done at the Knight of King George building on Blue Hill Road.
The unemployed condition at the time, forced Bahamian men and women to find ways so as to provide a better living for themselves and their loved ones, and at the same time shore up the economic foundation and reinforced the social fibber of the homeland.
I was one of the unemployed who decided to better my lot by signing up with the contract. My story goes something like this! Due to the bad economic conditions, I decided to go to work at age 16. But I knew that I would not be hired if they knew that I was only 16 years of age. So I put my age up to 18 and got a job as a water boy on the air base. The military police questioned me kind of closely, because I guess I looked more like a little boy than a man. After I said that I was 18, then they asked me when I was born to kind of trick me. You know how they say, when you tell one lie, you have to tell two. Well, I told another lie. While I was unemployed, I wasn’t dumb and I gave the police the right year. So when they figure it up by subtracting the birth year from the year we were in, I was allowed to pass – he passed me, let me through and shook his head.
Now, I signed on for the day time shift, but it was so hot and the distance for water was quite long, until it put a strain on me. So I played like I was my own boss and changed to the night shift without the foreman’s permission. I was befriended by a White man from Indiana and he protected me from being discharged for two months. In those days unless, they put the papers in your hand personally, you had your job. So every time the big foreman came around, my co-worker would alert me so I could go in hiding. Finally, they caught up with me after two months and I found myself unemployed.
In my most desperate moments, I heard about the contract on the radio and decided to sign up. I was excited about having the opportunity to not only work, but also travel and have some new experiences. My father was also in the states and I thought that I might get to see him. So I got on the plane at Oakes Field and got off at Miami Airport.
We were then transported to Ojus, Florida which today is a part of Miami and the area which is considered one of our more exclusive areas – Aventura. If you been to Aventura Mall, you have been in Ojus.
Anyhow, we were supposed to pick tomatoes. Now, the next day when they took us to the farm, the ground was real wet, so we refused to work under those conditions. So when they brought us back to the camp and the officials came to question us, those of us who said we won’t pick tomatoes with the ground conditions, were sent back home for refusing to work. They said we violated the contract.
bad cold and the ground was too wet for me to work in my condition and this spared me. Well, then they sent me to Ochobee, Florida, where I had a new experience of seeing a general store which also had a post office. The owner also had produced his own money which was to be spent in his store. I also got to see American Indians for the first time.
The one real bad experience, I had there was to witness one of the women being killed in a trucking incident. She jumped off the truck, because she thought the driver was not going to put her off at her stop.
From there, I was sent to Zellwood, Florida where I stayed on a military camp which was used to house farm workers. I can’t forget celery cutting. Because the muck or dirt that the celery was planted in would get on the skin and eat you all up. All night, my skin was like it was on fire, because if irritation from the dirt. I refused to work under those conditions and they sent me home. I stayed at the Dorsey Hotel overnight in Miami with six cents in my pocket. I bought this great big cigar even though I was dead broke. I guess I thought that if I landed with a big cigar in my mouth, I would be seen as a big shot.
I remember being angry when I got back to Nassau, because I did not get to see my father and no provision was made for me to get home from the air field. I had to walk home. But, my home coming was joyous. After two months away, it was something to see how happy, friends and family were to see me, to receive me, to greet and accept me back home.
As you can see, it seems that I couldn’t hold a job beyond two months. Over the years, I did manage to keep jobs a bit longer so much so that I am now enjoying my retirement years.
Now, the contract overall had positive impact on the economic development of the Bahamas and on the United States of America. I told you my story, because when we have finished making all the academic analysis of the contract, we need to understand that he “Contract” had impact on the lives of people far and above economics.
Leaving home for the first time was exciting yet frightening. Some of us were exposed to one of the major problems facing America – racism.
Bahamians being proud and educated people would not accept what we considered “bad working conditions” or acts of racism.
We missed family and other loved ones. While I was single and did not leave wife not child, some men left wife and children. Sometimes they thought they left a wife and one child to come back and find that they left a wife and 2 or 3 children that they did not even know they had (if you know what I mean). In other words when daddy was away mommy did play.
Contract was an equalizer for class differences. One of my friends from the contract said that “man, after them “sedity” men found them low class boys coming back with money building big houses and opening businesses, they stopped being “sedity” and signed up!
After you come from a place where you could roam the whole island, swim in the sea and eat conch and fish every day, it was hard adjusting to the loss of freedom of movement and confinement to the camps.
Some of us stayed in America and started families there.
In spite of everything, being the people that we are, we did what we had to do by contributing approximately 10% of our population to the contract agreement. We did our part for the War and for the economic development of our country and our families.
There were tears shed and of course there were broken hearts. There were apprehensions on the part of many; adventure on the minds of others , but the “contract” provided an opportunity to inject oneself in to the continuous effort to preserve democracy in the Western Hemisphere; to perpetuate our way of living and to bring about an unconditional end to a brutal war.
So I salute the contract workers for they were like navigators to a floundering Bahamas, in a sea of unemployment and a sluggish economy.
In closing, I would like to leave for your daily consideration excerpts from the last will and testament (1955) of one of America’s greatest educators Mary McLeod Bethune, “ I leave you love, I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge development confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity; I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow man. I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.
(Pictures courtesy United States Department of Labor)