What would it be like to come to this town after a harrowing ocean voyage and adjust to a new climate, new foods, new working conditions, and racial prejudice, as well? Fay Clarke Johnson tells the story of Jamaicans who left their lovely, temperate island to find work in the Connecticut River Valley during World War II in her 1995 book Soldiers of the Soil. In 2002, she gave us permission to adapt the following from her book:
“Keep the Boys In Smokes”
This was the motto appearing on billboards and newspapers. “The Boys” were young American men converted to soldiers in WWII when lung cancer was unknown in the 1940s. It was fashionable to smoke. It was soothing to smoke, and the Connecticut River Valley provided some of the world’s finest tobacco. If the young men who worked the tobacco fields were in Europe soldiering, who would grow and process the tobacco? The answer came from imported help, and the Valley’s large growers turned their eyes south for the help they needed.
Young Jamaican men, descendants of slaves, jumped at the chance to better themselves and come to the States. They left their war-devastated farms for Montego Bay, where they were recruited and boarded the SS Shank, aka “The Starvation Boat.” There were 5,200 underfed people on this ship, which tilted so dangerously there were restrictions on how many passengers could stay on which side of the ship. Night time lights and lit cigarettes were taboo for fear of being torpedoed. These ships were attacked by German U-boats, and large sharks were visible in the sea from the overloaded decks. They sailed up the Mississippi River, and the newcomers were unloaded in army barracks. They were told that people up north thought they were monkeys and that they had tails. When they arrived in Miami, they were taken from the ships by truck to a place called “the Monkey Jungle.” The Jamaicans had no control over which farms the US Government would send them but they quickly prayed for a job in the north where racial prejudice was not so blatant.
In May 1943 thirteen hundred Jamaican men arrived in Connecticut. By July nearly 800 were working the 5,500 acres of shade tobacco. Some were dispersed to dairy, potato, beef, or chicken farms. And it was good! Local farm associations praised the diligent newcomers and their accomplishments. They were paid $4.50 for a nine-hour work day. They resided in camps, sometimes as big as 500 men in a camp. One dollar per day was deducted from their pay and sent to their Jamaican families for support. At the end of the 1943 season, they headed for home before the snows came. Some lingered in Florida for more farm work before returning to their island homes.
The next year they returned for more work and the year after. When the war ended in 1945, the Jamaicans would have been sent home forever until the U.S. government realized that the homecoming soldiers would be working in Connecticut’s converted war plants, thus leaving fewer workers for agriculture. The future of the Jamaican workers was questionable. One of the workers, Alfred Chambers, explained the situation:
They brought a lot of the Polish guys over here because they had used them as spies to get into Germany so that was kind of a compensation for them. I used to drive a bus and a truck on the farm. One day the boss said to me, “Let this guy drive; you accompany him and show him the area where you go.” I told him I was not going to do that. I went home without a job.
The Jamaicans were being substituted by displaced persons from the war in Europe. However, our migrant workers had learned that if they resided in the states for seven years, they were entitled to a permanent visa. They sought legal help and soon found themselves living as permanent residents in America. Fay tells us, “Making a life on their own and surviving in the community at large was the new challenge facing the farm workers. …Finding places to live was more difficult than they could imagine. They relied mostly on help from their local churches.” They needed to help each other with their new lives and started by establishing the West Indian Social Club. Its focus was the game of cricket, but it quickly became their home away from home.
Recording Their Story
The Club is where Fay Johnson met the Jamaican workers 50 years after they entered the Connecticut River Valley tobacco fields. They were very proud of their club, eager to find young people to carry on the traditions they had established and honor their Jamaican community’s early history. Fay interviewed seven men from the club; and, with the help of St. Joseph College, was able to record their stories into this book.
Originally published in the Windsor Historical Society Newsletter, January, 2002.