The Negro Joins the Picket Line
Lester B. Granger
And that in general is the attitude of the rest of the Negro farm and cannery workers of Bridgeton, N. J., strikers and non-strikers, as they take stock of their situation during the aftermath of Bridgeton's hectic farm strike. Using the phraseology of striker Jim, "they didn't have nothing and it looked like they wouldn't never get nothin', so why not strike and take a chance of gettin' somethin'."
The result was the Bridgeton strike, a dramatic walk-out and more dramatic picketing by 300 white and Negro employees of the 5000-acre Seabrook Farm. The strike broke upon the metropolitan area with astounding unexpectedness; it tied up New Jersey's largest farming section for a thrilling two weeks, it cost the farm owners a crop loss of $100,000 it set Negro and white women and men battling shoulder to shoulder against police and sheriff's deputies armed with shot guns, clubs and tear gas bombs.
Such events seemed almost unbelievable to those who knew Bridgeton as the quiet and picturesque county seat of Cumberland County. Tourists from Wilmington to Atlantic City remembered the town as a prosperous community of 20,000, surrounded by rich farms and presenting wide, shaded streets and attractive homes to the passing motorists. They have admired the thriving truck gardens, stopped at comfortable Cumberland Hotel, and driven on again, faintly envying the residents who lived so pleasantly in the midst of rural plenty.
Many Negroes know Bridgeton, also, for they have read of historical Gouldtown with its thrifty group of colored small farmers, descend-ants of pre-Revolutionary settlers. They have visited the town for week-ends to picnic in the attractive groves and to bathe in the countless swimming holes which the adjacent river and ponds afford. They have heard that Bridgeton colored folk are "backward"-that they live in terrible houses, that they are content to work for three and four dollars a week, that no colored physician has been able to make a living from the 2000 Negroes resident in town and country nearby.
Bridgeton lives twenty years behind the times. Even the Ku Klux Klan is still active hereabout. The knights of the hooded sheet own meeting groves and gather for "konklaves" and burn crosses for the mystification of a bucolic audience. The entire county is controlled industrially, politically and socially by a small group of cannery class factory and farm owners of which last class Charles F. Seabrook is one.
The geographical visage of Bridgeton is pleasant to see, with its old-fashioned homes of cordial architecture and its wide-shaded streets, but the social soul of the town is not so pretty. That soul may be found by turning off the main streets into the back alleys where live the workers in canneries, in homes and on farms. At first sight these neighborhoods give . a shock. Half-clothed, half-starved, completely dirty children, poor white and Negro, run about in hopelessly squalid surroundings. Frowsy heads look out from half-open doors, through which may be seen badly ventilated rooms crowded with broken furniture and with broken humanity.
The visitor stops at a door; a starved mongrel dog rises with a snarl and limps away. A family of six is seated around a kitchen table which is scarcely more appalling in its unappetizing disarray than the unkempt diners. In the front room a sick lad, half-clothed, lies on a pallet and looks up with lack-luster eyes, panting in the stifling heat which pours in from the tree-less, sun-drenched road outside. An acrid odor lingers everywhere-the odor which spells no running water, no toilets, no fit habitation for humans.
"I makes 'bout seven-fifty a week in pickin' time and the boy, he gin'ally make most as much, but he been sickly the las' few weeks. The wife, she do's day's work and she make 'bout three a week, so we mostly gits along some-ways."
It was out of situations like this, to be found among Negro and Italian pickers in the fields and workers in the canneries, that the strike idea was born in all defiance of South Jersey public attitudes, in all defiance of Klan threats, in all defiance of the traditional belief that Negroes will not strike and that Negroes and whites cannot organize together successfully.
The Bridgeton strike was news, dramatic news for the metropolitan dailies which found amazing the spectacle of Negroes actually organizing to strike and to defy the armed might of Cumberland County's police forces. The strike leaped to the front pages of Philadelphia and New York dailies. It forced its way into the offices of Governor Moore, who refused the re-quest that state troopers be sent to put down the disorder, and who replied that he could not interfere to the detriment of men and women who were working for twelve and eighteen cents an hour. The strike took up the time of the state legislature, when a Republican Assembly passed a resolution insisting that state troopers be dispatched, a resolution which was ignored by the Governor. Bridgeton for five days held the spot-light of public attention.
Meanwhile two hundred and fifty strikers were on the picket line outside the farm gates, determined that scabs should not go in to work the crops and that trucks should not come out to take their loads to market. The presence of town police, sheriff's deputies, and fifty or more volunteer "vigilantes" recruited from white farmers of the section failed to awe the strikers in the least. As trucks attempted to roll out of the grounds, men and women climbed on top and threw the vegetable loads to the ground.
Police grappled with the raiders, and were themselves attacked by picket reinforcements. Women received, and gave no quarter in the hand-to-hand scuffling. Tear gas bombs were brought into play and the police gained a temporary advantage which enabled them to arrest twenty-seven strikers, about half of them Negroes, and hustle them into Bridgeton to the county jail. This was the story which intrigued the press of three great cities, which focused public attention upon the disgraceful conditions under which men and women work in South Jersey's farms, and which brought Federal and state mediators to the scene to arrange for strike settlement.
But behind this story there was the real story, the inside story, of how Jerry Brown, Negro farmhand, together with Dan Hart, Casey Jones, Robert Swigley and Joseph Sicosi, got together to organize white and Negro workers who were toiling in the fields ten hours a day to make a wage of $1.75 at nightfall. There is the story of how Garfield McKee, white professional "organizer" came upon the scene and attempted to take these untutored workers under his wing--how they watched his methods and mastered his scheme of organization, and then when they were ready to go ahead with the serious work of the union, how they quietly pushed him out of the picture and elected their own officers.
There is the story of the first strike on April 10th, undramatic but successful, when Jerry Brown as president of the Agricultural and Cannery Workers' Industrial Union, was fired by Seabrook for his organizing activities. Seabrook was forced to deal with Jerry after all, for the workers walked out in a body and named Brown as leader of their committee.
And so on, through all the traditional employer-to-worker arguments. In the long run, the strikers went back to work, not for seventeen and a half cents an hour, but under a new agreement which paid twenty-five cents to women and thirty cents to men. They worked on that basis until June 25th, when notice came to the workers' union that the farm owners simply could not pay such wages and make a profit, and that the rate would be cut to twenty, eighteen, and fifteen cents an hour for men, women, and children
Moreover, the workers found that another agreement was being violated. It had been the Seabrook custom, during slack season, to lay off most of his Negro help and to keep on the white workers. This, in conference with the union, he had promised not to do, but to keep on workers without regard to race. The June lay-off, however, found 125 workers dropped, with nearly all of them Negroes The lay-off and the wage cut roused the workers' indignation afresh, and second strike was called.
Meanwhile the union's leadership had changed. Jerry Brown had been deposed as president; Clarence Cain as president and Clifford Whiteas vice-president formed a new white-Negro leadership. Reasons given for the change vary. Some say that Brown had lost some of his militancy after Klan crosses had been burned in front of his house, and that he was not protecting the union's interests vigorously. Others scoffed at the idea of pugnacious Jerry being scared off by a burning cross. They told of his public promises to put a shot-gun load into the first Klansman he found on his property.
The Brown adherents claim that radical organizers were responsible for the change in leadership, that Donald and Elinor Henderson, Communist organizers in South Jersey, were too active in conduct of union policies and that Brown's thoughtful and conservative judgment was a stumbling block in the Communists' path. At any rate, Brown went out and the Communists came in just at a time when Seabrook tossed the match into the powder barrel. The strike resulted and South Jersey industrial history was made.
Bridgeton is quiet in the aftermath of the strike. Some workers are back on the job, following efforts of Federal and local mediators. They are frankly dissatisfied. Most of the picketers have not been re-employed, contrary to the settlement agreement. The arbitration board of "two farmers, two 'representative citizens', and a member appointed by the court" give the strikers no representation. "It's the representative citizens who belong to the Klan and Vigilantes," said one striker.
And yet, there is a feeling of satisfaction among Negroes, strikers and non-strikers, that the demonstration was made, no matter what the immediate results may be. A group sat in the colored Elks Hall and, chairs tilted back against the wall, summed up the situation.
"The way I look at it is like this," said one, a towering truck driver who resembled Rex Ingram of "Stevedore." "I've been hanging around this town a good while-too damned long. I've never seen a colored man get anything for his work but a beating. He works his head off all day long, and all he's got is enough to eat on. If he don't work, he's no worse off, because the relief won't let him starve anyhow.
"I say, if we can't get anything for working, let's see what we can get for fighting. This ain't the only town in God's country. If we can't make it here, we'll let these pecks have the town. But we'll make 'em sweat for it first!"