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Modern Slavery Museum Is an Eerie Reminder of How Little We've Progressed

The Modern-day Slavery Museum will not poach visitors from Disneyworld, that's for sure. But it will serve as a forceful reminder that slavery is far from extinct.

In textbooks across the country, students are still taught that slavery in the United States ended with the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) knows better, and its Modern-Day Slavery Museum is traveling throughout Florida to drive that point home -- that slavery persists in the agriculture fields of the state right up through this very day.

The Village Voice recently described the significance of the museum this way: "Though it's unlikely to compete for crowds with Disneyworld, the Modern-Day Slavery Museum may be Florida's most important new attraction."

The bulk of the museum is housed inside of a 24-foot box truck -- a replica of the one used by the Navarrete family in Immokalee to hold twelve farmworkers captive from 2005 to 2007. The workers were beaten, chained and imprisoned inside the truck, and forced to urinate and defecate in the corners. US Attorney Doug Molloy called the operation "slavery, plain and simple."

Inside of the truck visitors learn about seven cases of farm labor servitude in Florida successfully prosecuted by the US Department of Justice over the past 15 years. Workers were held against their will through threats, drugs, beatings, shootings, and pistol-whippings. These cases meet the high standard of proof and definition of slavery under federal laws and resulted in the liberation of over 1000 farmworkers -- CIW worked with federal and local authorities during the investigation and prosecution of six of the seven cases.

Barry Eastabrook described his experience in the truck for The Atlantic magazine: "Inside, the vehicle was stacked high with cardboard tomato cartons. The floor was chipped and scuffed. There was a plywood sorting table -- which doubled as a 'bed' for the workers. But what stays with me was the heat. Outside, the day was chilly and overcast, but inside the truck, even with the cargo door all the way open, the temperature became borderline unbearable. The stale air was uncomfortable to breathe. Sweat soaked the back of my shirt. And I was in there for less than five minutes, not two and a half years."

But it's not just the contemporary slavery examples one finds inside the box truck that educates the visitors. The museum is designed to look at the history of slavery and forced labor -- the evolution of it -- and the fact that there has never been a period in Florida agriculture when there wasn't some form of forced labor. The exhibit was vetted by historians, slavery experts, economists and other academics, including Nation editorial board member Eric Foner who said, "A century and a half after the Civil War, forms of slavery continue to exist in the world, including in the United States. This Mobile Museum brings to light this modern tragedy and should inspire us to take action against it."

Before entering the truck, the museumgoer is given a booklet and sees two large exhibits which provide historical context -- examining slavery from Spanish settlement through Edward R. Murrow's acclaimed CBS documentary Harvest of Shame in 1960. Forms of slavery include chattel slavery, the convict-lease system through 1923, and debt peonage.

Another display plays a 1993 60 Minutes piece on Wardell Williams, a former crew leader in Florida who kept workers in debt while also supplying some with drugs and alcohol.

Inside the truck the seven cases are described powerfully through the use of primary sources -- court documents, indictments, criminal complaints, testimony. Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez held 400 workers under the watch of armed guards and assaulted -- even shot -- those who tried to escape. Abel Cuello held more than 30 tomato workers in two trailers in the isolated swampland west of Immokalee. Once out of prison, Cuello was able to resume supplying labor to Ag-Mart Farms in Florida and North Carolina. Michael Lee recruited homeless US citizens to harvest oranges, creating debt through loans for rent, food, cigarettes, and cocaine. Ramiro and Juan Ramos had a workforce of over 700 farmworkers and threatened with death those who tried to leave. They also pistol-whipped and assaulted at gunpoint van service drivers who gave rides to farmworkers leaving the area. Ronald Evans also recruited homeless citizens throughout the southeast with promises of good jobs and housing, then kept them in a labor camp surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. He also made sure they were perpetually indebted to him, deducting money from their pay for food, rent, crack cocaine, and alcohol.