Modern Slavery Museum Is an Eerie Reminder of How Little We've Progressed
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.
When the visitor steps out of the truck he sees a panel which gets to the heart of CIW's analysis around modern slavery -- that it's not something that takes place in a vacuum, but it's tied to the broader conditions in the agriculture industry -- sub-poverty wages and substandard working conditions; from the earliest days of slavery through today, farmworkers in Florida are among the least paid and least protected workers in the nation.
On the panel are two artifacts to drive home that message: the bloody shirt of a 17-year old boy who was beaten in 1996 for stopping to take a drink of water while working in Immokalee. In response, there was a nighttime march by 400 workers to the crew leader's house. This was a significant moment in CIW's history because that kind of violence was routine and never received a widespread organized response.
There is also testimony blown up from a 1970 Senate hearing convened by Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale illustrating that these same issues were being discussed 40 years ago. Next to it is a video by Iowa public TV of a similar hearing held just two years ago by Senators Bernie Sanders, Edward Kennedy, and Richard Durbin.
At the foot of the panel is a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. Harvesters fill it up 100 to 150 times per day, on average. For that bucket the worker receives 45 cents -- a nickel more than the wage earned in 1980 (and that nickel is the result of general strikes organized by CIW in the mid- and late-90s.) The museumgoer can pick it up, getting a sense of how hard the work is for stagnant wages.
All of these exhibits allow CIW to make the arguments that they have been pushing for over 15 years very tangible. It's one thing to tell people about the conditions that persist in the fields. It's an entirely different thing to show it inside of a rolling replica of the most recently discovered slavery truck where people were held captive.
"The museum has made it possible to lay out our argument about slavery from A to Z, in a sort of irrefutable package of completely documented and totally unimpeachable facts," says CIW staff member Greg Asbed. "And when you can see the whole history and evolution of four hundred years of forced labor in Florida's fields assembled in one place, then all the false assumptions about what drives modern-day slavery just fall away. It's not workers' immigration status today, or a few rogue bosses, but the fact that farmworkers have always been Florida's poorest, most powerless workers. Poverty and powerlessness is the one constant that runs like a thread through all the history. In short, you see, it's not about who's on the job today. It's about the job itself."
But the last thing CIW wants is for people to simply leave, shaking their heads, saying, "Isn't that terrible. I can't believe slavery exists." The goal isn't just to educate people about what's going on, but also to show them what they can do about it.
The final panel outside of the truck lets people know there is a solution underway with the Campaign for Fair Food. Since 2001, farmworkers have been focusing on the retail level of the food industry -- forcing companies to take responsibility for the conditions of their supply chain in order to alleviate the poverty and powerlessness at the root of the industry.
"The key to making change happen -- the absolute fundamental key to making change happen -- is for the major buyers to move their purchases from the farms where bad stuff is happening, to the farms where good stuff is happening," says Asbed. "Of course, there are no farms that you can say are good across the board yet, that could be certified as 'fair food.' The industry has a ways to go before it gets there. But you can encourage better behavior by moving your purchases to follow the best behavior, and you can eliminate the worst abuses by making sure growers will lose business, and maybe even lose the ability to do business, if abuses like slavery happen in their fields."
CIW has signed code of conduct agreements and penny-per-pound pay raises with the four largest fast food companies in the world; the largest food service company in the world, Compass Group; and the largest organic grocer, Whole Foods. In fact, the latest slavery case -- in which the farms that used slave labor were identified -- led to growers losing business for the first time thanks to the code of conduct agreements.
CIW has now turned its attention to supermarkets, asking them to end their tradition of buying tomatoes with no questions asked.
In the southeast, that means Publix. When asked whether the supermarket continues to purchase from farms that were recently found to use slave labor a Publix spokesperson "said the chain does purchase tomatoes from the two farms but pays a fair market price." That's the kind of mentality CIW is up against in trying to get them to change their ways and pay attention to working conditions and wages. In the northeast, the focus is on Ahold, a Dutch company which owns Giant Food and Stop and Shop. Ahold continues to purchase tomatoes from Six L's, one of the growers that used enslaved workers to pick tomatoes in the Navarrete case. Ahold will take up this issue on April 13 at its shareholder meeting. You can e-mail CIW for postcards to send to any of these supermarkets, and also Kroger.
The final panel of the museum allows people opportunities for action. They can get on the CIW email list, take a postcard to send to Publix, or get information on the upcoming farmworker Freedom March on April 16-18 -- 25 miles from Tampa to Publix Corporate Headquarters in Lakeland. Visitors can also sign a guest book to share some reflections. Some of those comments over the last 3 weeks of exhibits include: "Such a national shame -- it must stay on the front burner until it is no longer." "I will be making choices that will help stop this horrible situation." "Seeing injustice should move us to action!"
Indeed, people across the state have been moved to action. At churches, universities, high schools and other venues, the responses from what one CIW member described as "scores and scores of focus groups" have been amazing.
"They range from I had no idea this is going on, to what can I do to help, to wanting to get involved," said CIW staff member Leonel Perez. "And part of it's the presentation -- once you're inside the truck, and the use of primary sources -- I think there's a very visceral component. It really has been a pretty easy pivot to 'and here's what you can do about it'."
This week in St. Augustine, two older African-American workers who used to work for Ron Evans (U.S. vs. Evans, 2007) visited the museum. They described their experience in servitude and vouched for the museum's accuracy in portraying the Evans' operations. One of the men had escaped by slipping away in the middle of the night after working for Evans for 11 years. They talked about the beatings they received if they tried to leave the labor camp and how Evans used to gather up the workers' shoes at the end of each workday so that even if they escaped, they wouldn't be able to get far running barefoot through the fields and forest.
The Modern-Day Slavery Museum stops us from running in a very different way. It forces us to confront the horrible truth that slavery still exists in America, and that too many consumers and leaders in the food industry simply turn a blind eye.
When the museum has finished traveling Florida, I hope legislators will take an interest in bringing it to the National Mall. It's time to make the fight against modern slavery part of our national consciousness.