Seabrook Farms, the frozen foods agribusiness in southern New Jersey that has been the focus of our class’s attention, was constantly looking for labor. In the 1940s, with an increase in wartime production, the company came to rely on an extensive network of makeshift labor camps. Within these labor camps, a major concern arose: medical care. New Jersey officials sought to reduce the spread of infections, making sure that the state was not responsible for the care of thousands of sick, out-of-state workers.
There were camps that actively monitored the well-being of their workers and took measures to prevent the spread of infections. Certain camps were provided certified doctors, surgical rooms, and laboratories for testing for syphilis and other diseases. Such cases were exceptions, however. Many labor camps, including those attached to Seabrook Farms, lacked even the rudiments of medical care. Farm workers had to go without medical care, helping themselves however they could.
One of the main factors leading to the spread of infections at Seabrook Farms was the unsanitary living conditions that existed in the camps. In an August 1944 letter to the State Department of Health, Mary Dyckman, an activist and president of the Consumer Leagues of New Jersey, reported that, “flies were swarming, some of the outhouses were dirty, and the odor was very foul.” The lack of proper food storage facilities lead to the spread of stomach infections, including dysentery. Dyckman observed, “A good part of the population had been held up with an epidemic of acute intestinal disorder, which produced diarrhea.”iii
Among the most dangerous and controversial issues at the labor camps was the risk of venereal diseases, particularly syphilis. Syphilis was often stigmatized in racial terms. Doctors and public health officials characterized blacks as lacking restraint, and accused them of being unable to control their sexual urges. Additionally, there was a danger of spread and increase of infections in the camp, since the hospital was unable to isolate those infected. Venereal diseases presented both a symbolic and real danger to the people working at Seabrook Farms and labor camps.
The situation at Seabrook Farms and other camps led to the creation of a set of state regulations governing the living, sanitary, and medical conditions at labor camps. The 1944 document, Memorandum to the New Jersey State Commission for Post War Economic Welfare, outlined how New Jersey’s Migrant Labor Act would improve health conditions in the camp. Specifically, “Sanitation- waste disposal- safe-guarding water and food supplies; Community and public health services including pre-natal and child health programs- control of communicable diseases,” would all be required.iv As of 1947, “health services, although not extensive, [were] available in all camps at Seabrook Farms.”
Health problems and other concerns that existed in the labor camps continue to exist in prisons today, and anywhere where large numbers of people are confined to packed spaces. Prisons and labor camps are linked because they are overcrowded and don’t have the best sanitation and quality medical care.
To visit the online exhibit and learn more about this history, please go to: www.njdigitalhighway.org/exhibits/seabrook_farms
i Helen Bryan Sater Employment and Housing Problems of Migratory Workers in New York and New Jersey canning Industries, 1943 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944).
ii Margaret Hemenia Gordon, “A Study of Migratory Labor at Seabrook Farms 1941-1945” (MA Thesis, Atlanta University, 1947).
iii Mary Dyckman to Julius Levy and William H. McDonald, August 11, 1944, Consumers League of New Jersey Records, MC 1090, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.
iv Mary Dyckman, “Memorandum to the New Jersey State Commission for Post War Economic Welfare,” December 18, 1944, Consumers League of New Jersey Records, MC 1090, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.