Migrant Workers of Steuben County

Cover Image:
a man throws potatoes onto a conveyor belt
Throwing Potatoes - Image Source

Collection Facts

Extent:
83

Historical Context

For decades migrant workers, some from the West Indies or Latin America but largely from the American south, were seasonal farm hands in Steuben County.

Teams (sometimes called crews or gangs) were usually all white, or all African American. They might be on the job for a week, or for a whole season, depending on demand. Some farms had “camps” for the workers, but the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Kanona was also in use. In 1967 Dorothy Day reported 120 camps within 40 miles of Corning. In many cases, housing was extremely poor.

Some local schools integrated migrant children into the regular classrooms, while others had dedicated migrant teachers and classrooms. Churches helped provide child care, and supplemented the food supply. County social service agencies provided food stamps and other assistance.

While churches and others reached out, children were warned not to get too close, and shopkeepers kept a suspicious eye open. Farmers needed the workers, but often dealt with them while openly wearing a gun.

Police resented frequent Saturday night fights in barrooms. One young man was arrested as a material witness to a crime, facing months in prison and the suspension of his college career while waiting to give his testimony. Local people put up his bail, and found him a job and housing until the trial came up.

Dancer Bill T. Jones came to Steuben in a migrant worker family at the age of three. They stayed, and he graduated from Wayland High School in 1970, then went on to SUNY Binghamton. Since then he has received a Tony, an Obie, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, seven honorary doctorates, and Kennedy Center Honors, and he has been on the cover of Time… besides being named to the Steuben County Hall of Fame.

by Kirk House, Director, Steuben County Historical Society