Competing with faux jungles full of parrots, pods of under-water-ballet-performing mermaids, and parks dedicated to every conceivable theme, another "attraction" would seem to be the last thing Florida needs. But if you're in the Sunshine State during the next six weeks, I strongly urge you to visit the new Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum.
A project of the PR-savvy crew at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization trying to improve the lot of migrant farm laborers, the museum features the sort of exhibits you might expect: chains, a blood-stained shirt worn by a field hand who was beaten for not working hard enough, and cramped, filthy living quarters. What might come as a surprise is that these are not relics of the 1800s. They all came from slavery cases the Coalition has helped bring to light in the last decade or so. Since the mid-1990s, more than 1,000 slaves have been freed in at least six cases in Florida.
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.
Fittingly, the museum is housed in a 24-foot box truck once used to haul produce. The truck is a replica of one in which several men were kept locked up for as long as two and a half years until the slavery ring that held them was broken in 2007. They slept in the truck, urinated and defecated in one corner, and were driven in the truck daily to fields where they were forced to pick tomatoes, often for no pay. Some of the men who were imprisoned acted as "consultants" on the project to assure authenticity. In late 2008, several members of a family were sentenced to jail terms in the case.
Slavery has a rich, time-honored, and unbroken history in Florida. The museum traces that story from the days of chattel slavery before the Civil War, through the press gangs of black convicts in the early 1900s and post-Depression-era poor whites portrayed in Edward R. Murrow's 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame, right up to today's migrant workers. And make no mistake: it's happening as you read this.
I had an opportunity to visit the museum a few days ago as a half-dozen workers were assembling steps leading into the back of the truck and adding other finishing touches. 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.
These are the sort of memories that you're unlikely to get at any other Florida attraction. After a visit to the museum, a winter tomato will never taste the same again. Which is exactly what the coalition intends.
The Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum will be touring Florida until April 15. For more information, visit the coalition's Web site.
For a detailed account of slavery and labor abuses in Florida's tomato fields, click here to read an article Barry Estabrook wrote for Gourmet magazine last year.