Column: You didn’t know him, but he was a player in our history

03/17/2019 6:00 AM |

On March 3, in the tiny South Carolina hamlet of McClellanville, a man named Frank Snyder died. I know this because Mr. Snyder’s niece emailed me last Tuesday night, March 5, to say he had passed. He was 70 when cancer claimed his life.

I’m pretty sure no one who reads this column will recognize Frank’s name or say, “Oh, I knew him.” Many who read this won’t remember, or perhaps never knew, that there was a farm labor camp by the railroad tracks on Depot Lane in Cutchogue that existed for more than 80 years before it burned to the ground in 2006, and that generations of poor, black, southern-born men and women, including Frank Snyder, lived and worked there.

Frank is not someone whose name will ever appear in a history book about North Fork farming. The labor camp and its dozen or so residents were never on the tourist map.

His name won’t appear in a local history because, until recently, so much of that history has been more about genealogy and family boasting than about fact gathering. No, you won’t read Frank’s name in one of those books. He wasn’t a descendant of a “First Family,” the Europeans who came here, removed the Natives from the land they had occupied for 10,000 years, and whose descendants wrote the histories to make their own families the heroes of the story.

I hope when you finish this column you’ll know Frank a little better, in spite of the all but anonymous life he lived in Cutchogue, a life that revealed the uglier side of sharecropping. His was a life that represents a straight line to the Jim Crow South and the institution of slavery that once stained our lush, beautiful land.

But Frank’s life and the role he played here — and how he lived here — are worth remembering and fitting into the history of this place, for history holds lessons to be learned and passed along, like family heirlooms. History has many sides, but it isn’t playdough, something you mold into anything you want it to be.

Frank was born in McClellanville, in a house that once sat at the back of a plantation. It began as little more than a shack in a patch of woods. Over the years, it was expanded, remodeled and called home by generations of Snyders. His ancestors were slaves on the very land where he was born and where, in November 2005, he returned after an absence of nearly 40 years.

His mother, Susan, was still alive when he returned; his father, Henry, had died, never knowing what had become of his son after he disappeared in the mid-1960s. What I learned is that in 1966 or ’67, Frank visited a sister in New York, probably got drunk in a bar or club somewhere and was picked up by a man who specialized in “recruiting” farmworkers to live in labor camps. He was brought to a camp in Riverhead, then, sometime in the seventies or early eighties, to the camp in Cutchogue. Many farmworkers told me they had a word for this practice of grabbing drunks and bringing them to camps: They said they had been “Shanghaied.”

When I met Frank in the mid-1990s, he was still living in that camp. One of his crew bosses was a man named Carl, who beat and abused him — his favored instrument was an iron skillet. I was told this story by the other camp residents dozens of times. Carl died and another crew boss took over, Jimmy Wilson, a good-hearted man who was born in rural Georgia in 1918. His grandfather, Shadrack Wilson, was born a slave in Georgia in the mid-1850s.

You can still see what remains of the camp today, set back from Depot Lane. It used to be hidden behind a massive barn, inside of which was a “grading” operation for washing and bagging potatoes. I spent months at the camp and in the barn, talking to these men and the two women who lived there, Clara, whose last name I can’t remember, and Bea Evans.

Bea helped cook for everyone along with her duties in the grading barn. After the barn burned down, as she tried to begin a new life, Bea was murdered in Riverhead by a drug dealer.

Every time I went to the camp to talk to Bea, or Clara, or Mr. Wilson, I also sat with Frank. We talked in the grading barn during breaks, or in the little garden alongside the lane that Mr. Wilson kept for his farm stand, and we talked in the bunkroom inside the camp building where Frank and his bunkmate, Oliver Burke Jr., had set up a television they’d picked up at the reuse center at the town dump.

During hundreds of hours of conversations, he said he didn’t know what state he was born in, the name of either parent or even how old he was. He was not sure of his last name. And he had nothing: no bank account down at the North Fork Bank branch in Cutchogue, no tin can with his wages in it and no clothes or shoes that hadn’t been dropped off at the camp in plastic bags or acquired at the Salvation Army store in Riverhead.

When he was picked up at the camp on a Saturday night to begin the long drive home to South Carolina, he got into the car with all that he had after four decades of labor: the clothes he wore, a new baseball cap Bea had bought for him and a trash bag of donated clothes. There was nothing else, not even a penny to buy meals on his way south.

The following morning, a Sunday, when Frank pulled up in front of that little house in McClellanville and climbed out, he stood in the road staring around him in disbelief, as if he never thought this day would come. His mother could be heard wailing inside the house.

“My son’s home, my son’s home,” she cried out.

It was not 1865, or 1875, when a slave sold away from his family somehow made it back home. It was the week before Thanksgiving 2005.

Susan Snyder attended her son’s funeral on March 9. She is 103. Her daughter Dorothy told me two days before the funeral that Frank never spoke about Cutchogue, or his 40 years as a migrant farmworker with nothing at all to show for it.

“We are just glad to have had him home,” she said.

I am writing this column about Frank because he meant something to me, but also because he was here, on the North Fork, putting potatoes in bags at a camp whose presence is barely a part of our collective story. We seem to want to tell the other story, the one with heroes we are related to, and not this one.

No matter your view of history — even if you think it begins here when the English first arrived, and not with the Native people who came when the glaciers retreated — Frank, Clara, Bea, Mr. Wilson, Oliver Burke Jr., and the other residents of the camp deserve to be mentioned.

Consider this column the first draft in the rewriting of our history.

Photo caption: Frank Snyder sits on the front of Jimmy Wilson’s pickup truck. Mr. Wilson stands to the left. Photo was taken at the former Cutchogue farm labor camp. (Viorel Florescu courtesy photo)

Steve Wick is the executive editor of the Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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