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Column: Profound images of farm labor camp will not be forgotten

A photographer named Viorel Florescu died last weekend. His death came just days after learning cancer had been found throughout his body. I talked to him on the day he said the doctor had given him the news. He knew the end was near.

We had been talking for several weeks because I had an idea I wanted him to get behind. I told him I wanted to showcase photographs he took some 15 years ago and display them in a gallery on the North Fork. He said that would be great; he loved the idea. 

When I called to tell him I had pitched the idea to Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library, he said he would be very grateful if people could see his work.

“I hope I can get there,” he said.

For nearly two years, Viorel and I spent a great deal of time at the farm labor camp that once sat by the railroad tracks on Depot Lane in Cutchogue. We were both working for Newsday then. I live barely a mile from the camp but for a long time didn’t realize what it was. 

The camp building where the workers lived was behind a large barn where they washed and bagged potatoes. You could pass it a hundred times on Depot Lane and never know its purpose, or that Southern-born Black men and women lived there and some of them had been there for decades. They were all but invisible to the society around them.

One day I followed a Black man who rode his bike from King Kullen to the camp. He rode behind the barn and went inside the camp building. I came back the next day and knocked on the door. This two-year reporting journey began that day.

Over the months both Viorel and I became very close to the men and women who lived there. Viorel brought his heart to this assignment, his humanity. That brought out the humanity in the farm workers. 

Their stories were captivating, deeply sad and profoundly American. The crew boss was Jimmy Wilson, who was born in 1918 and had spent every day of his life since the age of 12 as a farm worker. He was a man rich in history, born in Barwick, Ga., at a time when lynching was commonplace. 

He told me he “escaped” Georgia and would never go back. Later I found that a man named Ralph Wilson, born in the same tiny hamlet, was nearly lynched in 1920 but escaped. Jimmy Wilson told me he didn’t know who he was. I didn’t believe him. I saw Jimmy Wilson as representing the America few Americans know anything about. And that many Americans don’t want to know about.

While some of the workers in the camp came and went, others stayed. Oliver Burke, who was also born in Georgia, said on our first meeting that he had no birth certificate and he wanted to find his mother; Bea Shaw, a big-hearted woman who, like her mother before her, spent her working years in camps. Frank Singleton had no idea where he was born and didn’t know the names of either parent or any siblings. He wasn’t sure what state he was born in. He was wrong about his surname — it was Snyder.

Viorel came every day when the light was good to photograph these men and women and to document the work they did inside the grading barn and the lives they led in the cinder-block camp building. We watched them work; we watched Mr. Wilson and Frank spend their off-hours in the tiny garden they maintained by the barn; we watched Mr. Wilson cook dinner for everyone.

Looking at these photographs today is very moving. They picture an entirely lost world that is no longer a part of eastern Long Island. They document a people who lived in the Cutchogue camp and dozens just like it across the region and who, today, are gone, remembered by few.

But for Viorel’s work they would be an unknown group working to bag potatoes in a region where potato farming slowly disappeared. That world was replaced by swank, high-end wineries visited by day-trippers in limousines and vans, where people sip the product and pretend they taste a hint of wildflowers.

I took the idea of displaying some of Viorel’s work to Rosemary Winters, the director of Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library, and Dawn Manwaring, the programs coordinator. I brought three photographs with me to show them. They were very moved and immediately saw the importance of the photographs.

A show of some 25 of Viorel’s photographs will be held in the library in late September and the month of October. No exhibit could ground this library to this place like these photographs. It will also be a memorial to Viorel.

One of the photographs — it shows Mr. Wilson, Oliver Burke and Frank Singleton, who is sitting on the tailgate of a pickup — is running with this column.

Part of the show will include photographs of Oliver returning to Georgia, where he was reunited with his mother who gave him up when he was a baby, and of Frank, whom Viorel and I drove to South Carolina, where we found his 92-year-old mother, brother and sisters waiting for his return.

I can still hear the wailing inside the house: “My son is home, my son is home.” It felt like 1865 when many former slaves tried to find families from which they had long been separated.

I don’t know what happened to some of the others. I do know what happened to Bea. When the barn burned down she moved into an apartment in Riverhead. One morning she was murdered by a man who broke in.

I offered to take Mr. Wilson home to Barwick, Ga. He adamantly refused. I told him the camp was closing; it didn’t matter. He would never go back to Georgia. When I told him I would go anyway, he asked me to find where his mother was buried. Ada Wilson died in 1925, when her son was just 6.

My wife and I went, and one morning under a warm Georgia sun we placed a bundle of flowers on her grave behind a tiny church. I called to tell Mr. Wilson about it. He died in his pickup of a heart attack in Cutchogue a short time later. 

One day I will put a plaque on his mother’s grave that will read: “Here lies Ada Wilson, who was never forgotten by her son.”

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