A few weeks ago, I wrote a photo essay about the migrant construction workers that undertook a dramatic expansion of Fort Bragg in 1940-41. They came from every corner of the United States, and they transformed what had been a relatively minor army post during the First World War into one of the largest military installations in the world. That photo essay was called “Building Fort Bragg: The Migrant Workers of 1940-41.”
Today I want to tell another story about migrant construction workers at Fort Bragg, but this time I want to look at a different war and different migrant workers.
This time I want to look at the history of Puerto Rican migrant workers that were part of the construction crews that built Fort Bragg at the end of the First World War. They sailed from San Juan to Wilmington, N.C., in October of 1918, and from there went on to Fort Bragg.
Most of them were here in North Carolina only a short time because the war ended later that year. But while they were not here long, they are still part of a remarkable and little known chapter in our history.
Theirs is a little-known tale of war, colonialism and migration, and it is one set against the background of the country’s last deadly pandemic, the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19.
The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19 reached into every city, town and village in the U.S. and killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide. At the end of the First World War, that epidemic followed the Puerto Rican construction workers that came here like a shadow.
I did not know about the history of those Puerto Rican migrant workers until a couple of weeks ago. After reading my photo essay on the migrant construction workers at Fort Bragg during the Second World War, Deans Eatman at the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) wrote to me and let me know about that episode in the state’s history.
Mr. Eatman also shared a splendid article with me that his colleague, Jessica A. Bandell, wrote for NCDNCR’s website in 2017, after she grew curious about the graves of Puerto Rican construction workers that she saw on a visit to the Wilmington National Cemetery. In addition, he pointed me to a little-known memoir that recounts a very personal story about the Puerto Rican laborers and one of the farms where they stayed while they were working at Fort Bragg.
That memoir was written by Dolores Samons Harvell, a descendent of a local family whose members were outraged at the treatment of the Puerto Ricans that stayed on their farm in 1918. (Her family had been forced to sell the farm to the army that year, but they did not have to leave the land until 1919.) A group of the Puerto Rican laborers had stayed in barns and other farm buildings on their land while her family was still there.
That was the Kivett family and they lived on a farm in Manchester, a small community 10 or 12 miles from Fayetteville. The army moved them and approximately 170 other families out of Manchester in order to build Fort Bragg.
Ms. Harvell’s book is called Employee U.S.A., which is part of the inscription on the gravestones of a group of the Puerto Rican laborers that died of influenza and were buried at the Wilmington National Cemetery.
Other Puerto Ricans were buried at what’s now the Fort Bragg Main Post Cemetery. According to Ms. Harvell, that cemetery is located on land that had previously been her family’s peach orchard.
I also found another important historical account of those Puerto Rican construction workers. In a Ph.D. dissertation written at the University of Texas at Austin in 2015, Mónica Alexandra Jiménez draws on War Department records at the National Archives to chronicle their experience at Fort Bragg and at other military construction sites in the southern states. It’s only a small part of her dissertation, but it is quite thorough and very useful.
Dr. Jiménez is now a professor in UT-Austin’s African and African Diaspora Studies Department.
Taken together, the research of Jessica Bandell, Delores Samons Harvell and Dr. Jiménez has been bringing the story of the Puerto Rican construction workers at Fort Bragg back to life.
The Voyage from San Juan
According to Dr. Jiménez, U.S. government officials hoped to accomplish two things when they arranged for the recruitment of the Puerto Rican workers in 1918. First, they needed more workers at Fort Bragg and other military construction sites. The War Department needed thousands of workers at those locations, but the war had created a labor shortage because large number of potential construction workers had joined the military, while others had flocked to higher-paying jobs in shipyards and defense plants.
Second, government officials hoped that the recruitment of Puerto Rican laborers to Fort Bragg and to other defense construction sites in the U.S. would provide at least a small measure of relief for the phenomenally high levels of unemployment and poverty that had plagued Puerto Rico since the U.S. Army occupied the former Spanish colony in 1898.
Those government officials were ever mindful of the dangers that the Puerto Rican independence movement posed to the rule of the U.S., and the island’s poverty posed a constant challenge to its legitimacy there. The role of U.S. corporations in creating the economic crisis was also undeniable.
As Jessica Bandell writes, the U.S. takeover of the island in 1898 “opened the door for American corporate capitalists, who established several large-scale sugar plantations on the island, forcing many Puerto Ricans off their land and into wage-paying jobs.” For the displaced though, few other job options existed.
The great wave of Puerto Rican immigration to the U.S. did not begin until after the Second World War. However, the Puerto Ricans who came to the U.S. during the First World War were not the island’s first citizens to work in the U.S. and its territories. Even before the war, some Puerto Ricans had already been recruited to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations. Others had gone to Arizona to work on cotton farms, and still others had gone to the Panama Canal Zone, which at that time was still a U.S. territory.
The First World War raised the number of Puerto Rican migrant workers in the U.S. to a new level, however.
In her dissertation, Dr. Jiménez notes that the War Department and the Labor Department jointly recruited thousands of Puerto Ricans to work at Fort Bragg and other military construction projects in the U.S. in 1918, the last year of the First World War.
In October 1918, U.S. ships carried approximately 3,000 workers from San Juan to the U.S. mainland. They were bound for military construction projects in three places: New Orleans; Lexington, Kentucky; and Fort Bragg. Others soon went elsewhere.
Things did not go well. By the time that the Puerto Rican laborers boarded a transport ship in San Juan, a number of them had already fallen sick. That was in the midst of the flu epidemic’s deadly second wave. As we discovered with Covid and cruise ships last spring, a crowded ship is a bad place to be in a pandemic.
The Puerto Ricans soon made a harsh discovery. Even if an epidemic had not been raging, neither the U.S. Army, its private building contractors nor local civilian authorities were ready for them.
According to U.S. Department of War, Bureau of Insular Affairs records that Dr. Jiménez found at the National Archives, the Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico almost immediately began to receive protest letters from workers at all the sites in the U.S. where they were working on military construction projects.
(Puerto Rico did not—and does not—have voting representation in the U.S. Congress. The Resident Commissioner is the island’s non-voting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.)
In those letters, the Puerto Rican laborers protested food shortages, improper sanitation, lack of cold weather clothing and a critical shortage of medical care at the migrant construction camps. According to Dr. Jiménez, they described the living conditions as “pitiful,” “atrocious” and “inhuman.”
Shades of Jim Crow
Those National Archives records evidently don’t address the issue, but many of the Puerto Rican laborers may have been astonished at being treated as “black” in North Carolina’s Jim Crow society.
There was little room for “in between” or “brown” as a separate racial category in North Carolina in those days: one was deemed either white or black, and whether you were deemed white or black had tremendous consequences for how you were treated and what your prospects in life were.
(Native Americans were treated as a third category, though most strikingly in areas with large native populations.)
In colonial Puerto Rican society, on the other hand, there was definitely a history of discrimination based on skin color, but nothing like in the southern states of the U.S. White supremacy was not one of the society’s central organizing principles, as it was here, and most Puerto Ricans embraced a heritage that they recognized as having European, Native American and African roots.
Of course some Puerto Ricans were very dark skinned, so for those people there was no “in between” to consider when they were here anyway. They looked like black Southerners, and white society treated them like black Southerners.
So I can’t say for sure, but if the Puerto Ricans found medical care at Fort Bragg wanting, food inadequate, housing miserable and supervisors abusive, they may have been discovering what it was like to be treated as a black worker in North Carolina at that time.
The Peach Orchard
In the War Department documents at the National Archives, Dr. Jiménez found letters in which some of the Puerto Rican laborers expressed hopes of being sent to other work sites in the U.S. where conditions were better. Others just wanted to go home.
A little more than 1,700 Puerto Rican migrant workers had gone to Fort Bragg. The influenza epidemic loomed large for them all. When he wrote the Resident Commissioner, a laborer named Ramón Viña reported that three of his fellow workers had already died and that “90 percent of the 1,700 are sick, some of them so ill that they will also die.”
Another of the migrant workers at Fort Bragg, Rafael F. Marchán, sent a petition to the commissioner indicating that 12 men had already died and hundreds more were sick. The petition was dated October 18, 1918, and signed by him and 135 of the other Puerto Rican laborers.
In a later deposition, Marchán testified that:
“. . . owing to the improper and unsanitary conditions under which the said Porto Ricans labor and live . . . their health and comfort and even their lives are not only endangered and put in jeopardy but actually broken up and destroyed as it has been the case with some 22 of them who have died from utter lack of proper care and medical attention….”
In the end, according to Jessica Bandell’s research (which included looking at local death certificates), at least 28 Puerto Ricans died of influenza in the month of October 1918.
They included the men buried in the Kivett family’s peach orchard. Fort Bragg did not yet have a military cemetery at that time, and their graves were the beginning of what became the Fort Bragg Main Post Cemetery.
“The men would come late at night and bury their dead on the Kivett property, right off the side of the front porch, between the house and the two-story barn,” Dolores Samons Harvell’s grandmother told her.
In Employee U.S.A., Ms. Harvell includes a letter from her aunt, Ethel Mae Kivett Brown, with a very vivid memory of those burials:
“When they came bringing them at night, there were the low lantern lights, dimly outlining the figures of the gravediggers, the brushing, swishing sound of the shovels against the sandy soil. Through the winter darkness, came the sickening thuds that are common to graves being filled.”
In his deposition, Rafael Marchán also testified that some of the men were kept in what we would consider today a state of slavery:
“There have been such cases of outrageous unspeakable abuse and degrading ill treatment of the men that some have positively refused to continue at the Camp and announced their intention to leave, but have been prevented to do so by sheer compulsion of force, thus being . . . compelled to remain in a state of involuntary servitude.”
Few of the Puerto Ricans stayed in North Carolina for very long. Germany surrendered in November 1918 and most military construction projects were cancelled or scaled back. The large majority of the Puerto Rican workers were soon shipped home.
A few apparently did stay in North Carolina for longer. Some continued to work on construction crews at Fort Bragg and some got jobs at the Waccamaw Lumber Co., 70 miles to the south.
On the City of Savannah
Some of the Puerto Ricans never arrived at Fort Bragg. A second group of Puerto Rican workers arrived in Wilmington aboard a ship called the City of Savannah a few days after the war had ended. By that time, influenza had ravaged the men on board. The ship remained in the harbor in quarantine, while more than 200 of the men in the worst shape were hospitalized at Fort Caswell, the location of a small army camp on Oak Island, south of Wilmington.
In her article, Bandell highlights the heroic role of one of the nurses that cared for the Puerto Rican laborers with influenza. The nurse’s name was Lena Wright Jason. A young African American woman, she had lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years while her father was a Presbyterian missionary there. She had evidently been recruited to Wilmington earlier in the epidemic from Scotia Seminary, an African American women’s college in Concord, N.C.
According to Bandell’s research, Nurse Jason spoke fluent Spanish and had graduated from a nursing school in San Juan. She acted as both nurse and translator to the Puerto Rican laborers hospitalized at Fort Caswell.
The City of Savannah eventually returned to Puerto Rico. In documents that Dr. Jiménez found at the National Archives, a Red Cross representative described the condition of the Puerto Rican workers as they disembarked back in San Juan. He indicated that he did not think Red Cross representatives should usually criticize government policies, but he said he felt compelled to address the state of the men that returned.
“No American citizen, seeing these men, could resist the impulse to recite the story of this lamentable lapse in our vaunted humanity and efficiency. No fair description of conditions as I saw them can be made without indicating culpability somewhere along the line.”
That Red Cross representative, Gavin Payne, was the organization’s field director in Puerto Rico at that time. He described the City of Savannah’s deck being “littered with the sick,” and he indicated that most of the men could not walk off the ship without help.
In a Dec. 5, 1918 letter to the chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs (cited by Dr. Jiménez), Payne described how the “woeful emaciation in a number of cases brought vividly to mind pictures in the public prints some years ago of coolies in India when famines stalked abroad.”
Other stories from Fort Bragg’s construction may be waiting to be told. Written in a spirit of civic boosterism, a 1919 pamphlet called Camp Bragg and Fayetteville: Sketches of Camp and City briefly mentions the Puerto Rican construction workers, but also mentions “Mexicans . . . , Spaniards, Cubans, and even, in some cases, the Asiatic races” among the army base’s construction crews. I have never seen an historical account of those workers.