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  • There's No Crying in a Tobacco Field
  • Pepper Capps Hill (bio)

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"Where I grew up, kids worked in tobacco. It was the rule, not the exception. If your parents were not farmers, you knew by April who you would be working for through spring and summer . . . The later harvesting season would take a larger crew. The youngest were about five years old if family or nine if hired hands. Most of the hands were under sixteen, with a few grandmotherly types in there to keep us in check." Children helping their sharecropper father in Person County, North Carolina, July 1939, by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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I keep a real tobacco leaf in a prominent place in my office at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I teach. My husband has a large tobacco leaf tattooed on his back. It's the reason why anything we do now is easy. When the museum exhibited historic photographs of North Carolina tobacco barns, I was the only staff person that knew what it felt like to stand in those barns. Realizing the fascination others had with our experience, I knew that the story must be collected now. We are the last generation of tobacco kids.

The scars on my fingers from metal harvester clips never seemed like a big deal to me. In Wayne County, where I grew up, kids worked in tobacco. It was the rule, not the exception. If your parents were not farmers, you knew by April who you would be working for through spring and summer. I was in this group, so I actually got paid for my labor. My husband's parents were farmers, so he received no wages and would be "traded" as needed throughout the season in a collaborative of sorts between local farming families.

The season began with a couple weeks in April. The boss would come to the junior high school at noon in his pickup truck with a list of names. "Settin' out" was a valid excused absence, didn't take many people to do, and we all clamored to be on that list. My first time was in seventh grade, and it felt like I had arrived. We'd all jump in the back of the truck, happy as hell to be out of class and in the open spring air. Some of us went to the tobacco beds to "pull plants," while the others went to the field to set them out. After the fields were planted, there was some lull in labor, and we were all back in school as normal. We could not wait for summer.

The later harvesting season would take a larger crew. The youngest were about five years old if family or nine if hired hands. Most of the hands were under sixteen, with a few grandmotherly types in there to keep us in check. Each of us was carefully cast into our role in the production—younger ones picking up stray leaves, experienced hands cropping, ladies on top stringing, the stronger boys carrying, and the farmer's favorite driving the tractor. Types of tobacco and farming methods varied throughout different regions of North Carolina. All of us in the last generation have picked up, handed, cropped, strung or sewed, and driven the tractor. Most male tobacco kids have also poked up, hung, and taken out. Terminology varied even from one county to the next for the same jobs. From the 1960s to the 1980s, tobacco farming evolved from stick barns and horse-drawn sleds to bulk barns and automatic harvesters. By the mid-1980s, most child labor in North Carolina tobacco became obsolete, not so much for ethical reasons as for technology allowing farmers to downsize.

While tobacco farming techniques changed and varied, some common threads run through all of our experiences: it was the hardest work we'd ever do, we loved it, we hated it, the work ethic lessons were invaluable, and it unites us even if we [End Page 96] have never met. In 2009, I started a Facebook page called "I Farmed Tobacco...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 95-100
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-14
Open Access
No
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