Linda Lee [L], activist with the National Farmworkers’ Association, was interviewed by Brittany Nelson [N] in July, 2013.
This is the 41st in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.
Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.
L: My name is Linda Deloris Lee at Apopka, Florida. I was born and raised [here]. We grew all kind of animals, ducks, geese, guinea pigs, chicken, hogs, cows—my dad and grandfather—both of them grew animals. Both had vegetables— corn, greens, peas, okra, tomatoes, a lot of different stuff, so we didn’t go hungry. There was eight of us, seven girls and one boy. My brother used to hang around with my daddy, doing farm work and a little hunting and stuff in the summer time. And also working on the farm.
My mom and them went to Marianna, Florida, before they came down here, and they were staying in what they called camp, a lot of little bitty small houses in one little area. When the season go down, there is nothing to do. They said some man was bumming off other people. He had a wife and some kids. Mother was saying this particular day he stole a loaf of bread and something for the kids. That night, the KKK came with fires, and sheets, and stuff. They went to burning down the house. Pulled him, pull the wife out and tie her to the stake. Set it on fire and burn her and the baby and all. Burn him, the children, all them.
Because it was racist stuff, it wasn’t in the paper. They said Papa grabbed whatever little clothes they could grab, and came down the railroad tracks. They started to work in pulp wood. They stayed in the little quarters behind a furniture store. They worked enough to buy the money to get this property here. See where that fence start back that way, all the way to that road, was my father’s property. They bought the land for fifty-cent per acre. I got the deeds and everything. After the pulp mill went out of business, they started working on the farm. Papa became the crewleader and all the family, my aunt and my mama, and my brother and all the kids we worked. We hoed chicory, escarole, spinach, kale and stuff like that.
Papa and them use to set turtle lines, [in] the ditches, and catch turtles. After we got old enough to work, when school got out we were pulling weeds out of corn, and what they call a caladium flower. They pretty but I don’t like them.
The flowers was in the summer time, we did that, after we got out of school. Saturday and Sunday we went there packing corn or cutting cabbages or cucumbers or whatever they were doing we jumped in and tried to make a little extra money.
My grandfather drove a truck and he would pick us up, maybe about six, seven in the morning. We picking by the piece, we start earlier because we’ve got to cut like twelve thousand, or twenty thousand, whatever, you try to go ahead and get from out the sun. Sometimes you might come up with a muck storm, muck be all up your nose, all in your eyes, all in your ears. You can get cut with a knife when you cutting stuff, and if you go to the doctor they just going to bandage it up and tell you go back to work. We didn’t have no running water in the field. Sometimes you go to eat, it would be so dirty and you just had to drink muck water, and eat your food. We did not realize that we were being exposed to DDT, back then in the 60s. We can be in a field, like we sitting here, and the tractor come right by. Spray all over you.
They could have at least told us don’t come in until later in the day because we are going to spray, or something. They never told us that. They just sprayed with us out in the fields.
N: Has it changed at all?
L: Yes it has. Now they have got their stations in the field, and they got to wear gloves and masks and all. Nobody asked us to wear masks. We wore gloves when we were packing corn because your hand be so sore you can’t hardly touch nothing. You come home. Soak in some aloe water. Put some corn husking lotion on. Next day you back to work with your hands sore and hurting up. Think of doing that for a whole three months.
I worked it from about 68 to ’88. My grandson was born then and my mom died and things got hairy for me. I started working two jobs.
I worked in the nursing home. I worked in the hospital, because mostly my parents went to getting sick. My grandparents. When my grandmamma got real sick, she was dead in this house. She died in ’82. We had to keep feeding her with a tube and all. My grandmamma got sick one Friday. We took her to the doctor. She lived twelve years and two days after the man said she was going to die. We kept feeding her, kept bathing her, kept talking to her. She’ll smile at you, but she wouldn’t say nary a word. For twelve years. I got sick in 80. It start out with appendicitis. I went to work. Joe kept telling me, something wrong with you. Your eyes are turned gray.
N: Your brother?
L: No, a friend. He kept saying your eyes were brown, but now they are turning gray. So I’m going, I feel all right, and I went to sleep on the sofa. I woke up just throwing up and throwing up. He said, we are going to the hospital right now. They kept me because I couldn’t keep nothing down. The next day my appendix burst. The doctor said I worked so much, that I didn’t feel no pain.
N: Would you say that your exposure to pesticides, or people in your family, has affected their health?
L: Um-hm. From my grandfather to my grandmother, to my dad to my brother. My sisters too. I have seen grandmother and Papa get so they could hardly move. It just hurt my heart to think about it. Then my sister Margie. Jerliene—she another Schaffer. She died. My brother died from black lung disease. Which there is no coal mine that I know of in Florida. He worked it on the farm. When them people told me he had black lung disease, I am going, where did he get that from? Now, we worked down where we can’t work no more. I been diagnosed with lupus, and I had implants both in my eyes. I had a gall bladder operation, besides the appendicitis, part of my stomach collapsed on me one time. I have got a kidney. I had the tube in me for periodontitis, because I would not let nobody stick me. So I did that my own self. Because I had enough nursing stuff. When my grandmamma got sick, my mom made four of us go get nursing skills. She said, my mama ain’t going to nobody’s nursing home and she didn’t.
We did a little training, my sister, Nima, me, and Isabel, because we had to have somebody to not only to see about grandmother, but see about mother too. My mama had been bedridden since I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. She got some kind of sore on her leg and it never got well. I had a dog, and that dog licked that sore, and it actually got well.
N: Would you say that the community in Apopka is a strong one for supporting one another?
L: We need more people pulling together, because not only the farm affected everybody, chemicals and stuff, but they got a water thing down here. And the landfill that’s behind it. And [the] Incinerator.
N: For the biomedical waste?
L: Yes. It smells so horrible. Behind Lake Jewell was flat. You go to Lake Jewell now, you see that big old mountain. How did they build that waste stuff up that high? But they did.
Then they had the bird kill and a fish kill. I’m trying to get a lot of more healthcare to come into this area because my daughter has asthma, but my grandchildren—I’ve got quite a few—they have what they call eczema.
N: Has your daughter even been involved with farming at all?
L: Yes, she has.
When you go down in the field you do some real hard work. Just think about the sun blazing on you all day. You had to pick up at least twenty-eight pound to thirty pound basket and set it over here. And you got to cut another one and put it on there. Then you got to put in on the truck too, because we had women crews. The only thing the men came to do was to drive the truck to the packing house.
N: About the Farmworkers Association, do you feel like they have made any improvements?
L: Not when I was in the field, but now they are improving. A lot of wash stations in the field. And all the pesticides training and stuff is going on now, which we didn’t have. It was mostly African Americans, and that made a lot of them mad and they wouldn’t come to the meeting because, only a lot of stuff for the Mexicans and the Guatemalans and all. We didn’t have none of that. Nothing was being done. They got tired of it. That’s why a lot people cut away from the Farmworkers Association. I try to work with it, and try to bring awareness because the chemicals they using all around us.
N: The quilt project, is that where you got your inspiration, a memorial for that?
L: The memorial’s after my sister Margie died. Margie was not sick. She kept saying the doctor said, I’m fat. That’s all. That Thursday, she said, let me borrow your car. I told her, I’m going to let Amanda take you, which is my daughter. They came home by 12:30. Call her at 4:00. She didn’t answer. I called Net, my daughter, and said go around there, and see if Margie is home. She said mama, she ain’t home. I said, Net, break that door in. When the men went in the window he had the phone in his hand. He said, Ms. Linda, she laying on the bed smiling. I don’t know what she is smiling at me for. I started crying. I said, she ain’t smiling at you. She’s smiling at the Lord. And sure enough when they opened the door, my sister was dead. So I decided to make sure—I promised the Lord—give me the strength to finish this quilt. it’s to bring awareness of the chemicals that we have worked so hard in.
And we are forgotten. You go get the food out of the store and eat and, well who picked this corn for me? Who picked this tomato? What they were going through when they were picking this? Because a lot people who have worked in the fields who were actually sick. Had headaches. A lot of pregnant women. A lot of people who were wracked in pain in the field, but yet still they worked to try to make a living.
N: So do you make a quilt for every person that passes?
L: I try to get as many people that I knew in Apopka that lost a loved one, that worked on the farm. But I missed a lot of people because a lot of them had already died. Jip worked at the farm. My uncle worked on the farm. And all his children, Coles, Pop, Erlien and Fredric. One day [Jip’s] brother fell dead at the back door. One of the sons died on the front porch. Coles died on the front porch as well. Erlien, she happened to die in the hospital. Jip died in the house. In her bed. Pop was almost dead before we took him to the hospital. The whole family. Worked it on the farm, not only here, but they went to Ohio, to New York, and on down south. They constantly worked on the farm. Every last one of them. My whole family on that side died out.
N: The quilt was to honor their memories?
L: Yeah. I put all of them on the quilt. I put my sister on there. They just said her heart stopped. But I’m going, at 62 years old? Just here a week ago—we lost two more people who work on the muck.
We are trying to bring awareness to the world that chemicals do affect people. It might not affect them right then but in a long run it will, all of us. At one point I used to make jewelry, but I stopped because my arthritis slowed me up. I do the quilt thing now, my sewing isn’t as good as it used to be. I just pray to the Lord that I can do whatever.
We let the quilt go out to different places to show people the injustice that we having in our area. This is the blue quilt. This is the red.
Search for “Linda Lee” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the audio podcast of this interview (transcript not online at this writing).
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