This exhibition explores Seabrook Farms’ layered histories, focusing in particular on the relationship between captive labor and capitalism that defined the company’s employment practices and government-backed hiring strategies during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.
Famous for its frozen vegetables, by 1950 Seabrook Farms was the largest agribusiness in the United States, employing more than 6,000 seasonal and permanent laborers during peak production periods. Located in rural Upper Deerfield Township, approximately 30 miles south of Philadelphia, recruiting a sufficient supply of laborers had always been a challenge to the company. Military conscription and increased production demands caused by wartime contracts only exacerbated the situation. The war, however, also created opportunities for Seabrook to procure new sources of labor. This included approximately 2,500 American citizens (Nisei) and immigrants of Japanese descent (Issei) incarcerated in internment camps. While federal officials defended internment as a matter of national security, no evidence backed this claim, and no formal charges were ever brought against any of the detained. Internment reflected white Americans’ longstanding belief that Japanese immigrants and their children were racially unassimilable.
At Seabrook, paroled internees worked alongside immigrant guestworkers from the Caribbean, migrant laborers contracted from the American South, and a small contingent of German POWs, groups whose freedom of mobility and job choice were similarly constrained. After the war’s end, Seabrook Farms would add to its ranks of workers Estonian Displaced Persons, whom the company sponsored as refugees. It would accept Japanese Peruvians brought to the United States and imprisoned by the federal government, who in 1946 faced deportation to Japan.
Seabrook was at once a haven for groups with limited options and a site where control, surveillance, and discrimination continued. A company town, Seabrook owned the housing workers lived in, provided social services, operated the local school system, and sponsored sports teams, dances, and scout troops for its labor force and their families. Archival records demonstrate that Japanese Americans and Estonian refugees received a relatively favorable welcome from white residents in Bridgeton, New Jersey, the nearest sizeable town. As these groups’ sponsor, Seabrook Farms promoted paroled internees and refugees as more desirable candidates for integration than black migrant laborers from the British West Indies and the American South, who were subject to hostility from the local white majority, treated as a transient workforce, and paid lower wages by the company.
Curating this exhibit, we have grappled with the contradictions that Seabrook represents as a place of both safety and captivity. We have tried to move beyond a narrative that is narrowly celebratory, which has been the dominant mode of interpreting Seabrook to date. We have juxtaposed archival sources not typically used in presenting Seabrook’s history with images that were commissioned in the 1940s and 1950s by the company’s official Photographic Department. To these ends, we hope that the exhibition provides viewers with a foundation for coming to their own invariably complex and nuanced conclusions.
Origins, Innovations, and Early Labor Struggles
Charles F. Seabrook, commonly referred to as “C.F.,” was born in 1881 and was the son of A.P. Seabrook, a successful truck farmer in Cumberland County. Involved in the family business from an early age, in 1907 C.F. introduced overhead irrigation to his father’s farm, an innovation that helped to increase yields. In 1911-12, C.F. purchased his father’s share of the venture, and assumed full ownership. Under his direction, Seabrook Farms expanded the amount of acreage being tilled, created an industrial-sized greenhouse, and introduced new mechanized equipment. After going bankrupt in 1924 and nearly succumbing to this fate again at the start of the Great Depression, in 1934 Seabrook Farms entered into a partnership with the General Foods Corporation, which owned the patent and brand name to Clarence Birdseye’s recently developed frozen-foods line. In 1934, Seabrook would construct a processing and freezing plant on site, along with a frozen-storage warehouse, revolutionizing how the company did business. By 1938, the company produced two-thirds of the frozen vegetables consumed in the United States, first for the Birdseye brand, and later under its own label. In 1939, Seabrook Farms would also acquire a share in the Deerfield Packing Company, a Canadian concern that marketed canned and frozen vegetables to Canadian and British retailers. Known as the “Henry Ford of Agriculture,” Seabrook prided himself upon building the infrastructure that allowed thousand acres of farmland and an array of plants and warehouses to function as a single, cohesive enterprise. A vertically integrated firm, Seabrook also operated its own transportation subsidiary consisting of a fleet of refrigerated trucks, and C.F. Seabrook personally owned a construction firm that built the company’s numerous facilities.
Over the years, C. F. Seabrook would gain a reputation for being minutely involved in all aspects of his company’s operation. He was constantly at odds with his three sons, whom he brought into the family business. John “Jack” Seabrook would describe his father as someone who was “cold and calculating” to his own family, but at the same time, was “highly successful at projecting a warm, caring, friendly image” to the public at large. The concept of providing housing to employees and their families at Seabrook Farms conformed to the paternalistic business philosophy as well. According to his son, “the family and the business were the same thing.”
In the early years of Seabrook Farms, both the seasonal and year-round workforce was largely comprised of Italian immigrants, often recruited from Philadelphia. The name given to the first houses that Seabrook built and rented to his employees, “The Italian Village,” reflects this ethnic makeup. Italian workers were joined by black migrant laborers from the South, who travelled throughout the Northeast during harvest seasons. Some of these migrant laborers ended up settling permanently in the Bridgeton area.
In April 1934, field and plant laborers at Seabrook organized the independent Agricultural and Cannery Workers’ Industrial Union, and elected Jerry Brown, a black farmworker, as its first president. According to Brown, C.F. Seabrook told him that if he dissolved the union, he would “fire all the Dagoes and just keep colored on,” but he and the union refused to budge. When Brown was fired on April 10, three hundred workers walked off their jobs. Seabrook, facing the complete loss of the company’s cabbage crop and unable to hire replacements on short notice, relented to the wage increase they demanded. In mid-June 1934, when a slack period was about to begin, Seabrook reneged on the increase and reduced hourly wages from 30 cents an hour for men and 25 cents an hour for women to 18 cents. As historian Cindy Hahamovitch notes, “Seabrook must have known that his actions would set off another strike, but this time he was ready.” When a strike committee attempted to meet with him on June 25, they were attacked by vigilantes that the company had hired.
For two weeks, black and white striking workers did battle with the local police force, as well as with vigilantes and members of the Ku Klux Klan whom Seabrook enlisted to break the strike. In one incident that received national and international attention, a group of approximately 250 workers tried to prevent a fleet of tractors from harvesting beets, which local sheriffs, intervening on behalf of the company, dispersed with teargas. When a group of women strikers hopped on the tractors and began throwing bushels of beets back into the field, they were attacked with blackjacks, revolver butts, and billy clubs. Picketing workers who lived in company housing were evicted. As Lester Granger wrote in an article on the strike that appeared in the August 1934 issue of the Journal of Negro Life, Seabrook employees in nearby Bridgeton lived in conditions where “Half-clothed, half-starved, completely dirty children, poor white and Negro, run about in hopelessly squalid surroundings. Frowsy heads look out from half-open doors, through which may be seen badly ventilated rooms crowded with broken furniture and with broken humanity.” Despite the forces arrayed against them, “the strike idea was born in all defiance of South Jersey public attitudes, in all defiance of Klan threats, in all defiance of the traditional belief that Negroes will not strike and that Negroes and whites cannot organize together successfully.” The strike ended only after Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, sent a representative to New Jersey to broker peace. Donald Henderson, a Communist Party member and economics professor who had been fired from his position at Columbia University, encouraged the workers to keep striking, but was overruled and removed. Although Seabrook agreed to rehire striking workers and restore wage levels, the union was not recognized and the company – once federal officials had left – backed away from many of the promises it had made during the official mediation. Black workers who had joined the strike were denied their old positions altogether and the New Jersey state police was brought in to ensure violence did not reignite, arresting laborers who continued to protest.
It was not until 1941, with C.F.’s college-educated sons’ backing, that Seabrook workers were permitted to organize. Employees joined Local 56 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, a less radical alternative to the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America. Since agricultural workers were excluded from the 1935 Wagner Act, the federal statute that guaranteed American laborers’ right to collective bargaining, the more progressive views of the younger Seabrooks on what constituted the fair treatment of workers proved essential to this development. Even with the eventual recognition of the union, the 1934 strike set the tone for C.F. Seabrook’s labor recruitment strategies moving forward. Increasingly his emphasis was on finding workers whose circumstances forced them to more readily accept the conditions that the company imposed.
Housing Migrant Labor
Between 1939 and 1945, Seabrook Farms and neighboring agricultural enterprises in southern New Jersey, such as the Campbell Soup Company, received an enormous influx of seasonal migrant workers to meet increased wartime production needs. These workers came from Barbados, Jamaica, and other islands of the British West Indies, as well from Puerto Rico and the United States South. Taking advantage of its privileges as a wartime contractor, Seabrook used the War Manpower Commission, a federal agency created during the war, and the United States Information Service, a network of employment agencies, to manage its recruitment needs.
Seabrook Farms both built and leased housing accommodations for migrant laborers and their families. In 1942, Seabrook had constructed flimsy prefabricated housing – located in “Field No. 16” – that were occupied by white Southern migrant workers and their families. In an anonymous November 1943 letter to Helen Sater, a representative of the Labor Department who had investigated living conditions at Seabrook, a white woman from Tennessee complained that although she and other workers had been promised free housing upon their recruitment, the company was now charging them $2.75 a month for single rooms and $2 a month for doubles. According to the writer, company officials justified the new terms by appealing to racial anxieties. White workers, the Tennessee author noted, were told that the rent would “keep the place for people like us,” and keep out black tenants.
Black workers from the South and Caribbean lived in a temporary tent village, a vacated Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, and the camp at Big Oaks. The camp at Big Oaks was administered by the Farm Security Administration and in June 1943 housed 516 single Jamaican men living in prefabricated wooden housing and converted barns with an additional 500 migrant black laborers from the South, including families, living in tents. Neither Seabrook nor the FSA provided adequate food storage or cooking facilities, and very few structures were equipped with indoor plumbing. Instead, tiny outhouses built over shallow pits served as communal toilets, and water faucets were located at the end of the street; hot water was not usually available. No childcare was offered to workers who had come to New Jersey with their families. No agency took responsibility for garbage collection, an arrangement which left fecal matter and waste rotting in piles around the perimeter of the camps. Although these accommodations were only supposed to be temporary, few of the migrant workers remained at Seabrook long enough to move into the better accommodations built by the Federal Public Housing Authority, which ended being occupied by paroled internees instead.
These deplorable sanitary conditions created a breeding ground for diseases, infections, and other health hazards. In addition to the investigation conducted by the Department of Labor along with the War Manpower Commission, Seabrook Farms also found itself facing scrutiny from the Consumers League of New Jersey, a reform agency that was pushing for the improved treatment of migrant workers in the states. As Mary Dyckman, President of the League quipped in a 1944 letter to the New Jersey Department of Health, after observing conditions at Big Oaks camp: “That place looks to me like a beautiful set up for the development of any epidemic.” Persistent pressure eventually led the New Jersey state legislature to pass a Migrant Labor Act in 1945, which provided baseline and enforceable standards for what companies had to provide to migrant workers. In Seabrook’s case, however, the legislation had little effect with the arrival of Issei and Nisei workers who were housed in permanent accommodations.
Internment and Paroled Work Release
The anti-Japanese sentiment that led to internment did not appear overnight. Since the nineteenth century, white Americans had made reference to the “Yellow peril,” which characterized Asian immigrants as invaders who came to take jobs and were unassimilable to “American” values. This discourse conflated Asian ancestry with perpetual foreignness. With the 1870 Naturalization Act, the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan, and the 1913 California Alien Land Law Act, as well as other federal and state legislation, Japanese immigrants faced legal barriers to citizenship, immigration, and property ownership respectively. In the late-1930s, representations of Japanese “otherness” fueled sensationalist journalism and stoked fears about espionage as tensions between the United States and Japan increased. Newspapers and magazines, especially on the West Coast, argued that Japanese Americans were to be seen as enemies if war broke out.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor provided the immediate justification for the internment of more than 120,000 Issei and Nisei. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving military authorities the power to forcibly evacuate Japanese families from their homes on the West Coast for “national security” purposes. Under the auspices of defense, the Western Defense Command (the branch of the War Department responsible for the Pacific Coast) detained American citizens without any concrete evidence – a violation of their constitutional right to individual due process. After putting Issei and Nisei through what future Seabrook resident Iddy Asada called “the horrible stages of the evacuation bit” – a process in which nearly 75 percent of incarcerated families lost all of their assets, often to neighbors – the military sent detainees to internment camps farther inland. The policy of Japanese internment spread throughout the Western hemisphere. The Justice Department coordinated with countries such as Panama and Peru the incarceration of more than two thousand Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry as “enemy aliens,” who were then sent to the United States and stripped of their rights, property, and legal documents.
Internment proved controversial, from both a legal and propaganda standpoint, with the United States fighting a global campaign against fascism. Liberal and leftist Americans decried and protested the policy as an abject and unprecedented violation of the civil liberties of citizens, as did certain Protestant religious organizations. Moreover, the growing need for workers in the wartime economy prompted the government officials to question whether Issei and Nisei labor was being wasted as a wartime resource. From 1943 until the end of the war, the War Relocation Authority, the federal agency created to administer internment, gradually began a process of releasing internees. After swearing “unqualified allegiance to the United States” in a loyalty questionnaire, Issei and Nisei became eligible for supervised work release to locations east of the Mississippi River. (Nisei also became eligible for conscription.) The relocation of more than 2,500 internees to Seabrook Farms was supervised by the WRA’s Philadelphia office, who worked with already released individuals like Ellen Nakamura, to expand recruitment.
Even though released detainees were thoroughly vetted by both the WRA and the military through the loyalty questionnaire, paroled internees continued to encounter racism and suspicion. At Great Meadows in Warren County, New Jersey, local residents protested after farmer George Kowalick agreed to accept five Japanese American laborers from the WRA and, as the Newark Evening News reported in 1943, formed a “secret and self-styled ‘reception committee’ dedicated to keeping the Japs out.” After a barn on his property suspiciously went up in flames, Kowalick asked the WRA to take the laborers back. The mayor of Great Meadows, John Kane, blamed the parolees themselves for the unrest: “We have no objection to the nationality of these men, but we do object to their character if they instigate animosity or infringe upon law and order.”
Recruiting and Housing Paroled Internees
Seabrook Farms took to recruitment in the camps with vigor, orchestrating a promotional campaign that included posters, pamphlets, and ringing endorsements from internees already relocated. At one point Seabrook even suggested that work release to the company was an alternative to military enlistment, since it held government contracts – a false statement that briefly raised the ire of the federal government. Because the WRA demanded comprehensive oversight over relocation, supervised release carved out new jobs that relocatees themselves had to perform, such as providing the WRA with detailed accounts of the working and housing conditions at Seabrook.
To internees considering parole options, one of the major attractions of Seabrook Farms was the availability of guaranteed housing. Internees who went to cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, which were also major destinations for released laborers, encountered an incredibly tight housing market and landlords who refused to rent to them (as did black migrant workers moving to these cities to work in wartime industries). Seabrook Farms was even more unique in its willingness to hire and house families as units. In order to solve the controversies concerning the deplorable living conditions in the migrant labor camps, in 1943 the Federal Public Housing Authority leased 48 acres from the company and built a complex of 35 buildings, which would open in 1944. The new facility included a childcare center and modern cafeteria, the types of amenities that had been promised to migrant laborers, but would be utilized primarily by relocated Issei and Nisei families. In 1946, the government transferred management of the complex to Seabrook as a leased property. C.F. Seabrook’s grandson John Seabrook would note in The New Yorker, “My grandfather built ‘ethnic villages’ for different groups and this collection of villages became Seabrook.” This quaint description elides the ways in which racial segregation more formally dictated where workers and their families lived at Seabrook Farms.
When the federal housing proved insufficient in respect to accommodating all of the paroled internees who continued to come to Seabrook, the company undertook the construction of rental properties in Hoover Village and then Hoover Village Annex. The developments consisted of prefabricated 16 x 48 foot wooden houses, each containing three rooms. Despite the newness of these structures, and the relative improvement they represented, the realities of lodging at Seabrook often fell short of the recruitment promises made by management. Japanese American resident Fusay Kazaoka compared Seabrook’s accommodations to those provided at the internment camp in Poston, Arizona, stating they were “the same living quarters we had in camp...I remember having no privacy.” The American Civil Liberties Union, after learning of the large number of parolees being concentrated at Seabrook, worried that the company’s hiring program would simply reproduce the experience of internment, and contravened the WRA’s policy of “spreading Japanese-Americans around as much as possible.” After the war ended and Executive Order 9066 was rescinded, Issei and Nisei residents became subject to the same precariousness that governed all renters of company housing. A 1950 edition of Pacific Citizen, the newspaper published by the Japanese American Citizens League, reported that Seabrook had served mass eviction notices to seventy Japanese residents for “reasons of administrative efficiency” arising from an “undue ratio of dependents to employees.” The League and the union, however, were able to get the company back down. Some families responded to the incident by seeking out housing in Bridgeton and other nearby areas where they were not subject to the company’s rules.
Divisions of Labor at Seabrook
Seabrook Farms’ practiced a form of capitalism that relied on the division of labor by race, gender, and legal status. Women workers, for instance, were almost always relegated to vegetable sorting lines at Seabrook, and kept from higher paying jobs in the plant. The reception of Issei and Nisei parolees revealed the complicated dynamics of American race relations, and how a hierarchy of racial desirability informed white attitudes. When Seabrook Farms was first embarking on his recruitment of internee labor and raised its plans with local officials, Bridgeton City Council President A. Lewis Turner commented that while “he personally did not welcome the American-Japanese,” he still thought them preferable to “the undesirable Southern Negro labor” because they would be “law-abiding.” H. Leon Yager, the WRA official in charge of the agency’s Philadelphia office, also promoted Japanese Americans as an alternative to black laborers. Yager echoed Seabrook’s view that released Nisei and Issei internees were “more efficient, intelligent and industrious workers” than black Southerners, and were less likely to provoke racist hostility from local whites. While Seabrook marketed his company as a haven free from racial discrimination, he simultaneously perpetuated the idea that Japanese Americans represented a “model minority” group whose docility and willingness to follow orders made them ideal workers. For Yager, the project of reassimilating internees into society and increasing the size of Seabrook’s workforce trumped concerns about the intimate associations that would take place between white “hill-billy girls” and Nisei boys living and working together at Seabrook Farms. Seabrook, wanting to replace his “unruly” southern black laborers, had few qualms either. As he told the Washington Post: “It's good business and fair play to give the Japanese Americans a chance here. That's what democracy’s for, isn't it?”
Because guestworkers from islands such as Barbados and Jamaica were not U.S. citizens, they were frequently paid less and their contracts limited them to employment at Seabrook Farms. Guestworkers who left contracts with Seabrook’s processing subsidiary, the Deerfield Packing Company, faced deportation. The bonded status of guestworkers led critics in organized labor to allege that the recruitment of foreign workers was nothing more than a new form of slavery. Nonetheless, guestworkers exercised their agency through the means available to them. A November 1944 War Manpower Commission memo indicated that when 97 Barbadians who had been working at the Deerfield Packing Company were given the option to renew their contracts with Seabrook Farms, only 14 did. Although two workers wished to return to Barbados, the remaining 81 requested employment elsewhere.
Seabrook Farms’ insatiable appetite for labor also led the company to appeal to the federal government for prison labor. During the war, Seabrook Farms acquired 150 German prisoners of war (POWs) as laborers. The federal government saw to the care, transport, and housing of these prisoners, meaning that Seabrook only had to pay the prisoners military wages as mandated by the Geneva Convention, from which union dues were subtracted. Seabrook Farms offered strict guidelines to its employees about dealing with POWs, including directives to avoid fraternizing with German POWs and not to block them from the line of sight of their guards. According to a company memo, POWs were supposed to be under constant surveillance and kept in isolation from the main labor force at Seabrook Farms. Laborers were not allowed to speak to prisoners unless it was work related. In reality, however, German POWs were not necessarily as isolated as the corporate memo suggests. When agricultural interests convinced the state of New Jersey to amend and temporarily suspend child labor and compulsory education laws, citing labor shortages, Seabrook took advantage of this too. In 1943, Seabrook Farms created a “Victory Program” that involved the employment of 200 Boys Scouts who were paid the piece rate of 25 cents for every five-eighths of basket of snap beans that they picked during five-hour workdays, with the Scouts’ paying for the laborers’ food and lodging. When yields proved insufficient, however, Seabrook discontinued the program after only two days.
Migrant workers from the U.S. South and guestworkers from the Caribbean were required to pay union dues, although they were not entitled to the protections afforded to members by union-negotiated contracts. Local 56, fearful that it was losing the ability to effectively organize the workforce, and that Seabrook Farms might stop recognizing it altogether, did attempt to reassert control over the situation by entering into a unique arrangement with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU). With thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers of cotton unemployed for large stretches of the year in the South, Local 56 arranged to have the STFU workers’ membership made transferable and their transportation costs paid for by hiring employers. This was crucial in allowing black cotton workers to leave the South, since from 1944 on, local white officials were authorized by Congress to block employers in other states from contracting and paying for the transportation of workers. During the summers of 1945 and 1946, Seabrook received approximately 500 black women through this “underground railroad,” who were members of the STFU and on break from colleges such as Morehouse and Hampton. Jack Seabrook played an influential role in this program, and during its second year even agreed to pay extra so that the women could fly and avoid the “dirty, dusty, trash-ridden Jim Crow coaches” they had traveled on a year earlier. An article in the Chicago Defender noted approvingly that the women were able to earn 62 and a half cents an hour (five dollars for an eight hour day), more than triple what they might make doing agricultural work in the South.
The recruitment and positive reception of the STFU college students notwithstanding, Seabrook’s wage rates for black workers employed by the company in 1943 and 1944 did not show a pattern of equal treatment. WMC contracts reveal that guestworkers were paid only fifty cents an hour. Black migrant laborers from the South not affiliated with the STFU also received fifty cents an hour as employees of the processing plant and the WRA reported that many were incensed to learn that newly-arrived Japanese American internees were automatically being paid five cents more an hour to do the same work. Many Nisei workers, even before their permanent relocation was established, were also welcomed into the union. This is consistent with the more general discrimination and abuse that black workers arriving at Seabrook received from the white population of Bridgeton and its surrounding areas. David Burgess, a labor organizer and radical preacher, described Bridgeton as “the seat of the Confederacy in New Jersey.” During the four months he spent there in the summer of 1943, he observed “white policemen delighted in arresting blacks downtown on Saturday and Sunday nights, beating them with billy clubs, and handcuffing them around light posts before taking them to police headquarters and charging them with disorderly and drunken behavior.” When Burgess spoke before the local Kiwanis Club about the plight of migrant laborers, its members attacked Seabrook for bringing blacks to the area. Another member accosted him in the street a day later with the greeting: “You are that damned minister who wants to free them God-damned niggers rather than keeping them in their place.” Given their own experiences with bigotry, it is perhaps unsurprising that black students at Bridgeton High School were the first to cross the cafeteria color line to welcome newly arrived Nisei students, as the WRA reported.
A Destination for the Stateless
In the years immediately following the end of World War II, Seabrook became a harbor for those with no place else to go, who had been rendered stateless by the events of the previous four years. In 1943, in order to qualify for work release or military service, internees of Japanese descent had to answer yes two critical questions on the “loyalty questionnaire.” Question 27 asked men whether they would serve in the military and women whether they would serve in auxiliary roles. Answering yes meant potentially having to leave family members who were still incarcerated and join segregated units. It also asked Nisei internees to perform an obligation of citizenship – while their civil liberties as citizens was being violated. Question 28 asked: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States... and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?” The presumptive phrasing of this question suggested that Japanese Americans may have already been serving Japan, despite no evidence to back this. For Issei imprisoned in camps, renouncing their Japanese citizenship was a risky prospect, because there was no guarantee that the United States would ever restore their basic rights. Of the 75,000 internees who completed the questionnaire, 6,700 answered no to these two questions, earning them the nickname “no-nos.” The military sent “no-nos” to the camp at Tule Lake, where the government could keep closer watch over purportedly disloyal internees. Senichiro Takeda, who was sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp, renounced his American citizenship in protest, and was subsequently registered as an enemy alien. While trying to reclaim his citizenship after the war, in 1947 he was sent to Seabrook Farms. He would have to wait until 1958, after lengthy legal proceedings, to be renaturalized.
In contrast to the meticulous accounting that attended to the internment of Issei and Nisei in the United States, the incarceration of Japanese Latin Americans, most of whom were Peruvian, left them deserted in a foreign country without legal documentation regarding their citizenship status in their former countries. Following Pearl Harbor, the Peruvian government conducted massive arrests and deported Japanese Peruvians to camps, primarily Crystal City, Texas, without warrants or judicial oversight, as part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries. When the war ended, Peru refused re-entry to Japanese Peruvians. The United States declared that Japanese Peruvians were “illegal” aliens, even though they had been brought into the country against their will, and began deporting them to Japan. As Seiichi Higashide described in his memoir Adios to Tears, “The irony of the matter was that the U.S. government had illegally and unreasonably forced the matter upon us.” Wayne Collins, a San Francisco-based civil liberties lawyer intervened to try to bring a legal halt to the process. (Collins would also be influential in restoring citizenship to Tule Lake detainees.) In 1946, he arranged for approximately 300 Japanese Peruvians to be relocated to Seabrook Farms, while their cases were pending. There, while relieved from possible deportation to Japan, they faced economic disadvantages unique to their statelessness, such as having to obtain overpriced groceries at the company store, under surveillance, while other workers were free to shop in town. It was not until the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act that the Japanese Peruvians who escaped deportation became eligible for citizenship and gained the right to remain in the United States permanently.
In 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act. This allowed for 200,000 refugees living in the American, British, and French zones of occupied Germany and Austria to enter the United States in excess of the nationality quotas established by the 1924 Immigration Act. Beginning in April 1949, more than 650 Estonian Displaced Persons would join the labor force and residential community at Seabrook Farms. C.F. Seabrook, the company’s founder and chief executive, was approached by Rudolf Kiviranna, the chairman of the Estonian Relief Committee in New York City and a local Lutheran pastor in Bridgeton, New Jersey, who convinced him to become a sponsor for these refugees. Seabrook would personally travel to Germany to visit the DP camps in 1949, and, in much smaller numbers, also sponsored Poles, East German, and Latvian refugees.
With the Cold War already dominating American foreign policy, the Displaced Persons Act was heralded by U.S. officials for providing refuge to Europeans who, due to Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, could not return home. In line with existing immigration restrictions, entrants accused of being Communist spies or sympathizers were barred from the United States. The 1948 Act did not, however, include enforcement measures that allowed immigration officials to vet whether or not arriving refugees had been Nazi collaborators. For Seabrook Farms, the Act offered another way to obtain cheap and semi-captive labor. While C.F. Seabrook portrayed himself as a beneficent savior of these refugees, the reality was more complex. The 1948 Displaced Persons Act specifically required that only refugees who “shall not become public charges and will have safe and sanitary housing” were eligible for admission. As a company town that could guarantee immediate employment and housing, Seabrook Farms was uniquely positioned to meet both of these criteria. To reject Seabrook’s living and working conditions meant losing sponsorship, and therefore encountering a fate unknown or possible deportation. Wages began at 52 cents an hour – slightly more than what guestworkers and black migrant laborers were earning in 1944, but less than the union wage.
Estonians arriving at Seabrook noted that their new living and working environment bore a resemblance to the camps in Germany that they had left behind, as did their relative state of confinement, at least during their first years in the country. Some Estonians like Tonu Vanderer preferred the 16’ by 48’ “wooden barracks” of Hoover Village, where they were housed to the camps in Germany. Others like Reet Sikkemae remember fashioning cardboard paper rolls into bed springs and using bathrooms without doors.
"Americanization" and Reparations for Internment
Discrimination and suspicion forced Japanese Americans to perform their patriotism in ways that were not required of other Americans or European immigrants, and was crucial to their safety and self-preservation. For example, when white soldiers harassed paroled Japanese Americans in transit to Seabrook, Yager commended the released internees, on behalf of the WRA, for quietly tolerating the abuse with no “argument, disorder, shoving, or man-handling.” At Seabrook, the company constantly captured proof of Japanese Americans’ patriotism and social “rehabilitation” through the propaganda it provided. At Seabrook, the WRA and company officials emphasized a program of social reintegration, an ambiguous concept given the fact that many Nisei had only known the United States as a home, had attended public high schools and universities in California and Washington, and had grown up loving American movies, food, and sports the same as their non-Asian American peers. The Issei sent to Seabrook did not receive the right to naturalize as American citizens until 1952 when the federal statute was changed. Many had children who served in the war, with at least three mothers being rewarded “Gold Stars” – the medal given to those who lost sons in the service.
Some Nisei saw the internment camps and Seabrook as an opportunity to seize leadership from their immigrant parents and to take a more prominent role in defining the needs and interests of the community as a whole. Still, the mixed feelings that released internees had about Seabrook reflected the fact their choices remained limited by racism and their parole status. Yoshiko Hasegawa recalled how the “great Japanese spirit worked so hard so that Mr. Seabrook was able to upgrade his rickety plant.” This fact would resurface in the movements for redress, when largely Nisei activists campaigned for monetary reparations for internment.Testifying before the redress commission appointed by Congress in 1980, William Kochiyama recalled of his experience at Seabrook that, “Any promotions to the top positions were made available to the Caucasians.” Nor is there any evidence that Seabrook backed former internees in their attempts to win redress from the federal government, despite the fact that the company directly benefited from the fact that Issei and Nisei workers were barred from working on their own farms in California and other Western states. Only after years of organizing did incarcerated Japanese Americans receive a formal apology from the government and living survivors received a onetime $20,000 redress payment for the trauma and financial devastation caused by internment. Reparations discriminated against Japanese Peruvians, who, despite having lost all of their assets through internment, only received $5,000 in 1998 as part of a government settlement to a class action lawsuit.
Pluralism and Postwar Life at Seabrook
The end of the war began a return to more tolerant attitudes about American cultural diversity and the United States’ status as a “nation of immigrants.” In line with liberal pluralistic thinking, which emphasized American culture as a “melting pot” of different traditions, Seabrook provided spaces for its diverse workforce to display and share their heterogeneous traditions. Images of Japanese American and Estonian workers reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and brandishing the flag were juxtaposed with photos capturing Japanese dance ceremonies, traditional flower-arrangement classes, and mochi making. Estonian choirs and folk dancers enlivened holiday ceremonies.
Pluralism was both a matter of public celebration and an unavoidable fact for the workforce. Despite the existence of job and housing segregation, in the cramped spaces of the company town workers invariably interacted on and off the job. While the company maintained strict work schedules, they were also allowed some free time for socialization. Workers integrated as members of Seabrook-sponsored sports teams that competed against teams in the area. There were dance parties and beauty contests held in the Seabrook Farms recreation center; places of worship included a church and a Buddhist temple where marriages and funerals were held; and, cafeterias, health centers, and administrative offices used by all.
This self-sustaining community that Seabrook built restricted and isolated laborers from American society beyond the company town’s confines. Lacking the capital to purchase their own farmland meant that many workers staked their families’ prospects on the ability of their children to gain an education, go to college, and enter professional life. Workers did show solidarity against Seabrook Farms. Paul Noguchi, for instance, recalled the camaraderie that existed among bean pickers working in the fields, and their shared sense of resentment at having to meet daily “mysterious” picking quotas that always seemed to shift. Workers typically picked crops for 15 hours a day and even longer during harvest season. In one instance, Noguchi remembered how Jamaican and Puerto Rican guestworkers brought in a seasonal labor in the postwar period, made a “good natured” offering of extra beans that allowed slower workers to meet their weight quota. Workers would teach each other the trick of soaking baskets in water to increase their weight. Resiliency and agency united all of Seabrook’s laborers.
Childhood and the Defense of Innocence
Children at Seabrook Farms lived seemingly normal lives, reminiscent of those in any other American suburban town. They attended school and routinely participated in after-school activities while their parents worked. They often had little knowledge of the hardships associated with internment or of the long hours that their parents endured. Laboring parents did not want their children to develop any sort of resentment. They feared that negative attitudes would leave their children susceptible to accusations of disloyalty, a lingering concern that was part of the trauma of internment. Seabrook Farms was seen as an opportunity to start a new American life, and parents wanted to give their children the best chance possible. Helge T. Kangur, an Estonian refugee who grew up at Seabrook, recalled how she did not even learn about internment until she was much older, as an adult – despite being friends with numerous Nisei children and their families.
Thus, children became active members of their communities, participating in the Boy and Girl Scouts and school sports like softball and basketball. Over the summer, they attended day camps, where children of Japanese, Estonian, Peruvian, and other ancestries intermingled and formed friendships. As Estonian Liina Keerdoja recalls from her childhood at Seabrook, “We learned together, played together, occasionally got into fights together, and in the process came to regard one another’s different cultural and ethnic backgrounds not as something negative, but as the most normal and natural thing in the world.” Children at Seabrook could often be found in the community houses, attending dances, ceremonies and holiday events with their peers and sometimes even their parents. Children who lived at Seabrook Farms were not exempt from agricultural labor. During the busy picking season in the late spring and early summer, children were recruited to help work in the fields.
After significant downsizing and refinancing in the mid-1950s, in 1959 Seabrook Farms was again in financial health, albeit with a reduced workforce. That same year, however, C.F. Seabrook, who was almost 80 years-old and in poor health, sold his controlling interest in the company to Seeman Brothers, a wholesale grocery corporation based in New York City. Faced with losing his voting power on the company’s board and under the influence of individuals who his son Jack accused of trying to profit off his declined mental capacities, overnight the sale ended the families’ involvement in the company they had controlled for more than a half century. Seeman Brothers would later sell Seabrook Farms’ facilities to another company. In 1976, the flash-freezing plant was closed for good. The remaining workforce of five hundred people lost their jobs, and 150 independent growers in the area lost their contracts. In 1977, two of C.F. Seabrook’s grandsons did start up a significantly smaller venture under the name of Seabrook Brothers and Sons, and in 1994 were able to reclaim the rights to use the famous Seabrook Farms brand name. That company remains in business to this day.
The lessons of incarceration and internment remain, lamentably, highly relevant to the present. During the very semester that the course in which this exhibition originated met, many of us were shocked to encounter – as just one example – the widely-circulated letter of David Bowers, the Democratic Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, discussing his (constitutionally untenable) position to bar Syrian refugees from resettlement in the city. In this letter, Bowers stated, repeating the flawed and incorrect rationale of 1942, that: “President Franklin D Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and it appears that threat of harm to America from [ISIS] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.” On a global scale, the number of refugees fleeing dangerous situations has reached an unprecedented number. The United Nations reports that 15.1 million people are living in the camps that it monitors – a number that does not account for upwards of twenty million internally displaced persons worldwide. These refugees wait for sponsors. And March 2016 brings little optimism that those sponsors, in the form of nation states willing to accept fellow humans in dire straits, are forthcoming.
In the face of this daunting future, Seabrook Farms’ history, in all its complications, deserves another look. Whether formally classified as refugees or not, all of the groups who ended up at Seabrook were vulnerable, captive, or compelled by market forces to make hard choices about whether relocation to southern New Jersey would improve their lives or bring further difficulties. We hope this exhibition honors the laborers who made these decisions and who upon joining the company town and community that was Seabrook Farms, continued to struggle against “invisible restraints.”