'A LOSS OF CHILDHOOD': Across the nation, kids as young as twelve are doing difficult, often dangerous jobs.

AuthorLoving, Joy

When you think of tobacco, you probably envision vast fields of plants somewhere in the South. You probably don't picture those fields being in New England states like Connecticut or Massachusetts, but that's exactly where a lot of shade tobacco is grown, for use all over the world. Starting in the 1600s, tobacco became a big business in these two Northern states; the area between Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, even became known as Tobacco Valley. Connecticut in particular began the process by getting tobacco seeds from Virginia.

While farming was historically a family-run industry in which the children of farmers worked, many enslaved people were originally the primary caretakers of these tobacco crops. Connecticut freed its remaining enslaved people in the 1840s, two decades before the Thirteenth Amendment. It soon became quite common--and legal--to use children to tend tobacco crops. During World War I, New England and other parts of the United States employed young children in mills, fields, and factories. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by 1900, one out of every five U.S. children worked.

In 1911, the president of the Connecticut Tobacco Company proposed that Black laborers be used to cultivate tobacco crops, and the idea took hold in 1916. Thus began the recruitment of Black students from Southern states to work in the fields seasonally. College students were recruited from North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia. They were paid $2 a day and worked from June to September.

In 1941, tobacco farms began recruiting Black high school students. They were provided room and board, which they paid for out of their weekly earnings. Among the students recruited was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a teenager, who worked the fields in 1944 and 1947. My father, John, was also recruited along with many other students from Virginia in the 1960s.

The use of child labor is still common on many U.S. farms, though child labor laws vary from state to state. As Human Rights Watch points out, the United States "does not provide the same protections to children working in agriculture as it does to children working in all other sectors." The minimum age to work in agriculture in Connecticut and Massachusetts today is fourteen. Massachusetts requires fourteen-year-olds to complete a vocational agriculture training program prior to beginning work.

Norma Flores Lopez is the chief programs officer at Justice for Migrant Women, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Fremont, Ohio. A former child farmworker from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Lopez estimates that she first started entering the fields with her parents when she was nine years old. She began working full time as a migrant farmer in 1997, when she was twelve.

Lopez's family has worked in migrant farming for generations. Her grandparents had farmed plots of land in Mexico. Her mother and father were born in the United States, but as children went back and forth between Mexico and the United States with their parents to work on farms.

Eventually, Lopez's parents ended up moving to the United States permanently because border security at the U.S./Mexico border began tightening up. As Lopez grew up, her family would move a few times a year.

"We would drive up to states like Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, and Indiana," she recalls in an interview. "We would follow the harvest. Everything from corn to picking apples...

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