White South Africans Will Not Replace Us…Not Here in the Delta (and for more pay)

Richard Strong in a cotton field near Highway 82 in Indianola, Mississippi. Mr. Strong said he never imagined that he would lose his lifelong job to foreign workers.

“I’ve been around farming all my life; it’s all we knew. I never did imagine that it would come to the point where they would be hiring foreigners, instead of people like me,” Mr. Strong said.

Black families…have historically been the ones to perform fieldwork. The Strong family has worked for generations for the Pitts family, a prominent [White] farming family which has farmed in the Mississippi Delta for six decades. Richard Strong’s grandfather Henry and grandmother Isadora worked their land. So did his father and his uncle.

Mr. Strong and his brother got hired in the 1990s. He tilled the soil, fertilized crops and irrigated the fields, nurturing an annual bounty of cotton, soybeans and corn. He eventually operated not only tractors, but big equipment like combines and cotton pickers. He mixed chemicals to control weeds and pests. He ran irrigation pivots in 19 fields, covering some 3,000 acres. He rose to manager, driving across the farm to verify that everything was in working order.

That began to change about a decade ago, when the first of dozens of young, white workers flew in from South Africa on special [H-2A] guest worker visas. Mr. Strong and his co-workers trained the men, who by last year were being lured across the globe with wages of more than $11 an hour, compared with the $7.25 an hour that Mr. Strong and other Black local workers were paid.

He taught the men how to properly plow, how to input GPS settings into the tractors’ navigation systems, how to operate the irrigation system so just the right amount of water was sprinkled on the crops.

When he first heard that Africans were coming to work on the farm, about eight years ago, “I didn’t question it. I just went along doing my job,” he said.

Growers brought in more South Africans with each passing year, and they are now employed at more than 100 farms across the Delta.

After the 2019 season, Mr. Strong traveled to Texas to visit his ailing father-in-law. When he returned, the Pitts Farm truck that he drove had disappeared from outside the house he had rented from the grower for about a year. He was told to vacate and was not offered work for the 2020 season. Before the 2021 season began, he said, one of the Pitts owners told him “they didn’t need me no more. (sic)”

Mr. Strong, 50, and several other longtime workers said they were told their services were no longer needed.

In Mississippi, where the legacy of slavery and racism has long pervaded work in the cotton fields, a federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Strong and five other displaced Black farmworkers claims that the new foreign workers were illegally paid at higher rates than local Black workers, who it said had for years been subjected to racial slurs and other demeaning treatment from a white supervisor.

“Growers have chosen to bring in South Africans to the detriment of local workers by misusing the agricultural visa program,” said Ty Pinkins, a lawyer at the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Under the program, growers can hire foreign workers for up to 10 months. They must pay them an hourly wage that is set by the Labor Department and varies from state to state, as well as their transportation and housing.

Farmers must also show that they have tried, and failed, to find Americans to perform the work and they must pay domestic workers the same rate they are paying the imported laborers.

According to the Black workers’ lawsuit, Pitt Farms paid the South Africans $9.87 an hour in 2014, a rate that reached $11.83 in 2020. The plaintiffs who worked in the fields were paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or $8.25 on weekends, plus occasional bonuses.

Since the lawsuit was filed, other Black workers have come forward, saying they had labored in the fields and catfish farms of the Delta before unfairly losing their jobs, Mr. Pinkins, the lawyer, said.

A vast flood plain, the Mississippi Delta boasts some of the country’s richest soil. It also is the poorest pocket of the poorest state. The region, which is more than 70 percent Black, remains rigidly segregated. Black children attend underfunded public schools while white students go to private [White flight] academies. Black and white families bury their dead in different cemeteries.

Steve Rosenthal, a three-term mayor of Indianola who lost his bid for re-election in October [did not realize until the lawsuit was filed] that some Black workers had been let go.

“If you have a man that you’ve trained and worked with for years and he knows how to get stuff done,” he said, “how in good conscience can you bring somebody over and pay him more than a man that’s been with you five, eight, 10 years?”

[Mr. Strong and his brother were hired in the 1990’s.]

A building in downtown Indianaola honoring the blues legend and native son B.B. King.

[edited for clarity]

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