Have You Eaten a Tomato Lately?

copyright 2013 Lisa Rainwater

copyright 2013 Lisa Rainwater

If you’ve ever eaten a tomato grown in America, there’s a chance it was harvested by a slave. A modern-day American slave.

In his hair-raising book, Tomatoland (2011), Barry Estabrook unearths the tomato industry in America. In his opening pages, he introduces the reader to chief assistant US. attorney Douglas Molloy who has gone on record declaring South Florida’s tomato fields “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Florida law enforcement agents have freed more than 1,000 workers who have been held against their will and forced to work in Florida tomato fields. Estabrook goes on to describe how

“workers were ‘sold’ to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse.” p. xv

Bodies, he warns, often turn up in the waterways.

Not far from the Rolls-Royce and Bentley culture of Naples, Florida, there are enslaved people — mostly from South America — who ensure that fast food chains and supermarkets across the U.S. get the unflavored Florida tomato that adds just a bit of color to your taco, salad or hamburger.

Today is the first annual END IT: Shine a Light on Slavery Day. Millions of people around the globe are donning a RED X on their hand to bring awareness to the devastating fact that 27 million people live as slaves across the globe — more than at any other time in human history.  The $32 billion dollar industry — making profit from the trafficking of human beings — affects 161 countries.

copyright 2013 Lisa Rainwater

copyright 2013 Lisa Rainwater

70% are female. 50% children. Every 2 minutes, 4 children are sold into slavery.

Americans may think our slavery days ended with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but the trafficking and enslaving of humans in America continues today. It’s just no longer sanctioned by our government.

The U.S. State Department estimates between 14.5 and 17.5 million humans are trafficked into America each year, forced against their will to work in urban and rural settings in the North, the South, the East and the West. They can be found as prostitutes and domestic servants; they can be found in nail salons, restaurants, hotels, agricultural fields and meatpacking plants throughout America. In Atlanta, GA, alone, 5,000 women and girls are brought into the sex slave industry each year.

It’s as if the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, never existed:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Library of Congress

As we Americans demand cheap clothing and furniture and food at the local big box store, we also marvel at the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of slavery in our country — and just how far we’ve come as a nation.  Stephen Spielberg‘s recent film, Lincoln, focused on the passing of the 13th Amendment and has grossed, as of April 7, 2013, $182,137,973, with a budget of $65 million. That’s a profit of $117,137,973. (More on that later.)

Lots of American pats-on-the-back — as well as horror for what we were as a nation 150 years ago — came at the end of Lincoln. I know. I witnessed it amongst fellow moviegoers. But like Schindler’s List, there is a Hollywood sentimentality that tastes, more often than not, like, ahem, English treacle. There is another history and a far darker present that demands as much attention as the next Oscar nominated blockbuster.

Astonishingly, we Americans were close to abolishing slavery much earlier than 1863 due to the economics of war and tobacco. According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, there was a brief moment, nearly eighty years earlier, when American slavery almost came to grinding halt. And, yes, it was all about … tobacco.

“Concentrated in Virginia and Maryland, tobacco plantations utilized the largest percentage of enslaved Africans imported into the United States prior to the American Revolution … The American Revolution cost Virginia and Maryland their principal European tobacco markets, and for a brief period of time after the Revolution, the future of slavery in the United States was in jeopardy. Most of the northern states abolished it, and even Virginia debated abolition in the Virginia Assembly. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave slavery a new life in the United States.” Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

At the time of the Revolution, tobacco was the highest valued commodity of the American colonies. As the fondness for tobacco rose in Europe, so, too, did the export of American tobacco. As demand grew, so too, did production and an increase in the African slave trade.  

Just how many slaves were brought to North American shores?

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by David Eltis and David Richardson, approximately 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, South America and the Caribbean between 1525-1866. Of that population, 10.7 million survived the treacherous journey. Based on Eltis and Richardson’s figures, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. estimates that an estimated 450,000 Africans were shipped to North America.

Yes, 450,000.  As Gates notes, “And I, for one, find this amazing.”

This figure does not take into account the total number of slaves during that same time period on plantations due to population growth (which included rape, forced coupling, and familial relations between slaves). By 1860, the number of slaves in America numbered a staggering 1,775,515.

Today, the number of human beings enslaved in the United States of America is estimated at 200,000. A far cry from where we were in 1860, but nearly half of all Africans stolen from their homelands and sold into bondage in what is now the United States of America.

As the numbers of enslaved humans continues to rise, there is an international bloc of NGOs and government agencies working to stop the trafficking and selling of human beings in the 21st century. That’s the power behind END IT, an intercontinental coalition of seven organizations whose mission is to “shine a light on slavery. No more bondage. No more sex trafficking. No more child laborers. No more, starting now.”

It would be great if Mr. Spielberg could put some of those Lincoln profits into stopping the slavery of today much like he did for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, whose important mission is to “gather video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.”

Mr. Spielberg is a philanthropist of the greatest kind. If you’ve made it to the end of this post, it probably took you about 10 minutes to read.

In that time, 20 more children were sold into slavery.

Mr. Spielberg, there’s a world that needs you.

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© 2013 Lisa Rainwater