Shade Research Collective Symposium:

Power, Migration, and Culture in and out of the Tobacco Valley

April 24, 2021 9AM-12:30PM

Register HERE.



“Imperial Frames and Colonial Politics in the making of the Tobacco Valley”

Jason Oliver Chang Associate Professor of History and Asian and Asian American Studies, University of Connecticut

Connecticut’s Tobacco Valley is commonly understood as a small agricultural industry giving the state its quaint rural character. This image of the Tobacco Valley has been manufactured to conceal the global circuits of power which have sustained it. Consonant with the coordinates of U.S. imperialism, this presentation maps out the origins of Connecticut’s shade grown tobacco industry. While the material circuits which enabled and protected this industry expose the power of early-twentieth century U.S. empire localized in New England, this presentation also identifies the colonial politics which informed and sustained the operations and management of the industry. The colonial politics to settler agriculture, white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism were the essential ideological infrastructure which rationalized and normalized the tobacco industry as the casual rural space of New England.


“The Long Shadow and Legacies of WWII Labor Programs”

Fiona Vernal Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies, University of Connecticut

The introduction of temporary foreign agricultural workers eased manpower shortages during World War II and transformed the bargaining the position of small New England states through agricultural guest worker programs. Drawing on Mexican, West Indian, and Canadian workers, growers made a compelling case for the role of food security and cash crop production in the overall war effort. Bilateral labor agreements between British West Indian colonies and the United States distributed agricultural labor to at least 24 states with figures ranging from 8,244 in 1943 to 20,996 in 1945. War-related manpower shortages ushered in new economic opportunities for men to work in the agricultural industry, cutting sugarcane in Florida and picking apples in Midwestern states, for example. These migrations eased labor tensions in the Caribbean but also carved out a vulnerable space for West Indian men to negotiate their labor power. In Connecticut, the shade tobacco sector absorbed thousands of workers who planted, netted, and harvested tobacco. In subsequent decades, long after other states rolled back their use of West Indian laborers, shade tobacco growers staked a particular claim to West Indian guest workers and teamed up with apple and sugar corporations to ensure access to pliable, deportable labor. This presentation explores the role of shade tobacco growers played in leveraging war time labor arrangements into permanent post-war labor policy, building on the coalitions and legacies of World War II. It concludes by exploring the agency and bargaining position of West Indian workers and the friable and sometimes paternalistic relations that emerged in the post-World War II era.  


“Puerto Rican Tobacco Worker Migration to Connecticut”

Elena Rosario PhD Candidate in History, University of Michigan

This presentation will trace the early relationship between the Connecticut Shade Tobacco Growers’ Association and the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States Migration Division to explore how the United States and Puerto Rico governments played a significant role in the creation of a Puerto Rican diaspora in Connecticut. Engaging with literature in American history, Puerto Rican Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, and Anthropology, this work will examine how migration to Connecticut’s Tobacco Valley directly led to the development of a Puerto Rican community in Hartford. Using government papers, reports, personal correspondence, and newspapers, I shed light on the everyday experience of Puerto Ricans as they transitioned from migrant workers to Connecticut residents during the 1950s. 





“Manifest Disablemment”

Sony Coráñez Bolton Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latinx and Latin American Studies, Amherst College

In this project I examine permutations of the colonial discourse of “Manifest Destiny” to understand how settler colonialism and anti-blackness augment white property and ability. The parallel racial dispossession of indigenous and Black peoples has been explored by a number of scholars in the fields of critical race theory and critical ethnic studies. I depart from and add to these critical ethnic studies conversations by way of a genealogical engagement with a foundational framework in American Studies and history: Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis.” I argue that a colonial form of ableism was foundational to the American ideology of Manifest Destiny and the Turnerian frontier. “Free,” “uninhabited” land was transformed into property through a colonial dispossession that was predicated on a white, American male able-body who was configured as a proper steward and owner of land. In order to naturalize the ability of the frontiersman pioneer, others had to be dispossessed of the ability to hold property or to be owners themselves. Therefore in tandem with the actualization of white colonial ability is the manifestation of disability in racialized others – a process I highlight as “manifest disablement.” In doing so I claim that Turner’s so-called “frontier thesis” postulates ability itself as a form of property – a furtherance of legal scholar Cheryl Harris’s profound theorizations on the connection of whiteness to property relations. In engaging with Turner’s essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1894), which heralded the advent of American imperialism in the 20th century, I hone in on the property logics of whiteness through a crip analysis that shows how ableist ideologies helped to advance the aims of colonialism. Turner’s American frontier holds particular importance in understanding how colonial discourses postulated the rehabilitation of colonized subjects as an effect of their dispossession.


“Beyond the Fields: Gender, Labor, and the Public Legacies of Puerto Rican Farm Workers and Needleworkers”

Aimee Loiselle Postdoctoral Fellow, Smith College

The 1898 U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico merged farm workers and needleworkers into a surging imperial and increasingly globalized economy. Women and men in tobacco and in textiles and apparel navigated the impacts and options of the constantly shifting colonial industrialization. The Bureau of Employment and Identification (1930-1948) in the Puerto Rico Department of Commerce and Industry and its successor Migration Division (1948-1989) in the Department of Labor recruited workers in both industries to work in the Connecticut River Valley. During the postwar period, regional offices operated in New York City, Hartford, and Boston.  

Neither group of workers had mainstream visibility as “American workers,” but the environmental and political-economic conditions of their labor and organizing shaped their subsequent public legacies. The presumed masculinity of farm workers, the geographic and climate requirements for tobacco, and mode of organizing in the 1970s granted tobacco workers more leverage through the 1980s and 1990s. The New England Farm Workers’ Council (NEFWC) grew into a major twenty-first century human services institution in the Springfield-Holyoke area while needleworkers remained invisible. When Reagan administration finance policy converged with the disaggregation of textile and apparel manufacturing in the 1980s, Puerto Rican needleworkers lost their industrial jobs and membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). In popular culture narratives of the U.S. economy since 1976, migrating women of color often appeared as “welfare queens” rather than industrial wage workers.


“Cultivating Dignity”

Alycia Bright Holland Associate Professor of Theatre, Eastern Connecticut State University

Kristen Morgan Associate Professor of Theatre and New Media Studies, Eastern Connecticut State University


Alycia Bright Holland (Associate Professor of Theatre) and Kristen Morgan (Associate Professor of Theatre and New Media Studies) of Eastern Connecticut State University, will screen a short documentary and discuss the making of an original experimental film, Cultivating Dignity. The film explores the lives of tobacco agricultural workers in Connecticut, during the time when young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked at Cullman Brothers farm, to help pay for his tuition at Morehouse College. Using methods of theatre-devising drawn from Frantic Assembly, Tectonic Theatre Project and Theatre of the Oppressed, Eastern students and faculty, along with playwright Darcy Bruce, worked together to develop Cultivating Dignity. As we did with Thread City in 2017, documentary research (conducting oral histories, researching archival documents—including photographs, film/video, and ephemera) was undertaken to create an original script. Consequently, the story dives deeply into issues of labor, migration, race, and cultural identity. A public film screening of Cultivating Dignity will be premiered May 1, 2021, and will be available subsequently for online viewing. There are also plans to create a small touring project to visit K-12 schools across Connecticut, in order to engage young audiences.


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