My daughter, Paulette, recently told me about a meeting she attended with some of California’s cotton growers and gin operators and what she learned about our state’s cotton crop. This prompted me to tell her about my growing up and picking cotton in North Carolina as a boy. She said, “dad, you never told me you picked cotton…all you ever talked about was working in tobacco fields.” I don’t remember telling my kids about harvesting other crops like corn, sweet potatoes, hay, and other minor crops growing in that part of the south on the Mallard farm going toward New Bern.
This prompted me to write about picking cotton and the invention of machines to reduce the cost of labor as African-Americans left the southern farms heading north as well as those left behind who wanted more money for working all day for very little compensation. From a historical perspective, cotton was originally picked by the hands of slaves living on plantations and the owner's profit margins were very good due to the over 400 years of free labor.
Then in my generation, during the mid 1940’s, it was the International Harvester Company that produced the first successful commercial mechanical cotton picker machine, however it did not fit all farmers in the south at that time because during a good rainstorm the new invention would get stuck in the fields so some manual labor was still needed. Needless to say, that invention put other Blacks living in the south like me out of the cotton-picking business, which was fine with me.
Paulette couldn’t believe that they would only pay four cents a pound and most adult people could only pick 100 pounds a day, which comes to about $4 in a nine-hour day. That is why picking cotton was a family venture in order to make it financially worthwhile, every little bit would help put food on the table during the winter months. On one of my best days as a teenager I picked 126 pounds and I thought I had done something big. I did not know I was being used as child labor. When you pick cotton your fingers get pricked from the cotton burs. Once the bolls start to crack open, the fluffy cotton starts to push out of the covering. The cotton dries and fluffs up before being ready for harvesting. The dry cotton is simply pulled from the bolls and stored until the seeds are ready to be removed from the raw cotton. Now I must say some people figured out how to make cotton heavier by adding a little water to the cotton before it was time to weigh-up at the end of the day. Of course mama would not let her children do any thing like that.
After I left home and began my own family I learned that my oldest sister was working in a denim factory in Greensboro. Denim starts from cotton fiber that is harvested from fields like the one I used to work in. I went to see how denim was made and it begins with a single thread being spun from the cotton and then the thread is dyed a beautiful blue and weaved together to make cloth. We were able to get some denim and Cheryl was able to make the kids a few outfits.
Even though the majority of Blacks left the fields and went on to find other employment, farmers found a new source of cheap labor and started bringing in non-citizen workers from Mexico and other countries in South America. This is why so many Latinos are now living in places like North Carolina. I also found out from a conversation with Caesar Chavez’s son during a graduation at Claremont, that one of the reasons African- American were brought out to California to work in the cotton fields was our fingers were longer. I told him I had wondered how did some of our people wound up in California’s Central Valley.
Well Paulette, that is my story on cotton other than what I now put on my back.
The Cotton scale was a simple device that was hung from a tree limb. The sack was tied to the bottom of the scale and a "P", or weight, usually did the weighing and kept the records for each picker. The weight of the sack was deducted and the cotton was emptied into a wagon or truck with high sideboards.