By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
On a crisp September morning in 1944, 900 arriving Jamaican workers filled a New York pier with song. None of them had ever been to America before, but all were eager to help with the war effort. 111 of them had come to work at the General Electric foundry here in Elmira. The foundry’s purchasing agent, Wilbur R. Simmons, had gone down to the city to meet them. He was awed by the beauty of their music.
Beginning in 1943, the Farm Security Administration began recruiting Jamaican workers to help ease farm labor shortages in the eastern states. Approximately 4,500 were brought to U.S. that summer with 1,250 of them working in New York. All told, the United States government recruited over 38,000 foreign workers from Mexico, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other parts of the Caribbean and South America to help bring in harvests across the country that year. The practice continued throughout the war.
Agriculture wasn’t the only place where there were wartime worker shortages. Local manufacturers found themselves scrambling to replace workers who had left for military service. In the spring of 1944, John R. Row, the plant engineer for General Electric’s Elmira Foundry, headed to the Caribbean to recruit guest workers. The original plan had been to bring folks from the Bahamas, but that island had put a hold on recruitment due to labor shortages of their own. He ended up going to Jamaica instead.
The first 111 Jamaican guest workers arrived in Elmira on September 24, 1944. They were to be housed at the plant in barracks built specially for them. The barracks featured 2 large halls with bunk beds, a recreation hall, a large kitchen, store house, communal bathroom, and laundry facility. James O’Connor, a former steward for a Kingston cricket club, and Eustace Fothergill, a ship’s cook from Old Harbor, took command of the kitchen. Subsequent guest workers were housed in private apartments or with host families, mostly located in Black community on Elmira’s east side.
Elmira did its best to welcome them. The Council
of Social Agencies worked to put together programs and resources to provide
them with recreational opportunities in their off hours. Several organizations
donated books, magazines, and athletic equipment for the barracks. Elmira College
offered a series of lectures and discussion groups on various topics. The
Neighborhood House hosted an all-Jamaican choral group. Various churches,
including Monumental Baptist Church and St. Luke’s Congregational Church,
opened their doors to worshippers. For Christmas 1945, St. John’s Episcopal
Church of Elmira Heights held a special concert for them and Trinity Episcopal Church
hosted several concerts by the Jamaican Gospel Choir.
Jamaican worker's arrival, September 26, 1943. Courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette
The men were initially hired to work a 6-month contract with an option to renew. Although few of them had any experience working in foundries, they were assigned to work in the manufacture of gray-iron castings. The arrangement worked well. Not only was the initial contract renewed through June 1946, additional workers were brought in a few months later. Once the harvest was brought in, Kennedy Valve Manufacturing Company hired 36 Jamaican agricultural laborers to stay in Elmira and work over the winter. Chemung Foundry and Bendix-Eclipse ended up hiring Jamaican workers as well. All told, nearly 300 Jamaicans ended up working in Elmira factories during the course of the war.
The last of the Jamaican workers finally left in 1946. On April 18, Elmira Foundry held a farewell banquet at the Jamaican barracks. Various plant officials came and sang workers’ praises. They presented George Barrett, the chairman of the Jamaican Camp Council, and other workers with scrolls of merit and professional references. The company also presented St. Luke’s Congregational Church with a special bulletin board honoring the Jamaican workers who had worshipped there during their stay. The temporary workers went home in the summer of 1946, but some eventually came back to settle in the community they had come to love.