A guide to Harlem, Florida, using Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State (WPA, 1939) as your map.
You see the sign — Harlem — and turn off the Sugarland Highway just past Clewiston. Unless you lived in it, you wouldn’t know Harlem, Florida. You drive up and are introduced by a white church outlined in yellow abutting a graveyard. So many of the structures are white: from the blindingly-so church to the faded, off-white houses up and down the streets. In the cemetery, white cattle egrets strut among the headstones, skittering off when you get too close.
Your WPA Florida guidebook says Harlem was a settlement established by the transient blacks that worked in the U.S. Sugar Corporation fields. And, in the square-mile wide Harlem skyline, the U.S. Sugar plant is still there. It is the Harlem skyline. You get the feeling it always will be.
Today, the town remains almost all black, half live below the poverty line, and half still work in agriculture.
Florida-born Zora Neale Hurston, in her 1937 book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is quoted by your guide; describing the scene of itinerant pickers in and around Lake Okeechobee, not far from Harlem:
Day by day now, the hordes of workers poured in. Some came limping in with their shoes and sore feet from walking. It’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you. They came in wagons from way up in Georgia and they came in truck loads from east, west, north and south. Permanent transients with no attachments and tired looking men with their families and dogs in flivvers. All night, all day, hurrying in to pick beans. Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside, chugging on to the muck. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor.
In Harlem, take out the black glossy SUVs and beat-up pick-ups, imagine half the number of headstones in the church graveyard: sometimes years gone by can still leave things in stasis, just more of the same and the same.
Words - Tom McNamara; Images - Tom McNamara & Erin Chapman
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Tom McNamara and Erin Chapman are co-editors of The American Guide.
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