History and the people who make it: Magaline Duncan

Magaline Duncan [D], farmworker, was interviewed by David Lynch [L] in July, 2013.

This is the 53rd in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection. Interpolations in {curly brackets} by Iguana.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

L: Where and when were you born?

D: January 23, 1942 in Madison, Florida. I growed up—eight years old when we left. We moved to Pahokee. When we moved here {Apopka}, I was thirteen.

L: You went to high school in Apopka?

D: Unh-uh.

L: You worked?

D: Uh-huhh.

L: What was life like during your childhood? What did your parents do?

D: They were working. We didn’t have a very good childhood because when {I was about 6 years old} my father died, then everything was on my mother. So it was kinda hard. But we made it. She used to do housework and work down in a diner. My six brothers passed away and one of my sisters so it came to three left. We just worked helping clean the diner. We used to pick cotton, pick up pecans.

L: What were some of the best lessons that you learned when you were a kid that you still hold today?

D: How to stay out of trouble. The next thing: how to be yourself. The next thing: don’t go around– back then the kids didn’t use to run in the streets like they do now. ‘Boy you better be back home,’ they said.

L: What are some of your favorite memories from childhood?

D: Like [laughter] how we used to have to clean up. If they said wash clothes, you better wash them clothes and they better be clean. Cuz if you didn’t they would snatch ‘em off the line and make you redo them. My parents used to get out and play ball with us and jump rope, and hopscotch and all that good stuff.

L: What jobs have you done since becoming an adult and getting out on your own?

D: I done worked in the field, I worked in a hotel. I worked in a restaurant. I packed corn, I picked weeds up. We packed corn, when we’d be off, I would go to a hotel and work the rest of the evening. Most of my young life I was in the field, picking cotton, cropping potatoes, stringing em on sticks, picking up pecans.

Sometime we had to separate the people. Keep it from getting outta hand. I hit a guy once cuz he hit my baby brother in the head with a pipe and bust it. And when I seen all that blood, I got kinda mad. I just pushed him into that hot water thing and it bust on him. But other than that, you learn to control your temper. If my boss had it out, you really had it out because all our life we made them people rich.

One year, they told us they don’t need us ‘cuz they had hired another crew to do that corn work because those Mexicans were working for nothing. And all the years it was Black people putting up that corn, he wanted to get rid of us and hire Mexicans.

We were speaking up for everybody cuz they were scared to talk for theyself and something go wrong, then we gotta talk up for them. He told me, he said, ‘Y’all can go too.’ I told him we wasn’t going nowhere, this our job. Sometimes you got to speak up for your job because if you don’t, they’ll walk all over you.

I left in ’97 because they were getting ready to close down the farm and I started at the school. I worked there for 16 years. I got sick so I just retired.

I wasn’t too old to work ‘cause I would work. I would clean them three buildings. I told my boss I was gonna work until I hit 72, but I got a blood clot. I had to put it down.

See, I got one paper that’s the holdup from me getting my retirement and all my other benefits. When I get that one paper, then I’m gonna get it. But, I still want me a part-time job. I mean, when you used to working, it’s hard to don’t work. And God knows I’m used to working since I was about seven years old. I liked to bring that tobacco home on sticks. You take a string and and you string it, and when you get to the end of this long stick, you wrap it and you tie it down. The only thing I didn’t like was when you went to put it up in the barn, that was some bad smelling stuff. Whoo! [Laughter]

But, we had to do it. Then we picked cotton and put it in the sheets, We picked up pecans and we separated them and put em in bags. We would go out after school and pick up pecans and pick tobacco, and pick cotton. We couldn’t get water ‘cause the water was way off. The man used to say, “We got some water somewhere.” That’s the one thing I don’t ever want to work in no more. The cotton. Oh no. Unh-uh. That’s a BACK breaker. Oh yeah. Back then, we do a sheet, we get a dime a piece. And cropping the tobacco and stringing ‘em on the sticks, we get a dime a piece. Now my brother, he was about nine years old, he could drive on the {tractor}, plow a field. Him and my older sister, Oh Lord.

L: I heard that there was a lot of exposure to pesticides.

D: Oh yeah. We used to be out there in the field and that stuff rained down. We got that a lot of times. So many men started dying and getting sick. They were still doing it. Later on, they had made them have water so they could wash their hands before they eat. Those men didn’t have nothing like that out there.

They started wearing gloves and goggles. When they used the pesticide, they had to wear boots and a rubber suit. That’s what they should have been doing all along because those men were dying out there. My brother got sick. Yeah, he had cancer and he died. They would have killed us if we were still out there. They supposed to do it five o’clock in the morning, and we were going to work at seven and they would still be spraying. We didn’t have no where to wash our hands either.

L: Have you personally experienced any health concerns from the pesticide?

D: No, not really. I have arthritis in my hands and it come from like that chicory, because that’s big-head stuff, you got to catch that stuff with one hand and cut it with the other one. After a while, you don’t have no feeling in your fingers. You couldn’t wear gloves. And you didn’t have no feeling in your feet ‘cause it was so cold. You could not put a fire in that muck because it started burning and it’s hard to put out. You would get that burn, burn, burn down in that muck. So we could never put a fire there. Sometimes, you would cut your hand and you won’t know you cut till you see them bleed.

L: You mentioned that you had a husband. When did you meet him?

D: Oh Lord. We were married in 1963. He died 1982. He worked on that farm for a long time. 

L: Did y’all have any kids?

D: Yeah, two. My baby son passed away, but my other son, he in prison. For stupid stuff. He went to school, he graduated, went to college. [Laughs] They gave him ten years. For stupid stuff! He tried to rob a store and they got nothing. He said now “I wish I had another chance,” well maybe he learning. 

I took my kids to church, from when they were babies. And I used to sing in the choir in the church. My older daughter, she used to be so smart. She would come home from school every day and get that Bible and sit in that chair and read. But when they grown, they don’t do what they supposed to do. Now my older daughter still go to church. 

L: Do you think your faith has influenced you?

D: Yeah, it makes you strong. Make you believe. Don’t ever doubt yourself. Because if you put a doubt on yourself, you gone have problems. But it gave me faith and believe. It gave me strength. When I go to church right now, even though I’m 71 years old, I go to Sunday School every Sunday.

L: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you would like to share?

D: It was a helluva ride. But other than that, it was good. What happened with us, I try not to think about it. You see and forgive, and leave it there.

L: What was the relationships like with the bosses that you had? 

D: I would joke with ‘em, they would joke with me. Sometimes the head boss would make me kinda angry. It’s good that you can work places and get along with people. 

When we first started that Farmworkers Association thing, there was about 7 or 8 of us. Believe me, we faced them people when they come down here. We had to face some people from Tallahassee, I think they went to Tallahassee too. But I couldn’t go because I had another job working part-time.

I was taking medicine with a blood thinner. I was getting kind of slow in my work. Some days I just get weak, I get real tired. My doctor, he told me that they might have to amputate my leg for a blood clot. They were talking about keeping me because I had two blood clots in my leg.

We go and we working because we used to working. And some get in a lot of pain. And you don’t know you’re sick. I found that out. I was sweeping that wall down and that spider bit me on the finger. My hand went to swelling and I thought maybe it was coming from that spider bite. But it wasn’t. Then I had arthritis in my knee. ‘Cause I did a lot of mopping, a LOT of mopping, and a lot of sweeping, and a lot of pushing around that vacuum cleaner. My feet start bothering me and start swelling. I {dropped} a chair on my feet and those chairs, they’re pretty heavy. That thing just hurt the top of my feet. Woah! Man, that thing hurted me. The doctor said, “Maybe one day you can get it operated on.” Because where that chair hit, they thought it was broken. It wasn’t. It was a blood clot. 

Yeah, I had some good times and I had some bad times. My children are always pushing me about retiring anyways. I told them, “Just shut up ‘cause I’ll retire when I’m ready.” [Laughter] When you get to a job that you can handle, it don’t bother you. You know what you got to do and you go in and get it done. You have to know how to take control of your work. Don’t let it control you.

L: Did you experience much discrimination about race or sex?

D: No, none of that. Because, you know, I just like people. I mean, the White people, the Mexicans, the Black people. We eat together, we laugh and talk. I have to give it to them, they were nice.

Audio & transcript of this interview to be posted at http://oral.history.ufl.edu. The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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