By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Hughley couldn't agree more. He describes the downtown situation this way: "Down in the colored section, there ain't no jobs. There ain't enough jobs for the amount of people. That's how it is. Everybody's trying to make a dollar off of everybody else. You've got the drug man trying to make a dollar off the poor man. The poor man, he ain't got no job. He's got to get by the best way he can. Some of them rob. Some steal. The younger ones, they rob everybody. It's just bad, any way you look at it."
Hughley is 58 years old, unemployed, and HIV-positive. He is a tall man with thin arms and legs and a potbelly. He doesn't know exactly how he picked up the virus, but he has led a sexually active life. With seven different women, he's fathered a total of seventeen children. He has also had sex with prostitutes, for which he does not apologize. He generally keeps to himself, sleeps during the day, drinks beer in the evenings, and occasionally smokes crack cocaine. On Sundays he goes to church.
Hughley's nighttime hangout is the Blue Bell Bar just across the street from his boarding house. Painted day-glo orange and blue, the building looks like one of those exaggerated movie versions of a backwater juke joint. In the late afternoon, a group of elderly men sit on the curb by the door and chat. Some are older than Hughley, and like him they've been worn down by years of picking vegetables in the farm fields just outside of town.
For at least forty years, western Palm Beach County has been one of the country's biggest providers of sugar cane and vegetables such as beans, lettuce, and sweet corn. A sign welcoming visitors to Belle Glade reads: "Her Soil Is Her Fortune." Historically this fortune has been provided by the labor of migrant workers -- Americans and immigrants from South America, Mexico, and the West Indies. During the fall and winter, the workers would move into Florida, make a few dollars a day picking vegetables, then move north at the end of the spring harvest. In 1960 a worker picking green beans for ten hours would earn about a dollar. And he or she wasn't guaranteed work every day, thanks to the weather.
Low wages, erratic employment, and tough working conditions led to a host of problems. Health care was either unavailable or unaffordable. While their parents worked, preschool-age kids were left unattended in filthy and disease-ridden labor camps. Children who attended local schools were often whisked away in May, the end of most of the farms' season, so that their parents could find work up north. Other kids dropped out of school to work in the fields and help with the family expenses.
At least superficially, conditions have improved. Because an average worker today makes between $7000 and $13,000 a year, parents can afford to remain in Belle Glade past the end of the season, allowing their kids to finish up the school year. But not everyone downtown works, and even those who do have only enough money to afford inadequate housing, where ventilation is sometimes poor and allows airborne diseases to spread, especially in overcrowded rooms and apartments. People living in these conditions turn to drugs for comfort, and drug addiction, along with unemployment, leads residents to rely on other means of earning an income, such as exchanging sex or drugs for goods and money.
As daylight dwindles on a recent Friday afternoon and workers return home from the vegetable fields, reggae music mixes with the clamor of voices, some of them coming from the "jitterbugs," as Hughley calls them, young men either still in or barely out of high school who hang out on the streets all day, selling dope, drinking beer, or both. Most of them still live at home with their parents, and, with the help of drug money, they enjoy an easygoing lifestyle. What they don't realize, Hughley says, is that that lifestyle won't get them out of Belle Glade.
The same goes for some well-laid plans. When Hughley was growing up, he was an exceptional athlete who believed he might someday play professional football. When he was eleven years old, he visited his mother's family in Cleveland for three months. He liked it there so much that he realized for the first time just how bad his hometown was. "I told my mama, 'I don't want to go back to Belle Glade,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Let's stay up here in Cleveland.' I said, 'I can make it good up here.' But she said, 'We got to go back to Belle Glade.'"
"But this ain't shit," he grumbles, seated inside his cramped room. "You can't get nothing down here in Belle Glade, nothing but put in jail. I was eleven years old. I knew what I was coming back to when I was eleven years old."
In 1952, a year after Hughley returned from his trip to Cleveland, a health official, testifying at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on labor relations, reported that he saw 180 people living in a 60-room Belle Glade migrant labor camp with only one toilet. In another camp he found 48 babies stacked atop one another on two beds while their parents worked in the fields. At the same hearing, the director of the Palm Beach County Health Department testified that many of Belle Glade's migrant shelters weren't fit for cattle.