Historical Background - The World War II Farm Labor Project
“I came home exhilarated. I had had a marvelous summer although I realize I’m not doing much for the war effort. It was a marvelous part of the college experience. I could never have done that if it hadn’t been though the college. It heightened my enjoyment of college. And I met very special people. It was a socially significant lark which as a city kid I never would have had that experience.” France Koral
In this short reflection on her experience picking beans on a farm in upstate New York during World War II, France Koral highlighted some of the key aspects of the Farm Labor Project. This “socially significant lark” gave her, a young woman from a working-class city family, a chance to get away from home, have a college-sanctioned and chaperoned adventure. While Koral’s ultimate contribution to the war effort may have been minimal, her foray into rural America proved to be socially significant in unexpected ways, as the participants recount.
Through the edited narrative of France Koral and other Farm Labor Project participants, this oral history website tells the story of Brooklyn College students who responded to the World War II farm labor shortage by volunteering to spend their summer as farmworkers. By 1942, the call to military service and relatively well-paying defense work had depleted the pool of local farmworkers in upstate New York. In addition, the gas and tire rationing made it more difficult to transport migrant workers from great distances. Recalling that New York City students had been sent upstate to do farmwork during World War One, Brooklyn College administrators organized with their colleagues at Hunter, City, and Queens Colleges, and sent students to Dutchess County to assist in the summer planting and harvesting. The next year, Brooklyn College worked with the New York State Farm Manpower Service and helped staff one of its thirty “Farm Cadet Victory Corps” camps with college students.
Beginning with the summer of 1943, the college added a curricular component to the project and students were required to take one course for credit. Course offerings ranged from literature to geology and rural sociology, and were intended, when possible, to take advantage of the rural setting and the college’s faculty. Recruiting for the summer of 1944, the college appealed to prospective students to aid in the national drive for increased food production with the slogan “Feed a Fighter in ‘Forty-Four.” By the end of the war over five hundred students from Brooklyn College had experienced the hard work of farming, and other features of rural life. The majority of these students, like Frances Koral were the children of Jewish working-class immigrants, raised during the Great Depression, grateful that the city enabled them to attend college, tuition free.