"On the Train and Gone".: Worker Mobility
in the Rural Southwest During World War II,
CHARLES D. CHAMBERLAIN III*
N THE FALL OF 1942, C. J. ROBERTSON, A LUMBER MILL OPERATOR IN
Humble, Texas, complained to federal manpower officials in Dallas
that "Shipyards, rubber plants, refineries, road contractors and others
with War Contracts" naturally sought "labor and manpower from . ..
sawmilling and lumbering." Claiming that his experiences with under-
cover labor recruiters, or "labor pirates," were similar to that of other
lumbermen in the region, Robertson protested especially how "the
Negro labor of the East Texas lumbering industries" was the labor con-
tractors' "most fruitful field." Robertson blamed his manpower prob-
lems on both outside labor agents and local African Americans, who
comprised 80 percent of his workforce. According to the lumberman,
both groups were "indifferent to the Rules and Regulations" prescribed
by the War Production Board and the War Manpower Commission,
"because none of the edicts prescribe any penalties."'
The flight of unskilled workers from farms and low-wage industries in
Texas during World War II created tremendous unease among farm and
lumber operators. Beginning with the initial construction of defense
facilities throughout the state in 1941, inflated wages in new industries
attracted rural Texans, many of whom earned some of the lowest wages
in the nation at the start of the war.' As defense mobilization unleashed
a dramatic shift in rural labor relations, employers in low-wage rural
industries demanded greater control of local labor markets. In farming
* Charles Chamberlain is an adjunct professor at Tulane University. He also works as staff of
the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane.
C. J Robertson to J. H. Bond, Oct. 26, 1942, unlabeled file [stabilization], box 652, series
27o, RG 211 (National Archives, Fort Worth, Texas; cited hereafter as NA FW).
2 According to Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) figures, southern cotton pickers
made between eleven and twenty-two cents per hour, based on $1.50 per one hundred pounds,
Oct. 5, 1942, New Orleans News Dagest In fact, some growers in South Texas paid only sixty cents
to a dollar per one hundred pounds. On average, one person could pick one hundred pounds
per day. In comparison, wages for unskilled workers in defense industries during 1941 varied
from forty to seventy-five cents per hour.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 103, July 1999 - April, 2000. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101220/. Accessed March 2, 2015.