Memorial honors Nan Freeman, the New College student who lost her life picketing for farm workers

Jacob Wentz | Feb. 12, 2020 | Originally published in the Catalyst

Forty-eight years after her death on the farm-labor picket lines in Belle Glade, Fla., New College student activist Nan Freeman (‘71) was celebrated in a recent on-campus memorial event. The panel discussion and memorial service brought together students, professors and members of United Farm Workers (UFW), the National Farm Worker Ministry and Young American Dreamers to honor Freeman’s contribution to human rights.

“This campus is rightly proud of activism,” UFW Spokesperson Marc Grossman remarked. “So New College students should know and be rightly proud of Nan Freeman, who gave her life for her activism.”



Ace academic, apt activist

According to her sister, Freeman was always academically motivated and thorough with her research. 

“She wrote poems, loved to read, loved watermelon and Bullwinkle cartoons,” Liz Freeman wrote in an email interview. “She won a $1,000 American Federation of Labor state scholarship for an essay she wrote on the labor movement in twelfth grade. She wouldn’t tell us what she wrote, but my mom knew she had read everything she could find about the labor movement.”

Freeman’s passion for human rights grew at New College, where she wrote a 200-page paper about youth detention centers and prison systems for her first independent study project (ISP).

“The more I learn about Nan, the more I realize that even in her very short time at New College, she illustrates what can be described as a New College spirit; a person deeply committed to both academic engagement and social justice,” Professor of Sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies Sarah Hernandez wrote in an email interview. “While today we do not encourage students to write such extensive manuscripts for an ISP, to engage in such writing, Nan must have been fully embedded in her research; a commendable spirit that may resonate with many students at New College.”

After taking the course “Project REAL” with late Professor of Economics Marshall Barry, Freeman became interested in the struggles of farm workers in Florida. The course focused on using economic principles to work on improving the lives of poor communities in the local Sarasota area. Originally, Project REAL took a top-down approach to the work it was doing, but, as alum and close friend Pam Albright (’71) explained, they began to find that approach was not working.

“Since it wasn’t working top-down, it felt like we had to figure out a way to do a bottoms-up approach to dealing with poverty and discrimination in this community,” Albright said.

Project REAL became the informal research wing of the United Farmworkers Union in Florida, which was trying to gain a foothold in the state. Students conducted courthouse research for the union aimed at finding where land owned by Coca Cola Minute Maid was being held.

“She and I and other students traveled to courthouses in different parts of Florida to search the land records to help the union pinpoint where the farms were that Coca Cola Minute Maid owned or managed,” Albright said. “This work contributed to the successful organizing of farmworkers in the citrus industry and a contract between Coca Cola Minute Maid and the UFW. This contract was life-altering for the farmworkers who benefited from improved working conditions and wages.”



Crossing the line

In January 1972, students in the course learned about workers striking against the Talisman Sugar Corporation in Belle Glade, Fla. Most of the strikers were drivers from Little Havana—approximately 60 miles from the mill—who worked 12-hour shifts every day of the week, without breaks for meals or to use the bathroom. 

“They weren’t even asking for higher wages or other improvements in their working conditions,” Albright said. “They just wanted bathroom breaks.”

According to the UFW, workers who protested were immediately terminated and forced off the property. The estimated 200 fired drivers set up an around-the-clock informational picket line on U.S. Hwy. 27, outside of the facility’s private property.

“An official of the United Farmworkers Union in Florida had been in the area on other business and had driven past the mill and noticed the drivers’ protest,” Albright said. “After investigating the situation, the UFW joined the strike in solidarity with them.”

Albright, Freeman, and three other students from New College joined the picket line in support of the strikers. They took turns standing at the entrance of the mill, flagging down the trucks crossing the picket line to try to get them to stop and take informational leaflets.

Two deputies from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department had been sitting in a car approximately 100 feet from the mill’s entrance gate. Picketers complained to police about drivers speeding through stop signs by the picket lines to splash rain and mud on the workers.

At around 3:15 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1972, 18-year-old Nan Freeman was hit by a double-trailer truck carrying 70,000 pounds of struck sugar cane. 

“At this point my memory is not very clear, but basically a truck stopped at the entrance and accepted a flyer, and then another truck came up quickly behind the first one,” Albright said. “One of those trucks apparently turned too sharply onto the road to the mill and struck Nan.” 

Albright described the deputies approaching her to see what happened after a striker immediately ran to them to report the incident.

“One of the deputies said to me, ‘you kids had no business being here,’” Albright said. “At a certain moment, while we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, which seemed to take forever, Nan let out a deep breath and one of the deputies said, ‘She’s gone home.’ I don’t remember them attempting any first aid.”

Freeman was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead on arrival at 4:19 a.m. The death was ruled accidental and no charges were filed.

New Yorker reporter Alec Wilkinson revisited the incident in his 1989 book, “Big Sugar,” in which Talisman Sugar Corporation and the Florida Highway Patrol suggested Freeman had been killed elsewhere and deposited at the front gate. Wilkinson dismissed the claim as “ghoulish and inexplicable.”



A martyr

In March 2013, the Freeman family joined then-U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul Chavez for a ceremony at the department’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. There, Nan Freeman was inducted into the department’s prestigious Labor Hall of Honor.

“To some, [Freeman] is a young girl who lost her life in a tragic accident,” Cesar Chavez wrote in a statement after learning of her death. “To us, she is a sister who picketed with farm workers in the middle of the night because of her love for justice. She is a young woman who fulfilled the commandments by loving her neighbors even to the point of sacrificing her own life. To us, Nan Freeman is Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a holy person to be honored and remembered for as long as farm workers struggle for justice.”

She is recognized by UFW as one of five martyrs who died during strikes.

“We know Nan would have been unhappy if we focused on her,” Grossman said to the crowd at the New College memorial event. “She would have us focus on what the movement is doing today.”

Grossman proceeded to list off advancements in farm worker rights, including farm workers in California earning an average of $2.18 above the state minimum wage, the majority of California mushroom workers being unionized and 300 retired farm workers in Florida receiving monthly pension checks from UFW.

“You, we, can honor Nan’s legacy by supporting the boycotts, the legislation, the community organizing of farm worker unions and organizations,” Sam Trickery, representing National Farm Worker Ministry, said. “Do that, being energized and motivated by her memory.”