Central Florida woman retraces 100 years of history highlighting family ties to Hispanic community

Dolores Harvell, 87, in her Viera home in Central Florida, describing the land where Camp Bragg began to be built in 1918. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – A former Central Florida woman said she holds a 100-year-old piece of American history that ties her family to the Hispanic community.

Dolores Harvell, 87, wasn’t there when it all happened. The story was passed down to her by her mother and aunts; she had personal accounts and newspaper clippings. After retirement, the Air Force widow took it upon herself to become the family’s genealogist and researched the events herself, formally documenting them from the perspective of her family’s lived experience.

She turned it into a book called, “Employee U.S.A,” with a lone Puerto Rican flag on its cover.

“I hope it shocks people,” Harvell said. “The story is shocking, and it needs to be known.”

Harvell is not Puerto Rican. Her family is not Hispanic at all. In fact, the grandmother of six has had her genealogy work officially certified, proving her a descendant of Martha Washington as well as her consanguinity with Laura Bush. Harvell is a white woman.

“This story is not just about us,” she said. “My family was witness to one of the gravest injustices in Hispanic-American history.”

As Puerto Rico was undergoing an economic transition as result of the Spanish-American War in 1918, the U.S. was just heading out of World War I and looking for “cheap laborers” to build a new military base in Fayetteville, North Carolina — Camp Bragg, what is now present-day Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the nation.

When the Department of Labor announced its recruitment plans, over 1,700 Puerto Rican men, desperate for steady work opportunities, were happy to step up. The job came with promises of adequate food, housing and wages, as well as temperate climate and personal freedom, records show.

“Not one of those promises was kept,” Harvell said.

Official documents show the men were paid what came to be $0.35 per hour. Additional historical and cultural records, such as the deposition of Rafael Marchán and the work of Jessica A. Bandel, said the men were also treated cruelly.

At first arrival, the Puerto Rican men — who had never known cold climate — in nothing but their clad island clothing were housed in uninsulated barracks, as the chilly air of fall set in. The men were beaten, abused and humiliated, according to the deposition. To make matters worse, Harvell said, this all happened during the height of the influenza pandemic. Hundreds of men became severely ill, many dying without proper medical care and then made to bury one another, Harvell said.

Harvell said her ancestors bore personal witness to these events.

“That’s where the horror began,” Harvell said.

To erect the base, the U.S. acquired the land from 170 private owners, according to Harvell’s book, one of whom was her grandfather. Henry Kivett owned Mont View: 309 acres of land with crops, cattle and – his pride and joy – a vineyard with a wine store. Harvell said a “pittance” for the land was offered, and the family, in their patriotic obligation, decided to accept.

“They were patriots, but they also had no choice,” Harvell said. “They loved their country and wanted to do their part, but they didn’t want to leave their home and lose everything they had worked for.”

According to Harvell’s book, the 170 families were forced to sell and leave their homes, which meant leaving behind “years of hard labor and sacrifice, even costing many their health.” Indeed, “Grandpa Kivett” became ill and died, she said, leaving his wife and children behind to witness in horror as strange and “scary” Brown foreigners were brought to their land and used their barns as makeshift barracks.

“My mother was a little girl when she would hide behind her mother, my grandmother’s skirt. She would clutch on to her and watch as the Puerto Rican workers dug their own holes in the middle of the night, right across from the house, in the orchard,” Harvell said. “And my grandma and her sisters would watch, too, as these men were made to basically bury each other — they had to bury their own dead. My mom and her sisters said the men would drop more than one body in these graves, sometimes two, three, maybe more.”

Puerto Rican laborers on a sugar cane plantation, circa 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress. (Library of Congress)

It was while she was quarantining at home during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 that Harvell and the world watched on video as a white, American officer mercilessly took the life of George Floyd, a man of color. For Harvell, this was a moment of reckoning. She said witnessing blatant racial injustice amid a pandemic sent her back to the story of Camp Bragg and to an awful realization.

“It’s been over 100 years, and nothing’s changed,” Harvell said. “We’ve learned nothing.”

The thought of history repeating itself stirred within Harvell a sense of obligation, she said. That is when she got to work on her book. In it, Harvell documents in painstaking detail her family’s perspective of the events that took place in Fayetteville during the fall of 1918.

The book chronicles the family’s interviews with local press, as well as personal letters, official documents and historical records, some of which she obtained directly from Fort Bragg officials. Originally written for her family as a keepsake of their moment in history, the events of 2020 made her reflect, and she decided the story belonged to the world. Her self-published book is on sale on Amazon and claims the abuse of these men, as well as the existence of mass graves on the site and calls for the honorable recognition of the workers.

Dr. Linda Carnes, archaeologist and curator at Fort Bragg, said there is much to note in historical context, such as the labor shortage at the time, the segregation that was commonplace then and the disadvantages of Hispanic workers.

White and Black men also came to work on Camp Bragg, she said, but each had their own sections. They also did not have to become accustomed to cold, or a language and food with which they were unfamiliar. For the Hispanics workers, the strange food, foreign language and cold climate, the lived experience of working on Camp Bragg took on a different level.

“There’s the base camp set up for the Cuban and Puerto Rican laborers who came, and then there was a base camp set up for African Americans who also were here,” Carnes said. “And they would have been recruited from nearby states. These laborers who were African American or white, of course, the advantage for them is they were from here.”

Not expecting the virus to hit as hard as it did, the newborn installation was not prepared with hospitals or doctors; it was quickly becoming an emergency, Carnes said. Many healthcare workers are honored today, she said, for stepping up and saving lives at Camp Bragg. Once the deaths of these men began, Carnes said the installation began to meticulously document the men’s deaths — all 49 of them — and to build the Main Post Cemetery.

“It’s hallowed ground ... a very dignified and quiet place,” Carnes said. “There are these early casualties of this pandemic, and there are eight German POW buried there, as well as Medal of Honor winners. And it represents, I think, the diversity of all of people’s efforts in building Camp Bragg and making it what it is today.”

Carnes said the grounds are well kept, the deaths were accounted for and the markers are maintained. She said it is a “special place” that is “treated with dignity, and it’s treated with respect.” She also said descendants of these workers who gave their lives to build Camp Bragg are welcome to visit it at any time.

All the same, Harvell strives to make sure everyone knows this story. She is constantly reaching out to reporters and Hispanic associations and groups, trying to get the word out about her book, about the story of injustice she wants to right.

Director of Public Affairs Matt Visser said, in 1900s America, the use of mass graves was not uncommon but could not confirm one way or another if they ever existed in Camp Bragg.

“I don’t know if that’s what happened here (in Fort Bragg), but that would have been common in that era of American history for many people, not just migrants,” Visser said.

Visser said matters of injustice are a multifaceted, multicolored and large conversation, pertaining not just to Hispanics but to Black and indigenous peoples, as well as other people of color, and even poor white immigrants. While hard working and prominent white people have also done much to help build the nation, it has all come at a great cost to oppressed peoples, and he said Fort Bragg recognizes this.

“Our country was founded on the backs of those populations,” Visser said. “America, like most portions of the world, has a complicated history, and the military, and more succinctly here at Fort Bragg, we want to make sure that we’re creating space for conversations on how marginalized populations are impacted by that.”

One thing is certain now, Visser said, Fort Bragg is big on formally recognizing the sacrifices of all the heroes who have contributed to the force in one way or another. Currently, they’re working, he said, to further honor Hispanic veterans and workers, such as Mexican-American veteran Marcelino Serna, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his courage in the Battle of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Legislation is being pushed to upgrade that award to a Medal of Honor.

“We can’t rewrite history,” Visser said. “We can only learn from it and improve how we move forward. And so, when we have these crucial conversations about injustices that have happened to people, to communities of color, it’s how we grow, and we create a more productive and equitable workforce.”

A year of staying indoors during the pandemic deteriorated Harvell’s health, so she moved to live with her youngest daughter, Kimberly O’Donoghue, in Seattle.

O’Donoghue said she thinks her mother’s efforts to get this story out are noble and that the story is worth sharing.

“I am actually quite proud of her, and I think it’s a wonderful book,” Harvell’s daughter said. “With the combination of current events, and the way the world is changing, I think she felt like, if she could get the story out there, she might be able to have a positive impact.”

Historical records are treasures, they hold the moments in the course of the past, but personal accounts hold what historic records miss. Not every personal experience can be recounted — certainly not in historical records — but these accounts, all of them together, form a mosaic of a moment in time that teaches a collective lesson, Harvell said.

For her, it’s all about making people aware that these men existed, that they suffered, and that they died for their country. Harvell said she would like to see them one day honored and recognized loudly.

“If we don’t remember them, who will?” She said.

About the Author:

Lillian M. Hernández Caraballo joined News 6 in September.