Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Wilbur Edward Roberts

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Wilbur Edward Roberts
BornMay 24, 1855
Great Arbor Abaco Island, the Bahamas
Badge of Abaco
Died1944
OccupationFisherman and Sponger

Overview[edit]

Wilbur Edward Roberts was a fisherman from the Bahamas who immigrated to the United States in 1915. Veronica Huss interviewed the retired Roberts for the |Federal Writer's Project in 1938.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Map of the Bahamas

Wilbur Edward Roberts was born on May 24, 1855, on Great Arbor Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Roberts’ father was a fisherman and taught Roberts how to catch fish, turtles, and sponges as a child. Without a school on the island, Roberts never learned how to read or write. Because the Bahamas was a colony in the British Empire, Roberts was officially a British subject. As a young adult, Roberts moved to Key West, Florida, but moved back to the Bahamas after two years to marry Mary Jane Key in 1896. [1]

Adult Life
[edit]

For many of his adult years, Roberts fished and sponged on the ocean. He and his wife had children, but Roberts only saw his family when he returned from voyages. In 1915, the family immigrated to Florida. Roberts continued to fish and catch sponges, but wages were still low. His financial problems worsened after he was forced to pay fake taxes on his land, a common occurrence for new immigrants around the time. The US government did not give Roberts any public job opportunities because he was recognized only as a colonial British citizen. His lack of reading and writing skills made it impossible for him to complete the necessary documentation to become an American citizen. Later in life, Roberts developed cataracts but was unable to pay for medical help. [2]

Death
[edit]

Roberts died in 1944 at the age of 89. Roberts’ place of death is unknown. [3]

Immigration in the Early Twentieth Century[edit]

American Attitudes Toward Immigration[edit]

The early 20th century was a time of intense immigration to the United States. 1905 was the first year that over 1 million immigrants came to America. [4] Many American citizens began to fear this increasing trend of immigration, and desired tougher restrictions. The anti-immigration sentiment that spread in America was based on the idea that America was allowing the “wrong type of immigrants” into the country. The “wrong type” of immigrant described one who could “destroy the peace of the American lifestyle.” This included single, young, males who would crowd up the cities, young women who might turn to prostitution, and those who couldn’t physically work. [5] As a result, President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged Congress to pass stricter immigration regulations. Congress successfully passed regulations in 1906 that increased taxes on immigrants, encouraged immigrant families instead of young, single people, and promoted life in rural areas to prevent overcrowding in the cities. A literacy test to only allow those who could read and write to enter the country was also proposed as part of the new regulations. This more prohibitive addition, however, was only later passed during |World War One, when xenophobia reached a new level in America. [6]

Bahamian Immigration[edit]

Immigration from the Bahamas to Florida flourished in the early 1900s. First, the increasing efficiency of ships made the short voyage across the Gulf of Mexico cheaper and more available for many Bahamians. Second, Miami and the surrounding areas hosted many employment opportunities. Third, most Bahamian citizens were poor and had physically demanding jobs. The “failure of (the Bahamas) to provide more than a bare subsistence for their inhabitants” pushed many Bahamians into trying their luck in America. [7] Bahamians in South Florida totaled over 1,500 in 1910, but rapidly rose to over 4,800 immigrants by 1920. [8] Racism from white Americans was a struggle for Bahamians, as well as the |xenophobia that came from their status as citizens of a British colony. [9]

Sponging Industry in the Americas[edit]

Sponge Yard along Docks, Nassau, B. I (NYPL b12647398-67673)

The sponging industry in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico was prosperous in the early 20th century. |Sponges are aquatic invertebrate animals that are caught and dried for use primarily in households and hospitals. On average, four million pounds of sponges were collected annually in the Americas during this time, more than in any other region. The journalist, F. A. Pierce noted that “while sponge fishing in the Americas is rather a modern industry, it produces more than two-thirds of the world's supply in weight.” [10] The large amount of sponges caught had a great economic impact. The sponges collected in 1910 alone totaled 1.5 million dollars! [11] But, the sponging industry was set up so that white merchants in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, got most of the profits. Regular wages were not available to Bahamian spongers, and they had to rely on the meager profits they received from a type of commission system the merchants used. [12] In Florida, spongers could receive set wages paid in cash, which was an option that enticed many Bahamians to make the move. The sponging industry in Florida was also growing more rapidly than in the Bahamas at the beginning of the 20th century.

Notes[edit]

  1. [1], Huss, V. "Wilbur Edward Roberts." Riviera, Florida, 1938. Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  2. [2], Ibid.
  3. [3], Ibid.
  4. [4], Lund, J. "Boundaries of Restriction: The Dillingham Commission." University of Vermont History Review 6, (December 1994).
  5. [5], Ibid.
  6. [6], Ibid.
  7. [7] Johnson, Howard. 1988. “Bahamian Labor Migration to Florida in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”. The International Migration Review 22 (1). [Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc., Wiley]: 103.
  8. [8] Mohl, Raymond A. 1987. “Black Immigrants: Bahamians in Early Twentieth-century Miami”. The Florida Historical Quarterly 65 (3). Florida Historical Society: 285.
  9. [9] Ibid.
  10. [10], "Bahamian Sponges Returning." The Sun, November 24, 1946.
  11. [11], Ibid.
  12. [12] Johnson, Howard. 1988. “Bahamian Labor Migration to Florida in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”. The International Migration Review 22 (1). [Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc., Wiley]: 88.

References[edit]

“Bahamian Sponges Returning.” The Sun, Nov 24, 1946, Proquest Historical Newspapers.

Johnson, Howard. 1988. “Bahamian Labor Migration to Florida in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”. The International Migration Review 22 (1). [Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc., Wiley]: 84–103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2546397?pq-origsite=summon&seq=4#page_scan_tab_contents.

Le Meschacébé. ([Lucy] La.), 09 Sept. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86079080/1911-09-09/ed-1/seq-3/

Lund, John M. “Boundaries of Restriction: The Dillingham Commission.” University of Vermont History Review 6, (December 1994), http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/histreview/vol6/lund.html.

Mohl, Raymond A.. 1987. “Black Immigrants: Bahamians in Early Twentieth-century Miami”. The Florida Historical Quarterly 65 (3). Florida Historical Society: 271–97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30147810.