World War II brought to city-based Bahamians high levels of unemployment and poverty as the community’s seasonal tourism industry collapsed. By 1942 the prospect of a decline in the construction sector threatened workers with further hardship. Meanwhile, in the United States a shortage of labour gripped every sector of the economy as conscription and military service claimed men located across the country. There the need for people who would work on farms grew especially dire. Nineteen forty-three brought The Bahamas and the United States together in a mutually agreeable arrangement. To counter growing local distress, the Bahamas Government agreed to supply Bahamians to work on farms and in related industries when the United States Government, intent on maintaining food production, solicited farm workers from abroad. The agreement between the two governments came to be known in The Bahamas as “The Project” or as “The Contract” – the latter a term reflecting the fact that a formal contract would be signed by each farm worker who took part in the programme.
Under “The Contract”, from 1943 to 1965 an estimated 30,000 Bahamians, both men and women, migrated to the United States to work on short-term contracts. Initially Bahamians were assigned to pick oranges in Florida, but as the programme grew labourers traversed the United States, whether picking beans in Maryland or farming in New Jersey or working in agricultural packing and processing plants in New York. Often work was hard, carried out in challenging climates and conditions and calling for long hours of manual labour. Additionally, black Bahamian labourers who worked in the southern United States met with “Jim Crow” laws which prescribed racial segregation in public facilities. The Bahamian experience paralleled the African-American experience under “Jim Crow”: restaurants, restrooms, transport, schools, and other public facilities which were available to them were consistently inferior in quality, and racist attitudes and practices were commonplace. Nevertheless Bahamians seeking to better their circumstance welcomed the opportunity to work, with nearly 5,000 participating in the first year of the programme.
Economically and socially the migration of so many Bahamians to the United States to work on a temporary basis reshaped the community. Financially, many of the migrants benefitted from taking part in the programme. While each worker received a portion of his or her earned wages, another portion was placed in a savings fund, and yet another was sent home to family members. These savings enabled workers, the overwhelming majority of whom returned to The Bahamas, to finance homes, start businesses, and share money with family members who had remained in the islands. Socially, on the other hand, sometimes the programme disrupted family relations as a result of the absence of one or another spouse for extended periods of time. All told, “The Contract” would leave its mark on postwar Bahamian society for years to come.