BREVARD COUNTY - In a secluded area of Viera, a local woman may be the last living direct link to a forgotten moment in American history.
Dolores Harvell, 87, has lived a full life. The grandmother of six and mother of four daughters now resides alone in a quiet subdivision, but she’s lived all over the world as a military wife to her Air Force Colonel husband of 51 years. She had retired from a successful career in real estate and taken on the role of the family’s genealogist before she was widowed in 2004.
Ms. Harvell has accomplished much in the last 16 years, writing her family history in such painstaking detail, that she was officially recognized for tracing her ancestors all the way to prominent women like Laura Bush and Martha Washington. Her research was also recognized when she became a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She wrote her first book, not for publication but for her family, an extensive and careful documentation of their blood line and place in history.
Yet it is another story that Ms. Harvell said burns in her heart – one that she heard many times growing up and links her to a time of war and cruelty, racism and injustice, disease and death. Sitting at her dining room table, reflecting on current events, she said she now wants the world to hear it, too.
“I’ve known the story since I was 8 years old,” Ms. Harvell said. “And I feel it is more important now than ever.”
Her second book’s story begins in 1918, when the U.S. government shipped 1,735 Puerto Rican laborers to build Camp Bragg, present-day Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, N.C. This was just ahead of the height of the influenza pandemic. The workers were incited to leave for the mainland with promises of adequate food, housing, and wages, as well as temperate climate and personal freedom.
Cruelly, however, not one of those promises would be kept. Instead, the workers were subjected to harsh conditions, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs against the unfamiliar cold; they were fed poorly, housed inhospitably, mistreated, beaten, even forced to work, and all amid the reaping influenza pandemic. Many of those men would die and be buried unceremoniously on military grounds, never to be remembered again except by their families back on the island who would always wonder what happened.
Ms. Harvell’s knows all this because her grandmother saw it – so did her mother and her aunts, and they all told her. It is their intersecting narratives that have shaped her and her family for generations. As she watched COVID-19 and worldwide anti-racism protests shake the world in the summer of 2020, she said she knew that the spirit of this story still echoes today.
“I am actually quite proud of her, and I think it’s a wonderful book,” Ms. Harvell’s daughter, Kimberly O’Donoghue, 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.”
Two decades after the Spanish-American war, while Puerto Rico was still trying to recover and rebuild their economy, the U.S. was already engaged in World War I and needing all the manpower it could muster. Under this premise, the federal government estimated that 75,000 unemployed laborers on the island were available for work on the mainland, according to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
It was late in that September that a shipment of “cheap laborers” from the island would arrive on the shores of North Carolina, as well as several other southern states. The fresh batch of volunteers had come to serve the “noble task” of carrying on the war effort and to search for a better life, but the new American citizens would meet an unkind and ugly fate. An official deposition of the time states of “outrageous unspeakable abuse and degrading ill treatment of the men,” even when the men were already sick.
Retired Army Staff Sergeant Carlos Muñiz, who served at Fort Bragg as building manager for the Watters Family Life Center, said the story of the Puerto Rican laborers is basically unknown around the base.
“They didn’t bring them to work, that makes it sound like it was nice,” Muñiz said. “They brought them to concentrations camps. They were practically slaves.”
When he was still in active duty at the base last year, Muñiz spoke to some local news outlets about the events and even gave tours of the graveyard, but he said he wasn’t at liberty to say then what he feels he can say now.
To him, Ms. Harvell’s story matters because it sheds light on issues that often go “under the rug” in American history. He said, even today, after such a long time, Puerto Ricans are still second-class citizens, disenfranchised, colonized, and nothing more.
“If we’re going to speak plainly, they’ve always used us in that way, unfortunately,” Muñiz said.
The misery would not end there. Indeed, the United States government would destroy many lives that year, both mainland and abroad.
Under eminent domain laws, the military seized the land of over 170 families who were forced to leave their homesteads, which meant leaving behind “years of hard labor and sacrifice, even costing many their health,” Ms. Harvell said in her book. One such case was that of Henry Kivett, Ms. Harvell’s grandfather.
Ms. Harvell said Kivett family 309-acre farm had two homes, a two-story barn, vegetable fields, cattle, a well spring, an orchard, and Henry’s “pride and joy,” a large vineyard with a store that, among other things, sold a selection of his fine wines. Her grandfather had named it Mont View.
The largest military installation in the United States quite literally sits where the Kivett family home once did. Right where there was a peach orchard used to be, across from their front door, is now a cemetery at Fort Bragg.
The tragic loss left Henry a broken man. Like many of the other families, the Kivetts opted to remain in their home until the last possible moment. As Henry laid bedridden before his death, his wife and children were left to care for him and the land and, as they did, they got to watch as the military occupied their land and sent the Puerto Rican laborers to carry out callous orders to erase their home.
The Kivett family also bore unique firsthand witness to the mistreatment of these laborers. They watched in horror as the men followed orders to dig mass graves for one other in the middle of the night right outside their home. In several written and published pieces, the Kivett daughters have recorded their traumatizing experience and have insisted that many of these graves remain unjustly unnamed and unmarked, often with more than one body inside.
“The big influenza pandemic was at its peak,” Ethel Mae Kivett Brown, Ms. Harvell’s aunt, wrote in a published letter in 1975. “Those men, too thinly clad in their native white clothes of Puerto Rico, were dying fast. They were being buried both night and day.
“Through the winter darkness came the sickening thuds that are common to graves being filled,” Aunt Ethel continued. “There was often more than one person and sometimes several buried in a single grave.
“There was never any ceremony at the burials,” she said. “Somebody’s mother in faraway Puerto Rico might never know how it was that her son never returned to her. Countless wives and children would wait down in Puerto Rico for that husband, that father who would not come back to them.”
As the state of Connecticut has just recently become the first state to require schools to offer courses on “African-American, Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies,” Ms. Harvell said that one of the main critiques of the 2020 protests is proven valid – American history is often conveniently presented to either twist, distort, or straight up hide the full truth of how events took place, especially when it comes to the exploitation and (mis)treatment of other countries and ethnic groups. She said this is wrong, as it erases a big part of what helped build this country and makes it impossible to learn from our past mistakes and redefine our intentions.
“We’ve learned nothing in the last 102 years,” Ms. Harvell said loudly. “There was a pandemic and the discrimination of people of color. It’s been over 100 years, and nothing has changed.”
Ms. Harvell’s book, with a quality of investigation and documentation that might give any journalist a run for their money, is aptly titled “Employee U.S.A.,” after the words engraved on some of the often-unnamed headstones of Puerto Rican laborers in Wilmington National Cemetery in North Carolina. Though some have names, many read things like “Known only to this Creator,” and some just have numbers.
Feeling appalled and strongly connected to these men, in her book, Ms. Harvell makes several calls to action. Among some notable ones are a loud and public recognition of these events, with particular emphasis on the men, and an excavation to locate the bodies of the unmarked mass graves.
“These men weren’t soldiers, but they still died for this country,” Ms. Harvell says. “These are unsung heroes. Nobody remembers them today.”
Other than correcting the unceremonious disposal of these men, another potential effect the book could have is that of reuniting families or at least bringing them closure.
“For those who died, they’re families probably never found out what happened to them,” retired Staff Sergeant Muñiz said. “I don’t believe anyone bothered to notify them.”
Certainly, the heartbreaking story is quite powerful, even harrowing. Ms. Harvell can hardly get through talking about it without choking up. Fortunately, her time and passion have not gone unnoticed.
As of 2009, authorities at Fort Bragg installed the Kivett Family Marker near the main entrance of the massive installation, as a recognition for the family’s sacrifice.
Ms. Harvell said she loves her country. As a child, she said she collected scrap metal for the “war effort” in her little wagon; an Air Force wife, she loves and thanks the troops. This, she said, has nothing to do with her patriotism but everything to do with dignity and justice.
“I’m not fighting for myself,” she said. “My family, we’ve been satisfied. I’m fighting for our Americans.”
O’Donoghue said her mother has always been a prolific storyteller and that this work in her later years is a representation of who she is and that she thinks people’s minds are ready for this message.
“In the right hands, I think the story would go far,” she said. “It’s a story worth learning.”
Ms. Harvell’s book is available on eKindle for less than $5. She said her point is not to make money nor to get recognition but to honor these men, make amends, and set things right, while there is still time. At her age, she would like to see justice brought to pass.
“They died working for this country,” Ms. Harvell said, her voice shaking as she held back from crying. “If we don’t remember them, who will?”
In last week’s print article titled “Local woman recalls little-known historical events,” we included that Dolores Samons Harvell, is 84 years old, when in fact she is 87. She also has four daughters, not three. Her daughter’s name is Kimberly O’Donoghue, not Donoghue. Hometown News regrets the errors which have been correct here online.