In the mid-1970s, after reading a newspaper article about the plight of migrant workers in south Florida, he found an issue that would absorb his spare time for several years. The newspaper told about a migrant crew chief who had enslaved his workers for more than two years, who wouldn’t pay them or let them out of the camp, and who beat them regularly. The police finally arrested the crew chief and took him to court, but had to release him when none of the workers, all of whom were scared of him, would testify against him.
Alarmed that such migrant camps still existed in the 1970s, Smith went to Miami and read through old newspapers, where he found a number of stories about migrants being enslaved by the crew chiefs, often without the knowledge of the owners of the fields. Smith then began spending his weekends and vacations doing what he calls “physical research.” He would don scruffy clothes, let his beard grow, and show up in Homestead to join migrants picking tomatoes or okra or cucumbers or squash, whatever was in season.
Earning a meager $35 a week, sleeping in buggy hovels and trying to keep out of the frequent knife fights, he made mental notes of the sights and smells and noises. Apparently no one ever suspected that the quiet fellow with the Mississippi drawl was actually a writer.
After spending more than a year doing “research” for the novel, which he entitled Angel City, Smith wrote it in just a few weeks, so filled was he of the sordid conditions of the camps and fields. When asked why he wanted to write such a novel, Smith replies, “The first step toward eliminating injustice is to expose it, and this was my primary goal in writing this novel.”
Angel City follows the course of the Teeters, a West Virginia family come to Florida to better their lives. What they find is degradation in a migrant labor camp. His expose of those camps in Angel City served its intended purpose: to bring about change. Though this novel served as a social statement, it also works as a well-told social story, a work of literary art.
The movie based on Angel City, a CBS “Movie of the Week” starring Ralph Waite, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jennifer Warren, Mitch Ryan, Robert MacNaughton and Paul Winfield, brought the story of the Teeters and the reality of migrant labor camp conditions to an even wider audience.