Fifty-one years ago at 3:15 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1972, Nan Freeman, 18, a native of Wakefield, Massachusetts and a student at New College in Sarasota, Florida, was picketing with striking farm workers at the Talisman Sugar Plant on U.S. Hwy. 27, about 20 miles north of Belle Glade, Florida. Nan and four fellow students responded to appeals for help from the strikers who were two weeks into their walkout. Nan and her friend, Pam Albright, were doing volunteer work for the UFW on campus. Pickets had complained to police about scab drivers speeding by the picket lines through stop signs at the plant gates to splash rain and mud on the workers.
Nan, Pam and UFW organizer Jose Romero were at the gate trying to leaflet and talk with drivers as they entered. A double trailer truck carrying 70,000 pounds of struck sugar cane drove into the entrance, but the truck and trailer were not properly aligned and the trailer cut too sharply. Jose pushed Pam out of the way, but as he turned to Nan, he saw the side of the trailer loaded with cane hit and knock her into a guard railing.
She was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead on arrival at 4:19 a.m.
The death of such a promising young woman was a blow to her parents, Milton and Selma Freeman, her older sister Liz and younger brother Nelson. Liz recalls her sister as a happy teenager who loved the Beatles and was also genuinely dedicated to social justice. In addition to activism with farm workers, she did tutoring while in college, was interested in the plight of Native Americans and worked at a halfway house in the Carolinas.
Five decades later, “we always wonder what Nan would have been because she could have done anything,” Liz says. “I run into former teachers and high school classmates. Everyone says she would have done something fabulous.”
“To some [Nan Freeman] is a young girl who lost her life in a tragic accident,” Cesar Chavez wrote in a statement after learning of her death. “To us she is a sister who picketed with farm workers in the middle of the night because of her love for justice. She is a young woman who fulfilled the commandments by loving her neighbors even to the point of sacrificing her own life. To us, Nan Freeman is Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a holy person to be honored and remembered for as long as farm workers struggle for justice.”
Cesar visited the Freemans at their home in Wakefield later that year. On the anniversary of her passing, Cesar held memorial observances honoring Nan. Her family traveled to the farm worker movement headquarters at La Paz in Keene, Calif. for a memorial in 1987, the 15th anniversary of Nan’s death, and then attended ceremonies at the “Forty Acres” near Delano marking the union’s 25th anniversary. There the Freemans planted a tree in Nan’s memory in Richard Chavez Memorial Park on the Forty Acres.
Liz Freeman taught school in Philadelphia, where she was also active with farm worker boycotts and picketed supermarkets during the 1970s. She joined strawberry workers and supporters for the a big 1997 UFW march in Watsonville, Calif. Liz took part in a memorial service honoring Nan and the union’s four other martyrs who died during strikes at the UFW constitutional convention in Bakersfield in 2012.
“Every year we would get nice notes from Cesar,” Liz says. The last time she saw him was when he spoke at Harvard. They chatted afterwards. “All we talked about was education. He was so excited about teaching a class at a college in California.” Preparing to share with the students “was more important to him than all the famous people he met.”
In March 2013, the Freeman family joined then-U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul Chavez for a ceremony at the department’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. There, Secretary Solis inducted Nan Freeman and the UFW’s four other martyrs into the department’s prestigious Labor Hall of Honor. Nan’s father, Milton Freeman, elderly and in a wheelchair, witnessed the honors for his daughter. He died in 2016.
Now Liz is a grandmother. “I keep thinking I wish Nan was here. My granddaughters won’t know Nan except through stories. I hope people remember her. When I go out and pick a little row of beans in my garden, I think about how the farm workers need us. I hope what Nan did and all the work so many others do for the UFW pays off and people get the justice they deserve.”