“Not All Okies Were White”

THE HISTORY of the state of Oklahoma has been romanticized to the point that it is included in the national mythology of the United States. Okies migrating west were epitomized by Steinbeck’s Joad family, Woody Guthrie and the image of a wandering troubadour, Dust Bowl days with jalopies heading west on Route 66, dusty winds howling across the plain–pushing tumble weeds for miles. Oil fields and instant fortune, cowboys and Indians–all have a place in the nation’s collective memory. Much of the ideas and images that Americans hold concerning Oklahoma arose during the Depression years of the 1930s. This era has led to the most enduring stories about the resilience of Americans, as well as the fabled ability of anyone to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. According to the national mythos, “Okies”—poor, white, and salt of the earth—migrated out of the darkness of the prairie dust storms and into the sunshine of California, paradise on Earth. There they struggled, but they worked their way into the middle class and became the Greatest Generation, rising out of the Depression to defeat Fascism in WWII, and then coming home and having a houseful of Baby Boomers.

 

What is often overlooked in these tall tales is that these historic events also involved African Americans.[1] The story told about the black experience of the 1930s is that since African Americans were already universally poor, they weren’t much affected by the catastrophes of the decade. It follows that neither were they part of the great middle class nation building brought about by the Dust Bowl migration.[3] Black families and workers also migrated out of the areas affected by the Dustbowl and the Depression, into California and elsewhere. They too went to work as Rosies in the munitions plants, and they went to war and had little Boomers of their own.

         These photographs show that who we think of as the Greatest Generation must include African Americans.

          African-American history in Oklahoma is rich and complex, since they too occupied this space on the cusp of the sharecropping South and the Wild West.[2] The African-American experience in Oklahoma during the Great Depression was just as vital to the changing face of America, and just as shaped by the region’s unique position. This geographic location combined aspects of the challenges and strengths faced by both their Urban peers of the North and the West, as well as that of blacks living in the deep south. At times Oklahoma became a place of convergence for these disparate conditions. By looking at Oklahoma in the 1930s, a complex picture of the African American experience in this era takes shape.

How the United States memorialized this era has been through photographs taken as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a department created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. This program was designed to find work for artists and intellectuals during the Great Depression. It funded the work of writers, ethnographers, musicologists, folklorists, playwrights, painters, and photographers, and some of these works are still widely viewed today, like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, seen below. This photograph is the ubiquitous symbol of the Depression. It is a beautiful image, and tells a poignant story of a mother and her children pushed to the point of desperation. It tells the viewer that this family deserves better. That they should not be allowed to live this way in such a great nation.

Migrant Mother, or Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California, Dorothea Lange, 1936
Dorothea Lange, original caption: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two.”This photograph is the ubiquitous symbol of the Depression. It is a beautiful image, and tells a poignant story of a mother and her children pushed to the point of desperation. It tells the viewer that this family deserves better. That they should not be allowed to live this way in such a great nation.

The next photograph tells fundamentally the same story, and is also a beautifully composed image. The question we must ask ourselves is why some photographs are given attention, while others are left unpublished and unpublicized?

Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. Alabama Cordele United States, 1936. July. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://lccn.loc.gov/2017763012. (Accessed November 02, 2017.)

A Note On Sources

I rely heavily on African-American newspapers of the era, as well as photographs taken of African-American migrant workers by photographers who were financed and employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

[1] Title of this blog post taken from Geta LeSuer, Not All Okies are White (Columbia: University of Missouri Press,2000),19.
[2]Jimmie Lewis Franklin, Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1982), xi.
[3] Frederick J. Haskin, “Increased Employment for Negroes,” Topeka Plaindealer, March 13, 1930, p.1.
[4] Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1999), 15,27-35.

 

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