Historians of the Dust Bowl and the Depression ignore the effect these events had on African Americans living in the Southwestern United States. Donald Worster in his book Dust Bowl, mentions African Americans only once, saying “few African Americans ever lived in the regions’ rural countryside.” Worster goes on to say that the real contribution of blacks to the Dust Bowl saga is the borrowed use of the term “Exodusters” to describe white Dust Bowl migrants. Both statements completely erase not only the historic importance of the original Exoduster movement, but also the contribution of blacks to the history of Oklahoma and the plains. The statement also ignores facts. Jimmie Lewis Franklin states that before the Depression two-thirds of the state’s African Americans lived in rural areas. In Oklahoma, there were 15,000 black-owned farms totaling one million production acres in 1930. This figure does not include the number of black farmers who were working as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but who were nonetheless intensely affected by the Great Depression.
Oklahoma Farmer. Side by side, excluding race these men shared much in common.
Moreover, African Americans were not newcomers to Oklahoma, having first arrived in the Western territories in the early nineteenth century, brought on the Trail of Tears by their Native American slaveholders. The next wave of blacks to settle in the Indian Territories did so of their own volition, beginning after Reconstruction. In 1879-1880, African Americans began a mass migration to the Kansas and Oklahoma territories. Encouraged by the false promises of a land of redemption, a Canaan in the West, “Exodusters” were lured by the thousands by unscrupulous land boosters. Robert G. Athearn calls this migration a “Hegira” that had “emotional, often, biblical, overtones that gave the phenomenon a millenarian flavor.” The next movement into Indian Territory, into what would become Oklahoma, was more organized. It began shortly after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Blacks and even some whites become involved in the promotion, sponsorship, and settlement of African Americans into the territory with some expressing a desire that Oklahoma become an all-black state. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century there were more than fifty all-black towns or settlements in Oklahoma—more than could be found in any other state in the nation.
The prevailing thought, then and now, was that African Americans were universally so poor, that they did not notice the effects of the Great Depression. While many black Oklahomans were sharecroppers or domestic workers barely eking out a living before the Depression, there were a considerable number of blacks in Oklahoma who were more economically secure before the Depression than blacks living in other regions. Until the mid-1920s, Oklahoma’s all-black towns were thriving as separate economies, and many black entrepreneurs did well for themselves around the state. The town of Boley Oklahoma was one of the largest and most economically successful of the nation’s all-Black towns. It was home to the first black owned bank, electric company, and telephone company in the United States.
Photographer Russell Lee took both of these photographs in Oklahoma City. Lee often photographed African American and white subjects in nearly identical poses. It would be easy to dismiss it as coincidence, but I believe that to be a wrong assumption. I assert that Lee was very aware of the lack of visibility for black Americans and desired to change that.
Further, African Americans in Oklahoma had more access to printed materials and education than African Americans living in other southwestern states. Due to an early Oklahoman law, the state required separate but equal library facilities for blacks in areas where their numbers exceeded 2000 persons. This led to an expansion of the Oklahoma library system for African Americans during the Depression. By 1938, with help from the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund there were eleven branches operating in eleven counties. The largest branch was in Muskogee, a town that while not all black, had a prominent and politically active African American presence. Before the Great Depression there were approximately nine colleges, universities, or industrial schools for African Americans in the state. The result of these schools and libraries was that between 1920 and 1940, the rates of illiteracy among black Oklahomans was reduced by fifty percent, from 23% in 1920, to 11.5% in 1940. This supports the assertion by Louise S. Robbins that “the development of literacy is, not surprisingly, highly dependent on geographic access to printed material and, in fact, is amazingly enhanced by access to and even low level of use of a well-staffed and well-stocked library.”