Although the underlying economic factors that created the conditions that led to the Great Depression are myriad, and had been building for decades, the beginning is conventionally thought to be Black Tuesday, October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed dramatically and sent the economy of the United States into a tailspin. As businesses, including those owned by African Americans, failed across the nation, mass unemployment ensued. Twenty-five percent of white men were unemployed, with as many as sixty to eighty percent of blacks in urban centers unemployed. Following the crash of the stock market, the United States became gripped in a drought that would lead to one of the greatest ecological disasters in recorded history. The drought was disastrous enough, but the farmers of the Great Plains of the central United States had been employing agricultural practices that would lead to mass erosion of the soil in the delicate ecosystem of the grasslands. Farmers continually over plowed and removed any natural buffers that would slow the winds, and the result was that the drought effected soils of the prairies began to blow away. The epicenter of the catastrophe spanned areas in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, though much of the southern United States was affected by drought and erosion. This epicenter area came to be known as the Dust Bowl.
This image is what Oklahoma had been. What farmers believed in before the days of the Dust Storms.
Seventeen-million Americans were affected by the drought and dust storms of the Dust Bowl. Thousands died from heat exhaustion and dust pneumonia, and thousands more lost their land and farms due to foreclosure when their crops failed time and again. Exacerbating these natural conditions, was the collapse of the tenant farm system. Most farmers in the southern and southwestern United States were sharecroppers, and when global cotton prices crashed, and new Deal policies created conditions in which farm owners evicted tens of thousands of tenant farmers from the land. Mass exodus out of the central United States ensued with many going west to the agricultural centers of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Migrants were labeled derogatorily by their new neighbors in the West as “Okies” whether they originated from Oklahoma or another affected state, such as Arkansas and Texas, and were categorized as job stealing, ignorant hicks. Over time, however, the term Okie has taken on a nobility that led to a narrative of virtuous suffering, where hard work and determination can bring about a happy ending.