Exodus: Black Okie Migration

            THE MIGRATION numbers for African Americans in Oklahoma are difficult to pin down because although there was a statewide net loss of only 3,349 or 2% of the total population of African Americans in the state between 1930 and 1940, this same period saw huge changes in black residency. Franklin writes “In 1930 only about a third of the state’s blacks lived in urban areas but by 1940 this figure had jumped to forty-seven percent.”[1] By 1940, blacks in Okmulgee and Muskogee totaled more than twenty percent of the total population, Oklahoma City and Tulsa saw large increases as well. Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” which had been burned down by white vigilantes in the 1920s reached its peak in 1942, with 242 black-owned businesses, after many rural blacks, or those who had lived in the black towns moved to the city.[2] Gregory states that much of African American migration in the 1930s was circulation between urban areas.[3]

Migrant workers. The juxtaposition of such similar images challenges the idea that only whites can claim the Okie title .

   

 

              Black Oklahomans were not unique in this migratory trend. Many of Oklahoma’s white migrants did not go far either. Worster states that the “majority of those 2.5 million moving from their farms did not travel far—into town or the next county in most cases.” For those that did leave the state, 46% chose as their destination a contiguous state like Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico.[4] Moreover, before Okie became associated with a nationalist memory making, the WPA listed both black and white day laborers as migrants, even if they originated within the state.[5] From white migrants we can also see trends of sharecroppers from neighboring states who moved into Oklahoma from Arkansas to look for jobs in the agricultural sector and to escape the state which was plagued by violence from planters, and natural calamities like record breaking floods. There is no reason to believe that black Arkies did not also resettle in Oklahoma.[6]

 

         Photographer Russell Lee seems to have understood that there was no fundamental difference in the conditions for black or white migrant workers. These photographs were taken less than ten miles apart in central Oklahoma.

 

 

 There are similarities in the demographics of both black and white migrants. African American migrants who moved to the west and to the cities of the north were generally more educated than their peers who stayed in rural areas. This trend is true for white migrants who headed north and west as well. Jobs were unavailable everywhere, so it was only “people with a clear plan, special skills, or strong social connections that undertook big relocations in the period.”[7] Gregory states that much of the intraregional migration was a stepping stone that allowed Okies to gain industrial experience that they could use in the factories of the west and northern urban centers. Photographic evidence shows that skilled black Okies also found work in the shipyards of California and worked on projects alongside whites.[8]

 These pictures show black and white workers, working together on integrated job sites in California. These are the jobs lauded as being held by Rosie the Riveter, and were in fact the jobs that launched the middle class boom. Held by Okies of both races.

         

         Rural blacks with lower education levels who migrated west alongside their equally undereducated white peers often went to the same cotton fields of Arizona or California, where their skill set was easily applied.[9] When they arrived in their new cities across the nation, African Americans faced fierce competition for jobs across all sectors, including the unskilled and domestic jobs that had previously been viewed as below the dignity of many whites. White Okies in California transplanted their racist attitudes, which Gregory asserts “nativism and racism were aspects of the value system of Southwestern plain folk which figured also in the subculture taking shape in California.” White Okies did not accept black or immigrant bosses easily, many of them believing that only white, protestants were truly American.[10]

[1] Jimmie Lewis Franklin, The Blacks in Oklahoma, 47. Chart and data available in Nathaniel Jason Washington, Historical Development of the Negro in Oklahoma, (Tulsa, Dexter Publishing Company, 1948),39-41.
[2] Johnson, Acres of Aspiration, 168.
[3] Gregory, The Southern Diaspora, 30.
[4] Worster, Dust Bowl, 49.
[5] Lee, Russell, photographer. Negro agricultural day laborer taking a nap in his home. Muskogee, Oklahoma. Muskogee County. June, 1939. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa2000014628/PP/. (Accessed November 21, 2016.) The photo is given the subheading migrant worker, but does not tell the man’s origins.
[6] Lange, Dorothea, photographer. On highway no. 1 of the “OK” state near Webbers Falls, Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Seven children and eldest son’s family. Father was a blacksmith in Paris, Arkansas. Son was a tenant farmer. “We’re bound for Kingfisher Oklahoma wheat and Lubbock Texas cotton. We’re not trying to but we’ll be in California yet. We’re not going back to Arkansas; believe I can better myself”. June, 1938. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa2000001708/PP/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)
[7] Gregory, Southern Diaspora, 31.
[8] The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Company have been termed an industrial melting pot, since men and women of fifty-eight national origins work side by side in pushing America’s plane output. S. O. Porter, Douglas director of personnel, recently declared that Negros are doing an outstanding job in all plants. Dora Miles and Dorothy Johnson are employed in the Long Beach Plant of the Douglas Aircraft Company. [Between 1935 and 1945] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/owi2001045970/PP/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)
[9] LeSeur, Not All Okies Are Black, 2. Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Migratory field worker picking cotton in San Joaquin Valley, California. These pickers are paid seventy-five cents per hundred pounds of picked cotton. Strikers organizing under CIO union Congress of Industrial Organizations are demanding one dollar. A good male picker, in good cotton, under favorable weather conditions, can pick about two hundred pounds in a day’s work. Nov, 1938. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa2000001918/PP/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)
[10] Gregory, American Exodus, p164-165.

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