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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Dust Bowl Migrations                                    Joycelyn Nguyen


James N. Gregory received a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983 and a B.A. at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1795. He is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.  Gregory is a director of the Seattle Civil Rights at the University of Washington. His work focused on labor, radicalism, migration, and civil rights. He studies the history of Civil Rights activism among the Seattle area.



James N. Gregory¡¦s American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture depicts the Californian life during the Dust Bowl Migration. Migrant Mother, an award winning photo taken by Dorothea Lange during this time, portrays a woman with an infant in her lap along with two children on the side. This image provided Americans a reality check pertaining to the difficulties during the Depression era in California. People migrating from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri were known as the Dust Bowl refugees or ¡§Okies and Arkies¡¨ due to the location from where they migrated from.1 The southwestern states formed the bulk of the migrants who came to California. The migration to California was the first factor that contributed to the Depression Era failure. Californian society was greatly affected by the various migrant groups and their cultural experiences. The hostile native population and limited economic opportunities were major factors in the Okie¡¦s experience in California during the migration process in the year 1930. Following the 1930s, the Okies soon adopted the Southwestern culture very quickly. Various outlooks on different religious perspectives contributed to the popularity of what is now known today as country music. In his book, Gregory attempts to focus on the interactions between the migrants and the natives in California, which later evolved the nation¡¦s diversity. The Okies that migrated to California during 1939-1989 will always be remembered due to their contributions to cultural customs and beliefs.

Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri were the four states that were part of the American heartland. With the contributions the migrants brought with them, allowed California to develop into a well prosperous state. Oklahoma and Texas had factors that allowed the area to have a sense of being surrounded by cattles. Some included the attachment to their Western heritage in addition to the prosperous oil industry. With new modernization in the agriculture field, it created an outflow of people using the land and increasing the farm population which ultimately replaced the mules and limited family labor involving farming units, and machines. Many farmers sold their businesses in order to be able to move to Los Angeles or Long Beach. During the mid-1920s, the San Joaquin Valley was the most publicized destination for migrants during the Dust Bowl Migration. After 1934, economic patterns began to change the non-agricultural economy causing towns and cities to suffer. Ten percent of the Southwestern workers were considered unemployed. Movies were marketed to Southwesterners in the hopes of appealing to their dreams. Developing transportation led to a jump in the volume of newcomers. Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley both provided various opportunities to the migrants. In 1935, the San Joaquin Central Valley attracted more than 70,000 migrants to the changing social lifestyles of the cities due to the complex metropolitan landscape, which ultimately attracted many migrants to encounter few problems. Known as the area of industrialized agriculture with special crops, the San Joaquin Valley provided many job openings in the oil and construction industries. ¡§Little Oklahomas¡¨ were migrant concentrations of the Southwesterners who bought property.2 These concentrations allowed the migrants from Oklahoma to make decisions and determine their own future. The standard way of living of these individuals fell due to the poverty of the Southwesterners who stayed in California. 

Various interstate migrations became a major concern when the economy began to crash. During the years 1935-1940, 61 percent of the interstate migrants came from four Southwestern states who were willing to work extra hard due to the harsh summer conditions. This ultimately drove most residential workers out of the food-processing industry. Upton Sinclair¡¦s plan to End Poverty In California (EPIC) promised a state-financed system of farms and factories, taxing the wealthy and providing pensions for the elderly.3 This campaign was proposed by the Democratic Party during Roosevelt¡¦s presidency. In 1941, the court case Edwards v. California issued a decision resolving California¡¦s migration debate. It resolved the legal confusion of the landmarks during the migration. This decision started the trend for other states to start developing a court system to help solve problems throughout their community. The Okies were described as lazy workers who lived like hogs. Those who were foreigners to the state of California were referred to as Protestant Americans or the American natives. A majority of the migrants from the southwest were sharecroppers and white trash. The rural south-westerners who settled in California were California¡¦s first white trash since they were all ignorant and filthy. The Southerners dealt with a self-conscious modernism that created a reputation by establishing the nation¡¦s leading cultural figures as well as political-religious contests. Newcomers arrived as dirt poor citizens and worked in the cotton fields in cheap clothing. Teachers and social workers in the area noticed that illiterate parents were forcing their kids to work rather than get an education. Both groups of people considered migration a political and economic threat to society. The lack of opportunity in rural parts of Oklahoma initiated settlements in the San Joaquin Valley during the late 1930s. One distinctive feature of an Okie was the strong emotional ties to places they left behind. The various migration locations throughout California were determined based on their metropolitan settlers. Social acceptance throughout the San Joaquin Valley created a misfortune for migration which measured in number of Southwesterners. Upward mobility was unpredictable due to the instability of farming and lower socio-economic levels of society were encouraged to reform culturally. Disengagement was the first line of defense for the poor Southwesterners who gained a sense of social isolation and benefit from the valley. Attending school meant no room for misunderstanding by Californian society. School activities emphasized on vocabulary, grammar, and the correction of accents. The young adolescents learned that their parents¡¦ way of life was inferior. Poverty and self-esteem were two cultural factors that affected the number of children who attended school.

Patterns of alienation encouraged various cultural adaptations to occur during the 1940s. Subculture meant the social formation of a distinctive set of norms and values that offered a sense of identity for social interaction.4  Emphasizing the values and customs related to poverty allowed the migrants to feel a sense of belonging. The Okie subculture derived its elements from the outlooks, habits, and institutions of the common people. By discovering a common understanding of various institutions and working out new and unique reputations in society, men and woman were able to socialize among themselves to establish a sense of identity. By fighting for their rights, Protestants were able to preserve the Republic¡¦s ethnicity and religious integrity. Ultimately, the Okie population increased among camps throughout California. Persistence and determination defined good character in the migrants. The support of toughness and courage was shown through boxing and wrestling. Celebrating the combat skills was part of the Okie history. Two social classes, producers and parasites, were found and formed the central bearings in a neo-populist perspective. This neo-populist perspective provided a change to the century in terms of anti-communism, racism, as well as the toughness code. Financial conspiracies were responsible for any type of economic crisis. The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) was one of the programs that was initiated by Congress. It led to a dramatic drop in farm employment and tried to organize the migrants¡¦ roles as farm workers and relief recipients. The working class culture emphasized the issues of self-reliance, family autonomy, and the rank of the individual. UCAPAWA faced impossible and unsolvable public relations problems with the California agriculture system that affected all the market conditions in the farm-labor union made up of the Okies. Nativism and racism were new ideas that were taking shape in California. The middle class was affected by the racial and ethnic tensions. Due to the harsh problems faced by the UCAPAWA, the Okies tried to regain their identity back by developing a military installation in 1945. From this campaign, former farmers did not receive any sympathy for working under California employers. This campaign program altered the Democratic Party in California and its natives.

Moral and religious crusades affected the family life of individuals throughout California. In 1930, it was very difficult to maintain church involvement, despite the development of the first Baptist church. This church was located in Shafter, where the congregation was unfriendly and very intimidating. Methodism brought the Dust Bowl Migration and the independent migrants as well as the fundamental Baptist church closer together. Several social factors posed major problems throughout the churches, like making working class Southwesterners feel unwelcome because of their low position in society.5 The three tenets of Protestantism were revivalism, pietism, and liberalism. The main religious churches were formed and defined as the migration-magnet. Those who migrated later became attached to the religious structure and beliefs. The act of conversion required a desire for a profound religious commitment. The Christian life promised immediate dividends of self-worth. The Methodist-sponsored community was one of the methods preachers used to influence their followers. Playing country music was used to celebrate the success of industries and the close relationships that developed among people. Music helped pass subcultures across generations with its themes portrayed through the lyrics. The best selling country song of 1969, Okie from Muskogee, portrayed a cult figure of a Southwestern heritage.  The diffusion of country music was an instrument that established a cultural sensation. From the dispersion of country music, individuals were captivated by the tune and lyrics, which soon allowed more migrants to come and settle in the state of California. A silent majority sprang to the defense of God through country music and hard work. All the migrants recovered a balance of dignity and pride. The Okie subculture retained its imagination and group identity. The Dust Bowl Migration showed the ways in which America transformed through a populist movement.

Gregory depicts the Southwestern migrants¡¦ hope for a better life in California. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the California agriculture expanded greatly with farms worth about $3 billion. This ultimately sparked the spread of irrigation developing the era of factories in the fields. The Dust Bowl Migration was a tragedy in the sense of the white Americans. The city that grew the most was Los Angeles, due to the farmers working in the San Joaquin Valley. Seeing the prosperity from working in the cotton fields, every migrant hoped to rent the new and open land. Various migrations from the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri caused conflicts with the political ways making the conservatives uncomfortable.6  Thousands of new voters supported the new welfare schemes as well as the anti-migration fervor. Migrants held the balance of power among society through out the San Joaquin Valley counties. Social acceptance in areas was greatly affected by the patterns of the metropolitan settlers. Linking the success of farm labor unions to the migrants¡¦ future, the Dust Bowl migrants learned much about the standards of life in California.

regory writes about one regional culture versus another and how they adapted and learned from one another. The Okies, a group of migrants from Oklahoma, created an image for themselves, applying their own values and outlooks on California. The top reason most people migrated to California was to search for work and a better lifestyle for their family. Various regional cultures developed in California throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Over the last half-century, lifestyles that were developed helped spark a breakthrough in the cultural heritages of the people. Evangelical Protestantism dominated the religion during this time. This part of the Okie population had a fierce attachment that brought the Southwesterners closer together.7 This religion was derived from a universal regional heritage in the South. Evangelical Protestantism and country music were two factors that were essential to the cultural identity in California. As the state¡¦s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists maintained the Southwestern culture and identity. Country music provided California with a medium for the Southwestern culture. Due to their popularity, many professional musicians incorporated the songs into Hollywood productions.

A history professor at California State University of Fullerton, Jackson K. Putman finds Gregory¡¦s analysis of this migration phenomenon to be very convincing. Gregory analyzes the Okie and his impact pertaining to the Californian society.8 Jackson doubts that Gregory dealt enough with the Okies¡¦ suffering and their social and economical problems. Focusing the subculture that was developed in the San Joaquin Valley, he wrote about the major and minor issues pertaining to this area in California. Analyzing migration throughout the San Joaquin Valley, Gregory concludes that southern Baptists failed to organize and set up a way of life for incoming migrants.

This book by James N. Gregory portrays the positive aspects of the Okies¡¦ migration, in which they adapted their own culture to California. During the Depression Era, the Okies were known as the Dust Bowl migrants who had become the modest winners in various territories.9  Their cultural contributions garnered various responses from Californian residents. The impact of the Okie culture allowed Americans to realize what our nation once was. Focusing on the prejudice and hostility that the migrants faced in the 1930s impacted Californian society today. Throughout the book, the vivid description of the land in California during the Great Depression allows the reader to be quickly captivated.

The Dust Bowl Migration occurring in California did not affect the events happening in the Eastern United States. The people from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri defined the character of migration. With 550,000 Southwesterners migrating to California during the 1920s and 1930s, the people populated the city of Los Angeles and the Central Valley quickly. Throughout California, the distinctive subculture of the Okies was dominated by the rural collar whites, which originated from the outlooks and habits of the southwestern plain folks. In the year 1930, the process of cultural adaptation focused on the Okie subculture. Not until the 1940s did the obvious monuments like churches and country music slowly dominated the Californian society. Celebrating one aspect of the Californian community was accomplished through country music.10  The messages portrayed through the music allowed the generations to progress with influences from the music. Music allowed people to express their opinions about various topics through songs and hymns.

Due to the integration of a large new population of white southwesterners part of the Californian society, the Dust Bowl Migration had a heavy impact on California and on America as a whole.  The variety of common religions throughout California had its origin and demography in the migration roots. With various military manufacturing, big cities in the North like Detroit attracted thousands of people. Racial diversity among the whites and blacks began to equalize the geography in America prior to World War I.  The migration of the Okies out of the South to the West created uniformity among the blacks and whites in all places throughout California.11 Religious and rowdy pieces created the family aspects of life during this time.

Overall, the state of California was greatly influenced by the migration of the people from the Southwestern states Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Adapting to the new culture of the Okies settling in the San Joaquin Valleys created a religious background. The Evangelical Protestants, during the 1930s, allowed citizens to believing in perfection and its manifestation on baptism.12 Emphasizing the act of conversion allowed a person to decide if they wanted to be religiously committed and connected with their community. Increasing the religious practices among the migrant communities allowed individuals to express their feelings to a higher power without being judged by anyone. The Okie culture contributions will always be a part of California¡¦s history and should be well-respected by every citizen living in California.



1. Gregory, James N. American Exodus The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.  xiv

2. Gregory, James N. 70

3. Gregory, James N. 90

4. Gregory, James N. 139

5. Gregory, James N. 194

6. Gregory, James N. 208

7. Gregory, James N. 232

8. Putman, Jackson K. ¡§Book Review.¡¨ Journal of San Diego History Volume 36. 1990  1 June 2008 <http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/90fall/exodus.htm>

9. Gregory, James N. 84.

10. Gregory, James N. 239

11. Gregory, James N. 187

12. Gregory, James N. 197