Southern History Series: The Okie Exodus

Migration has been a constant in the history of the South.

Southeast Alabama was largely populated by migrants from Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina during the “Alabama Fever.” After the War Between the States, huge numbers of Alabamians and migrants from other Southern states picked up and left and moved to Texas to start their lives again where the population doubled between 1860 and 1880.

In between the 1940s and 1970s, 3 million people picked up and left Appalachia during the mechanization of coal mining. The overwhelming majority of them went to the Great Lakes region while others went to the cities of the Sunbelt and the Washington, DC, metro area.

During the Great Depression, 2.5 million people left the Southern Great Plains including 440,000 people from Oklahoma and most of them moved to California and Arizona:

“Southwesterners had been moving west in significant numbers since 1910. However, not until the 1930s did this migration, particularly to California, become widely noticed and associated with Oklahomans. During the Great Depression decade Oklahoma suffered a net loss through migration (outflow minus inflow) of 440,000. Although Oklahomans left for other states, they made the greatest impact on California and Arizona, where the term “Okie” denoted any poverty-stricken migrant from the Southwest (Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas). From 1935 to 1940 California received more than 250,000 migrants from the Southwest. A plurality of the impoverished ones came from Oklahoma.

Supposedly, the Dust Bowl forced “Okies” off their land, but far more migrants left southeastern Oklahoma than the Dust Bowl region of northwestern Oklahoma and the Panhandle. Although the drought had its effect as it intensified in the mid-1930s, coping with marginal land and a long-standing agricultural depression presented even greater challenges. Between 1931 and 1933, 10 percent of Oklahoma farmers lost their land to foreclosure, and tenant farmers (who comprised more than 60 percent of Oklahoma farmers in the 1930s) had little incentive to endure poor crops and low prices year after year. Mechanization of farming began to consolidate small farms into larger ones. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s policy of paying farmers to not raise crops often resulted in landowners taking tenants’ land out of production. Moreover, many tenants and small land-holding farmers, especially in southeastern Oklahoma, simply had a migratory habit. They had come to Oklahoma for opportunity and continued their pattern of seeking greater opportunities farther west. Finally, many left when relatives and friends, already in California, beckoned them to a land of better prospects.

The families packed their belongings and set out on a journey of three days or more down Route 66 to a supposedly better life in the Far West. This migration began in earnest in 1935 and peaked between 1937 and 1938. When the migrants got to Barstow, California, they had to decide whether to follow Highway 66 into Los Angeles or turn north toward California’s central agricultural valleys. Some 38 percent of the southwestern migrants chose Los Angeles. They did not find a warm reception. Briefly in 1936 the Los Angeles police established a “‘bum blockade'” at the California border to keep out undesirables. The new residents who had skills might find a job with reasonable pay. Others lived with friends or after a year’s waiting period went on relief. “Okies” quickly blended in and became part of the city’s largely Anglo population in the 1930s.

The classic story of “Okie” migration involves those who settled in the San Joaquin Valley. From 1935 to 1940 more than seventy thousand southwesterners migrated to this fertile inland region, hoping for a small plot of their own. It would not happen. Instead, they began harvesting cotton and fruit, pushing out Hispanic and Filipino laborers. The influx of migrants depressed wages, satisfying farm owners, but the “Okies,” unlike the Hispanics, tended to stick around after the harvests. Because they arrived impoverished and because wages were low, many lived in filth and squalor in tents and shantytowns along the irrigation ditches. Consequently, they were despised as “Okies,” a term of disdain, even hate, pinned on economically degraded farm laborers no matter their state of origin. The California Citizens Association formed to find a solution to the “Okie” influx and succeeded in extending the waiting period for California relief to three years. The federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) provided several clean camps designed to be governed by the residents and to foster a sense of self-respect. But these were only models for state and private organizations, which were not prone to build any kind of residences. …”

1 out of every 8 people in California is descended from an Okie.

Merle Haggard’s folks came to California from Oklahoma. In fact, a quarter of all people born in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas had left the western South by 1950. The vast majority of them migrated to the Western states. This wasn’t the first exodus either from the South to the West.

Who are the White people of the Western states? Where did they come from? There are Confederate monuments and places named after the Confederacy in states like Montana, Idaho and Utah. Most of the Western states had a milder version of Jim Crow too until after World War II. I currently don’t have the answer, but Southerners have been moving out West since the time of the California Gold Rush in 1848. Southerners also followed the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon originally banned black people:

“When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926. Oregon’s founding is part of the forgotten history of racism in the American west. …

Even before it was a state, those in power in Oregon were trying to keep out non-white people. In the summer of 1844, for example, the Legislative Committee passed a provision that said any free black people who were in the state would be subject to flogging if they didn’t leave within two years. The floggings were supposed to continue every six months until they left the territory. That provision was revised in December of 1845 to remove the flogging part. Instead, free black people who remained would be offered up “publicly for hire” to any white person who would remove them from the territory. …”

Early Oregon sounds a lot like Henry Clay’s old dream of the White ethnostate. This idea of creating a pure White Republic free of blacks is an old Upper South idea that goes back to Virginia in the 1790s. It was also very popular in the Lower Midwest which was settled by Kentuckians.

Note: From 2004 to 2007, 275,000 Californians moved from the Golden State to Texas and Oklahoma. How many of them simply went home?

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  1. I find it appalling that, in the depths of the Depression, Calfornication was using Spic and Flip illegal alien labor, and sought to keep out impoverished WHITES. Truly, the damning of this country goes back way before Reagan…..

  2. Note: From 2004 to 2007, 275,000 Californians moved from the Golden State to Texas and Oklahoma. How many of them simply went home?

    Knowing several of them from school and work, a great many. The older ones have parents, and the younger ones grand and great grandparents who, came from Texas and Oklahoma.

    I knew a boy in middle school who got his Texas accent back by the time we were in high school.

    Bakersfield was a lot like a farm town in West Texas or Oklahoma. As my wife could attest. Up until the end if the 80’s, Los Angeles was a lot like Dallas and Fort Worth. Still is, in some narrow ways.

    California used to be the second Texas. Without Yankees and Jews, it still would be.

    As an aside, Eastern New Mexico is an extension, culture wise, of West Texas.

  3. “Who are the White people of the Western states? Where did they come from? There are Confederate monuments and places named after the Confederacy in states like Montana, Idaho and Utah.”

    Lewis and Clark were Virginians.
    Gold miners from the Carolinas and Appalachia opened up the California gold fields. Texans founded the cattle empire, after 1865, in Wyoming, the Dakotas and Montana. Which is covered in the miniseries “Lonesome Dove.”

    As professor Clyde N. Wilson said, the family from Boston, Massachusetts, moving West in a covered wagon, never existed. The pioneers of the West came mainly from the Upper South. He covers this aspect in his two part essay, “The South and The West,” and in a lecture he gave at the Abbeville Institute summer school. Both of which are online.

    It’s no accident that characters in Westerns speak Southern, or use Southern slang and idioms.
    The Italians were smart enough to pick up on this. Which is why, other than available scenery, “Spaghetti Westerns” are set in Southwest Texas or New Mexico, and have ex-Confederates as the main protagonists, and Yankees as villains or objects of scorn and contempt.

    Tarantino’s anti-White/Southern Westerns don’t qualify in the least as Spaghetti Westerns, as he claims.

    For Yankees, “Out West” was always Ohio, Michigan or Illinois. Or else they took ship in Boston, Philadelphia or New York, and sailed for San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Which explains the Leftist bent and hostile, anti-Southern/Western attitudes of those places.

  4. Great book on this – “American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California” by James N. Gregory

  5. As an Okie from Muskogee who made the trek to California post-Dust Bowl, I’ll be making the return trip when the time is right. California is a case study in the future of liberalism, and the sad reality seems to be how it is spreading to the rest of the country.
    As to the original migration during the 1930s, my old Oklahoma history prof was adamant that it was less the climatic change and more the progressive agricultural policies of the New Deal that forced the Oklahoma tenant farmers and sharecroppers to leave their homes and head to Mexifornia–and he was a die-hard Little Dixie Democrat. The fact that so many of the Okies hailed from the eastern and southern portions of Oklahoma, areas for the most part unaffected by the dust storms, might back up his contention. (a friend of mine from Sallisaw near the Arkansas border said most of her family left in 1936 and ended up in the Salinas valley near Monterey)
    I haven’t been back to the Sooner State for quite some time, but I’ve been informed by sources that it might be experiencing a renascence of socialism reminiscent of the early years of the last century, with alot of growing support among the youth for the Bernie Sanders version. That gives you some idea of how bad things have become.

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