California and the Dust Bowl Migration Book by Walter J. Stein; Greenwood Press, 1973

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California and the Dust Bowl Migration
Book by Walter J. Stein; Greenwood Press, 1973


This study began with a single, simple intention: to describe the impact of the great Okie migration upon California. But I soon found that this epic migration could not be understood without considering as well the general problem of migratory agricultural labor in the West. Nor could state politics, federal policies, labor unions in agriculture, and social relations in rural California safely be ignored, if the impact of the Okies was to be explained. To the amused impatience of friends, colleagues, and mentors, the manuscript inexorably grew in length, and my research entered areas that had been terra incognita when the study was first conceived. During these peripatetics, I received aid and comfort from many quarters.

The University of California, The University of Winnipeg, the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, supplied financial aid that made it possible to raise a family and nurture a manuscript simultaneously.

I am indebted to the staffs of the many manuscript libraries cited in my bibliography who gave invaluable assistance. The Bancroft Library was especially helpful: Dr. Tompkins and his staff tolerated my eccentric requests with a sincere desire to aid my research.


In Oklahoma I Busted-In California I Trusted

The onset of the Great Depression weakened for the entire decade of the 1930s, the tendency of Americans to move easily from one place to another. In California and the rest of the nation, migration during the 1930s was exceeded by that of prior and succeeding decades. 1 <29114719>During the early years of the depression ( 1930-1934), many of the nation's urban centers witnessed large increases in their transient populations. These transients were not migrants in the process of relocating their homes, but a curious collection of migratory workers, tramps, hoboes, and men and women out of work who wandered the country seeking work of any sort. The bonus army, composed of World War I veterans seeking early bonus payment and encamped at Anacostia Flats in Washington, D.C., was a reminder that the system did not always function beneficently for all. It was the most visible and best organized, but only one of many such transient populations. These wandering armies were an ever-present source of concern for metropolitan authorities, but, in the general context of the depression era, this aspect of migration was relatively insignificant. Far more significant migrations were beginning, and, as the depression wore on into the second half of the decade, major regional population shifts developed, only in part as...3

responses to the economic dislocation. The most important shift was the exodus of Americans from the Great Plains to the Pacific states.<29114719> It was from this population redistribution that California drew its Okies...4

The Okie Impact

"Every where I go I hear nothing but the migrant problem," a concerned Californian wrote in 1940. 1 <29114757>But, in one sense, there was no migrant problem; there were, rather, California problems made visible by the coming of the Okies. By displacing the Mexican labor force on California's farms, the Okies exposed an agricultural system that had existed for three-quarters of a century, but had lain hidden because its victims were alien, nonwhite, and thus unseen. The migrant problem rose and fell, not only because the Okies dislocated the economy, but because, for a brief few years, they provided a superb foil for political conflicts tearing at the state.

California's industrialized agriculture, born in the years immediately following the Civil War, was, for its time, both anomalous and a foretaste of things to come for American agriculture. From the beginning, no family-sized farms worked by an extra hand or two at harvest time dominated California's agricultural landscape. Nor were California's farms fashioned after the Southern postbellum model; they were not plantations broken into cropper units or worked by resident laborers. They were, rather, factories in the fields, <29114757>cultivated by migratory laborers who miraculously turned up for the harvest and disappeared...32

once the crops were laid by. This agricultural pattern was produced by a combination of land monopolization, the necessity for expensive irrigation, and the availability of a floating supply of cheap migratory labor.

When the United States took possession of California in 1846, its decision to respect previously existing land grants ...33

The Rise of the Migrant Problem

With concern steadily increasing in the San Joaquin Valley over the rising migrant population, county authorities concluded that harassed localities must seek aid from outside quarters. In the slack season of 1937, Kern's board of supervisors sent a telegram to President Roosevelt, justifying the move on the ground that since the migrants were not Californians, the problem was a federal one. Within three days, representatives of the seven other San Joaquin Valley counties joined Kern's campaign. Again in July, Kern led the San Joaquin Valley Supervisors Association in requesting aid from the federal government, directing telegrams this time to Harry Hopkins and to the governors of all other states. 1 <29114795>

These telegrams were less significant for what they said than for what they neglected to say. In 1938, local and state authorities would demand that migrants be returned to the states from which they originated and that federal authorities cease distributing relief to Okies in California. These telegrams, on the other hand, asked only that the federal government increase aid to migrants in the San Joaquin Valley so that "work opportunities be made available for the transients to improve the conditions" under which they lived. In any event. <29114795>the...72

The Olson Administration and the Okies

"Every humane instinct, every impulse of intelligent self-interest, cries out against permitting the dust bowl refugees now huddled in California's valleys from being made the football of politics." 1 <29114829>So had the San Francisco Chronicle warned in the midst of the gubernatorial campaign of 1938. Humanitarianism and self-interest notwithstanding, it was unavoidable that the migrant problem be drawn into the political maelstrom; it was too intimately connected to issues facing the state. Culbert Olson's attempt to bring a New Deal to California began late in the depression. For that reason alone, it had less chance of success than similar state reform movements that had begun earlier during the more crisis-oriented years. The tardiness of California's New Deal was not, however, fatal in itself. Olson's plan was beaten not by the slow recovery after the recession of 1937, but rather by powerful opposition in the state legislature. The Okie migration supplied one weapon in the battle against him. The Okies had helped elect Olson; now their presence and the anxieties it had produced helped destroy his effectiveness.

The Merriam administration had held office during the peak years of the Okie migration, but had done little about it, one way or the other. In matters involving agricultural labor, Merriam and his relief admini-


strator, Harold Pomeroy, had adhered to the growers' positions. Insofar as the problems raised by interstate migration were concerned, however, Merriam had been for the most part inactive. He had attempted, at intervals, to interest the federal government in the problem, but even then, his was a passive role. In 1936, for example, the Colorado legislature had asked ...

The Migrant Problem and the Federal Government: I

California's migrant problem was affected by federal activities that arose and subsided in two distinct waves. From 1933 to 1938, federal policies and agencies initiated in response to national, depressioninduced situations provided Californians seeking a solution only with vague possibilities. The Federal Transient Service and the Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations, conceived at the federal level, did not speak directly to California's problem. These agencies, however, contained mandates and organizational structures sufficiently broad that their California offices were able subtly to reinterpret national policy to fit the state's needs. Not until 1939 did the specific problem of the Great Plains refugees in California receive serious interest from Congress or the President and then only after the publication of The Grapes of Wratb had made the condition of the Okies a blatant fact of American life.

Federal attempts to ease the problems of California's Okies were inevitably complicated by the migrants' dual role. The migrants were both interstate refugees and California's new agricultural laborers, some of them migratory, some settled. Each of their roles involved a separate problem and therefore implied a separate solution. Unless the interrela-


tion of these roles was recognized, no attempted solution promised permanent, beneficial results. In fact, no solution came forth in the depression years. Instead, as with so many other severe problems in the American past, the coming of war ended the Okies' distress. This chapter will discuss the first phase of federal activities relating to the migrants, in which ...

The FSA Camps

FSA camps were the only places in California where migrants congregated under the direction of administrators with more than passing interest in their condition. Apart from their goal of providing sanitary housing for farm workers, the FSA camps were also an attempt to achieve a social end. At the camps, the Okies were to be exposed to managed, cooperative self-government. Under the direction of their camp managers, Okie "rugged individualists" would learn to subordinate private goals to the welfare of the group.

The key FSA personnel in the endeavor were the camp managers who lived at the camps and were in constant intimate contact with the campers. Tom Collins, organizer of Guam's public-school system, and later administrator of a private school for disturbed boys, was FSA's most important camp manager. Perfectly suited for the job, Collins was both trailblazer and trainer for the camp program. He prepared the psychological ground in new camps, served as their first manager, and then moved on, leaving the functioning units for managers he had trained. Collins' role in the camp program brought him considerable publicity, and it was to him that John Steinbeck dedicated The Grapes of Wratb.

Collins' fellow-managers comprised a group with various back-


grounds but relatively similar attitudes. At the inception of the program, it was decided to avoid hiring trained social workers as managers. Region IX officials tended to mistrust them: "it would take the average trained social worker so long," one wrote, "to fill out forms, write histories, and do the usual intake routine to which she was accustomed, that by the t...

The Migrant Problem and the Federal Government: II

California reverberated with the migrant problem throughout 1938. By 1939, the state looked increasingly to the nation for aid, but California was in no position to persuade her forty-seven neighbors that she was in trouble. For too many years, boosters had sold the Golden State to the vexation of other Americans. For this reason alone, Californians had difficulty selling the nation the idea that the state deserved sympathy. Nonetheless, there was an additional reason for California's inability to communicate her woes to the rest of the nation. Because her migrant problem was really a unique blend of two problems, her requests for aid seemed nothing more than special pleading.

In their anxiety over the coming of the Okies, Californians focused their attentions upon their own migrant problem only. Although the state insisted that the interstate migration of destitute people was a problem national in its ramifications, her arguments invariably narrowed down to the dislocations wrought by some Okie crop-workers in some California valleys. Other regions were experiencing migrations during the depression: rural southern Negroes were moving to northern cities; Appalachian hill-people were relocating in


the Midwest's metropolises; unemployed industrial workers were restlessly streaming from city to city in search of work. These movements of people were analogous to California's migrant problem, but Californians showed little interest in them.<29114908>

Insofar as her migrant problem was an agricultural labor...

The Founding of UCAPAWA

When they supplanted the Mexicans in California's fields, the Okies intruded upon a labor system that had developed during sixty years in which alien racial groups had picked the crops. The fact that white Anglo-Saxon Americans occupied the roles both of employee and employer in California agriculture during the depression decade presented another facet of the migrant problem. Further, the rise of labor unions attempting to organize the Okies brought additional tension and conflict to rural California, exposing the conditions under which three generations of disorganized and economically impotent laborers had supplied food for America's tables. It is impossible to understand the impact of the Okies without at the same time understanding the labor relations that had become traditional in the agricultural valleys of the state by 1935.

As has been seen, California's growers periodically reaped the harvest of their use of alien field labor in riots and agitation directed against these groups by urban workers. Each time the farming interest protected itself by substituting for the offending minority another against whom hostility had not yet developed. The Japanese replaced the Chinese, who were in turn replaced by Mexicans and Filipinos.


Despite occasional restiveness in the urban areas, growers preferred alien labor to white resident labor. Filipinos and Mexicans provided cheap labor, and they were available when required. Without them, growers feared, profits in farming would disappear.<29114931> In part to protect this valuable labor supply, there evolved in California ag...

The Failure to Organize the Okies

By June 1937, rural Californians had chosen sides, with memories of the conflicts of 1933 and 1934 still sharp. In the midst of the Okie migration, a determined union and an equally determined organization representing heavy users of agricultural labor were prepared to struggle for control of the new arrivals. The result of the struggle would depend upon two things: the allies UCAPAWA could muster and, more importantly, the success of the new union in gaining the allegiance of the Okies.

UCAPAWA's goal of organizing the field workers was an exceedingly difficult one to achieve. The fledgling union had to cope with all the obstacles that had prevented earlier efforts from succeeding. In addition, powerful opposition could be expected from the growers and the AFL. On the other hand, UCAPAWA had advantages and allies that no agricultural union in California's previous history could muster. By 1938 and 1939, it appeared that the union might succeed where earlier unions had been destroyed. UCAPAWA's advantages lay in three areas. First, private organizations and other unions were in a position to give support. Second, the federal government's relief and rehabilitation policies promised unexpected benefits to organizers. Finally, perhaps the greatest advantage available to the union lay in the attitudes of


Culbert Olson. With his election in 1938, California had a governor determined to enhance the bargaining power of the migrants


Pearl Harbor was only the symbolic end of California's Okie problem. World War II really came to California's inland valleys a year earlier, when the defense boom pulled the Okies into the urban areas where they took jobs in the shipyards and the munitions plants and began their slow process of assimilation into the state. In late 1940, the radical press noted a decline of interest in the Joads and, all its exhortations to the contrary, it could not renew the excitement which The Grapes of Wrath had generated a year before. 1 <29114974>Ernie Pyle, astute as always, observed that the Okies had "left the headlines and people sort of forgot them." Now the focus of attention shifted to an anticipated "defense migration" before which the movement of the Joads would pale. <29114974>Congressman John Tolan understood well the effects of the impending war. In April 1941, he persuaded Congress to change his committee's name and mission:

The situation had shifted as we watched it; the problem of destitute migration, born out of the unemployment of the thirties, was in process of dissolution, and was rapidly being transformed into job migration. If an adequate defense labor supply was to be recruited, millions of Americans had to move to fill the defense demand for workers in factories, fields, mines and offices. . . .


In April, Congress by unanimous resolution reconstituted us as the select committee investigating national defense migration. . . .<29114974>

In the spring of 1941, fearful reports of an impending farm labor shortage spread from the San Joaquin Valley.

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