James Gregory is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington.
He is the author of American Exodus: the Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California and of the forthcoming The Southern Diaspora: Recasting America in Black and White.
New River Media Interview with: James Gregory
QUESTION: What was the principal migration of the 1930's in this country, and of what kind of magnitude was it?
JAMES GREGORY: The 1930's was a time when there were fewer people on the road, fewer people moving, than at any point in the twentieth century. But one of the exceptions to that was the migration out of the southern plains area that was called the Dust Bowl Migration: 300,000 or 400,000 people from Oklahoma and surrounding states moving west, mostly to California, but also Arizona, some to Oregon, Colorado. And this was associated with the drought, with declining agricultural conditions.
And it was a fairly exceptional experience, because the 1930's was a very tough time to move, as you can imagine. People move when they can be sure that they're going to be safe in a new place. That was not at all the case in the 1930's. Most people stayed close to home with family, friends, support systems. But this was the one distinctive mass movement in that particular decade, and it's been memorialized ever since; used as sort of a symbol for the whole Depression experience.
It's fascinating for historians to think about this, because so much of what we think that migration was all about is wrong, starting with the name. The whole concept of the Dust Bowl Migration is a wonderful misnomer. Most of the people had nothing to do with the Dust Bowl region. Most really weren't victims of the drought, either. A lot of them weren't even farmers. The kinds of associations that come with that migration are pretty misleading, but it's because of that misleading myth, if you will, and all of its misleading imagery that we remember it so much. It's a wonderful example of, kind of, false advertising in history. A great name, some wonderful photographs, a terrific novel, The Grapes of Wrath, have just lifted that event out of the mundane experiences of the twentieth century and created this wonderful lore around the so-called Dust Bowl Migration, and we remember it, and historians use it, and film documentary producers want to talk about it, and every time the Depression comes up, the Dust Bowl Migration is part of it.
Whereas all the other migrations, the many, many more millions of people who have moved through the twentieth century, this great century of mass movement, those are forgotten. And this one, because, partly, of that wonderful name, that wonderful confusion, that one is remembered and celebrated.
QUESTION: Was there no truth to the portrait that's come down to us, say, from Steinbeck's story?
JAMES GREGORY: Steinbeck's story is a wonderful portrait of a single family, and some other families probably lived experiences that were reasonably close. It's not a good portrait of the 300,000 to 400,000 people who are normally associated with that Dust Bowl Migration term. The varieties of people who came from Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas, the places they went, their experiences, were much richer, much more varied; for the most part, a lot more positive than what Steinbeck portrayed.
So, like all novels that attempt to personalize and locate in a single family or a single individual, experience, it's wrong, because it can't cover the generality. And in this case, the generality is, for the most part, quite different than that experience.
QUESTION: In what ways was this picture not typical, and what was more typical?
JAMES GREGORY: Most of the people who left Oklahoma, just to take that state and its surrounding regions, didn't go to cotton camps and starve through winters. More went to Los Angeles, for example, than into the rural valleys that are pictured in Steinbeck's book. Quite a few did go into the rural valleys. Some didn't have a miserable time at all, and most, in fact, did, you know, survive. They met the challenges of finding new jobs, often in farm work, for a time, but pretty quickly moving out of farm work.
The levels of desperation, the starvation that is evoked by that book and by some of the journalism is pretty inaccurate. The Dust Bowl Migration is remembered as a time of great suffering, as a migration that, in some ways, evokes images of other refugee migrations in other countries, and that's pretty inaccurate. The white Oklahomans and Texans and Arkansans didn't have the same casualty rate, for example, as Mexicans today coming across the border. More people die trying to get into the United States through the southern border in the 1990s and in the year 2000 than were dying from the Dust Bowl Migration of the 1930s, and more people - there is more misery associated with people trying to come across the Pacific in container ships from China today than is associated with that migration.
So, the imagery is misleading. It's much too negative. It creates an impression of great misery, when there was certainly difficulty, and there were people who suffered tremendously, but the majority's story is much more positive.
QUESTION: Tell me why do you think this became such a prevalent image?
JAMES GREGORY: Well, the artists who created that image - the journalists, the great novelists, the photographers who have left us the portraits had a purpose - they were trying to call attention to the suffering, to the difficulties, to the inequalities, to the social and economic problems of not just those people, but of America in general, and they had a political purpose behind it. They were trying to reform, so their purposes were one thing.
And then historians and the public in the subsequent decades have had a kind of purpose, I think, also, in memorializing the Dust Bowl Migration. In an age that really likes to make victims into heroes, white America has not had too many victim heroes. Black people have stories of suffering, Latinos, people of color, people outside the United States have stories of suffering. And so for much of white America, we look back to the Great Depression and our parents or grandparents, and we tell stories of how they had hard times in the 1930s, and that Dust Bowl Migration is the perfect example of that. That becomes a story of white America's hard times, of our victimhood and our rising above it. And so I think that the retelling of that story serves some psychological and social and political purposes for all the generations that have continued to use it.
QUESTION: What did this portrait seem to symbolize to America at the time?
JAMES GREGORY: The portrait of the Dust Bowl migrants is of farmers who have failed, have been driven off the land, and there's something that really hits hard there, to think of farmers, who are the bedrock of America and for centuries the promise of America, and now those farms are failing and people seem to be forced off the land. It's the American tragedy. It hits harder because they're farmers than had they been workers or some other category.
So it's a way to turn the American dream upside-down to show the tragedy, to show it's failed and to call for some kind of renewal, some kind of get back to the kinds of promises that had always been part of the American dream.
QUESTION: You mentioned that the people who reported this story had a political agenda. What was that political agenda? What did they hope would happen?
JAMES GREGORY: Well, most of the people who reported on this and who were interested in it were New Dealers of various kinds. They were liberals, some were radicals. The journalists were very socially conscientious and motivated to try to improve conditions in America, and they often had fairly specific things in mind about farm programs that would help. Many of them believed in cooperation, as opposed to capitalism, and thought that various kinds of cooperative efforts to reinvigorate farm life or reinvigorate the people who were displaced by the difficulties of farm life. Steinbeck had believed in labor unions.
QUESTION: What was the more typical migrant experience?
JAMES GREGORY: Well, if we're going to look at what statistical data, the reports and the census and the other information we have to really look at this migration show, there are surprises everywhere. Only about half of the people who came from the western, south region were farmers. The rest came from cities and big towns and small towns.
About a third went into the valleys of California that are associated with The Grapes of Wrath, two-thirds into the cities, especially Los Angeles, where they found industrial jobs and some of them were white-collar workers and found white collar and professional jobs. So the essential spread - what was coming to California was a cross-section of Oklahoma society. It wasn't just dirt-poor, burnout farmers. And their experiences, for the most part, were successful.
California had more jobs than a lot of other places, and so the migration made sense in the late 1930's. And although a lot of people had difficulty finding jobs, most, in time, found jobs and a better way of life, and that was true in Los Angeles and the Bay area, and was also true of the group that did fit the social profile of the Dust Bowl migrant - the ones who came from farms and went into the San Joaquin Valley and settled around Bakersfield, looking for jobs, picking cotton at first and other crops. Many of them stayed as farm workers but made a living, partly through picking crops and partly through their welfare payments, the relief system that California had, which was attractive and certainly was very important in the late 1930's. And by the 1940's, when the economy really loosened up and defense work was available and jobs were plentiful, those people were making good homes for themselves.
So all through the late 1930's and the early 1940's, most people were finding the wherewithal to survive and become, you know, more and more comfortable.
QUESTION: Why did these people move when most people were staying closer to home?
JAMES GREGORY: Why people moved in the 1930s is a really important question, because it was a difficult time to do so and it took some exceptional circumstances to motivate this large movement of people. One of the circumstances is that most of them had relatives already in California. This wasn't the start of a migration; it was a phase of an ongoing, long-time relationship between Texas and Oklahoma and Missouri and Arkansas and California. People had been coming since the Gold Rush to California, and especially in the teens and 1920s. They'd come - a quarter of a million people had come from those very states in the 1920s. So most of the people who headed west in the 1930s had relatives who told them about conditions and could offer some assistance.
In addition, there were often jobs to be had in both Los Angeles and in the central valley. Farming had collapsed in California in the early 1930s, but expanded in the mid-1930s, and there was a need for farm workers. A lot of Mexican workers and Filipino workers had been expelled from the state, so there really were jobs; not enough, and the conditions were difficult, but there were reasons. There were financial reasons to think about migrating.
And so that combination of having relatives there, which is often a precondition to migration, even in good times and certainly in bad times, and some real opportunities was what caused this to get going.
QUESTION: And was this a difficult journey? Again, we're thinking of the image we have from The Grapes of Wrath, the Dorothea Lange photos, the loaded truck breaking down by the side of the road, etc.
JAMES GREGORY: One other wonderful part of the myth of the Dust Bowl Migration is its association with covered wagons, westward trails and pioneer experiences, and if you just stop for a second and realize, this is the 1930s, and nearly everybody had an automobile. And a highway system, a good national highway system had been built in the 1920's. This wasn't covered wagons. This was two days' camping along the way or stopping at motels in Arizona.
It's two days from Oklahoma to California, and for many people, not unpleasant days at all, any more than it is today. For those who ran out of money and had to panhandle or find gas, of course, there could be difficulties, and some people picked cotton on a route that led from Texas through Arizona cotton fields and into California cotton fields and made it a longer trek. But for most people, it's just a drive, and it was a nice drive to the coast.
And most of the people who came to California also were going back and forth constantly. It wasn't a one-way migration. It's not at all like crossing the Atlantic, the great immigrant waves of the nineteenth century. Very difficult to return. But to go back to Oklahoma is just two days in the opposite direction, and people went back and forth all the time.
QUESTION: But once the migrants got to California, were they welcomed with open arms?
JAMES GREGORY: California was not a hospitable place, in a lot of ways, in the late 1930s, and one of the more interesting parts of this whole story is the complicated negotiations between the newcomers and the old-timers. California had a long history of welcoming people. It had been growing like a weed. It had welcomed two and one-half million people into the state in the decade before, the 1920s. Mass migration. And generally, California believed you couldn't get enough people.
But when hard times hit and jobs dried up and people - and Californians were struggling and the economy was difficult, one of the first political effects was to try to stop migration of all kinds. And all through the early 1930s, especially starting in 1934, California politicians engaged in migrant-bashing, attempts to restrict who was coming into California, keep out poor people, discourage, especially, these Oklahomans and Texans who were so visible after 1935. And in the latter part of the decade, notions of the Dust Bowl migrants as Okies and Arkies - the term "Okie" and "Arkie" became a very derogatory concept and sort of carried some of the stigmas we normally associate - the whites normally associate - with people of color. And for somebody coming from one of the Dust Bowl states, it was often very socially and psychologically complicated. Few of them were prepared to be welcomed with this kind of nasty terminology, and discrimination was not uncommon. In places like Bakersfield, bars could exclude Okies. Lots of nasty terms thrown about. It was very complicated.
QUESTION: What did the term "Okie" mean?
JAMES GREGORY: "Okie" is a real old term, often used in a friendly way by Oklahomans in decades before the 1930s, and somehow in the 1930s itself, as Californians were looking for ways to depict people who were making them anxious because they were poor and because they were competing for jobs, that term "Okie" became a whole social concept. And it was not just Okie, but there was "Arkie" and "Texie." So, Okies, Arkies and Texies became terms that were used to define some of these people who were coming into the state as "other," as "not us." And the way those terms worked was to almost ethnicize, almost create a notion that an Okie was a different nationality, a different ethnic group, certainly a different social class and an unwelcome person.
The creation of this social category of outsider - Okie was "outsider" - is one of the more interesting social phenomena to come out of this experience, and it's a product of the tensions. There's always some tension when people migrate. There's the whole business of getting to know, the neighbors and the neighbors getting to know you, and especially if it's a large group of people migrating all at once, there is some sense of invasion.
But in California, because of the difficult economic circumstances, that normal process became extraordinary, and a group of native-born, Protestant, for the most part, Anglo Americans of Scots-Irish heritage, about as white and solid American as you can get, in California became depicted as an ethnic other. And there were lasting effects of this, all - through today. And "Okie" is still a fighting word in some settings.
Ironically, over time, Steinbeck's book also helped to cement those social categories, helped to create it. It's possible that if John Steinbeck - and certainly, if John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie and Dorothea Lange and a few other people hadn't written and created such memorable portraits, then the Okie phenomenon probably would have faded a lot faster than it did. Art helped to cement what it didn't invent, what people had invented; but art made it more concrete and permanent; made those images last and last and last.
QUESTION: What kind of impact did the southwestern migration have on California and on America?
JAMES GREGORY: Well, California has been rebuilt continually by the people coming to it, and the biggest impact of the so-called Dust Bowl Migration was the contribution of lots of white southerners into the social mix of California. Assimilation is really the wrong term to use. Contribution would be the better term, because the white southerners, the Okies and Arkies, brought very specific things and have changed California through their numbers and their influence.
The most important of those things is probably religion. The evangelical, Protestant, Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Holiness movements that are very - a large part of the religious landscape of California, had its origins and a lot of its demography is rooted in that migration.
Popular culture has been changed, and politics, too. Country music is a byproduct of this migration. The Okies and Arkies brought an interest in country music and provided an audience for radio stations; rather, the artistry. People like Gene Autry and later Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are products, a part of that migration. And politics, too, in complicated ways, but some of the conservative yet populist politics that became important in the 1960s has some ties to these white southerners who were part of the migration.
QUESTION: Can one identify any groups of people that actually did well during the Depression?
JAMES GREGORY: Well, the story of the Depression is always told in this monochromatic form, that everybody suffered, everybody worried, nobody had a good (sic) time. That's wrong. The conventional distribution of opportunity worked something like this: A
bout a third of the population suffered unemployment and difficulty. About a third of the population maintained their standard of living, and another third of the population did better in the course of the 1930's than they had done before. It stands to reason; no economy puts everybody out of work; no economy stops entirely. This one had some very vigorous elements.
If you were in the radio industry, you were doing very well in the Depression. Your investments were multiplying. Hollywood did very well. A lot of new businesses were starting and prospering. In general, people who had white collar or professional jobs had fewer problems. Unemployment difficulties were less. Blue collar workers tended to lose jobs the most, so depending on where you started at, depending upon luck, this could be the best of years, not the worst. And there were huge fortunes made in the Depression.
QUESTION: Moving up to World War II, World War II also sent large numbers of people in motion. How do they compare in size and impact to earlier and later migrations?
JAMES GREGORY: World War II initiated the greatest period of people in motion that America has ever seen. It was a time of everybody moving; almost everybody. Millions of people left the farm belt, especially, and moved to the coast and moved to the industrial belt of the North, looking for jobs. All kinds of people who had never been outside of a small region before were on the move. African Americans. Two million African Americans moved north and west in the course of the 1940s and 1950s; about a million or more in the war itself. Absolutely awesome in its historical implications, that migration out of the South into the cities, into the industrial heartland.
White southerners moving in much larger numbers than the Dust Bowl migration era; about 4 million white southerners moved, in the course of the 1940s and 1950s, out of that region, again, finding jobs on the coast or in the big cities of the North and Northeast.
The migrants of the 1940s found opportunities that spun their heads. There were jobs - jobs of all descriptions, but especially in the defense plants. At first, those jobs were not open to African Americans, but after 1943, the labor shortages - or, by 1943 - the labor shortages were so intense that African Americans, women as well as men, were getting jobs, and good jobs, in building tanks, building guns, building ships, sometimes building aircraft; the aircraft industry was the most - the one that practiced discrimination the longest; and earning standards of living that neither they nor their, you know, ancestors had ever imagined. It pales by the standard of living that we expect today, but relative to the expectations of someone coming from the South where they hadn't owned land or, if very lucky, had owned a little land, these were very good times. There was money to spend on luxury items as well as food and clothes. The 1940s were pretty exciting for most Americans, other than those in the trenches, and that was exciting - an excitement of a different kind.
QUESTION: What was the impact of these migrations?
JAMES GREGORY: The war created massive migrant boom towns. Some of the big cities in the North - Detroit just exploded because of the conversion of the auto plants into tank and other military manufacturing. Tens and hundreds of thousands of people poured into Detroit and expanded that city overnight. On the West Coast, the Bay Area, shipyards ringing the Bay Area, shipyards ringing Seattle, shipyards ringing San Diego. Los Angeles became one gigantic airfield; one company making airplanes after another.
You actually asked about the - you know, the difficulties. Coming into one of these cities, like Detroit, in the early 1940s was, first of all, a scramble for a place to live. People lived in tents, people lived in trailer camps. The federal government was throwing up public housing as fast as it could. Mostly, people squeezed together. It was hot, especially in the summer. It was uncomfortable when families were being changed as well, because a lot of women were accepting jobs and moving out of the home and child care - children were on their own, there was juvenile delinquency problems. All kinds of transformations in the social fabric associated with that, with the war.
World War II starts to equalize the ethnic, racial geography of America. Prior to World War II, there were three racial regions - the South was biracial, consisting largely of whites and blacks. Two groups. The Northeast is largely white. There were all kinds of Catholic and Protestant and immigrant tensions there. The West Coast has the most, sort of, racial diversity. Very few African Americans, but it has Native Americans, Asian Americans of various descriptions, Mexican Americans, and quite a variety of whites. So there were three very distinct regional ethnic geographies, but the migration of African Americans out of the South to the North and the West creates a uniformity. Black and white exists now in all places.
Latinos in the 1940s, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, come in large numbers back into the story and also begin to move not just with Mexican Americans who had lived in the Southwest, but spread into the big industrial centers of the Northeast as well. And the relocation of Japanese Americans, the internment in the mountain states region, created the first dispersion of Asian Americans east. Many of the Japanese Americans, once they left the camp or came back from the military, settled in the eastern cities, and got off the West Coast.
So World War II mixes up America in a brand new way. But in mixing it, it creates more regional uniformity. All the regions start to look more alike in their mix of people.