Monday, January 2, 2017

Draft of Foreword to ORNERY PEOPLE

The book will consist of family stories retrieved from newspapers and old books and government documents (many online). This is heavier going than the body of the book will be.
Draft of Foreword to Ornery People
Copyright 2017 by Hershel Parker

             In the mid-1930s, newspaper writers did not know where the refugees or migrants streaming into California were coming from. From the “Dust Bowl,” said many, not realizing that the true Dust Bowl was pretty much restricted to the area the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and the adjacent areas in northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado, and southwest Kansas, and not knowing that relatively few of those who left the Dust Bowl actually went to California. On 14 July 1937 the San Bernardino County Sun under the headline “70,000 ‘Dust Bowl’ Refugees Homeless in San Joaquin Valley” identified the newcomers as from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, when in fact Arkansas had suffered drought but it was not in the Dust Bowl. On 25 July 1937 the Fresno Bee reported concern about “the influx of middle westerners and dust bowl refugees”—maybe 1,000,000 of them, but did not particularize “middle westerners.” The Burlingame Times on 28 July 1937 under the heading “Cotton Crop Here Lure To Dust Bowl Refugees” declared that “many thousands of southern farmers and refugees from the midwestern ‘dust bowl’ have invaded the San Joaquin valley.” Again, “southern” and “midwestern ‘dust bowl’” were not further specified. An article by Sam Jackson in the Charleston (SC) News and Courier on 8 August 1937 said that officials were surprised that “migration from the western dust bowl has increased in 1937”—an estimated influx of 100,000 as compared to 84,000 in 1936; “western dust bowl” was not further located.  The Santa Cruz Sentinel on 8 April 1938 announced that “Dust Bowl Migrants Are Roaming State for Work” and went on to specify that the migrants had been “cut loose from their farms in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas by disaster and mechanization of farming.” The El Paso Herald-Post on 28 July 1938 (“Dust Bowl Migrants Squat On California in Squalor”) quoted migrants’ explanations for why they had left their homes (they were not able to make a living on a farm, they staying on a farm till the dust drove them out, they stayed till the drought ran them out). The reporter continued: “These are typical answers as the inquiring visitor makes the rounds of California’s squatter tent and shack towns, inhabited by one-time share croppers, tenant farmers, independent farmers, casual[tie]s of depression in towns—nomads who have migrated here from Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arizona and elsewhere in search of work and mild winters.” 

         Gradually the migrants began to be identified as coming mainly from Oklahoma. The 8 August 1837 article in the Charleston News and Courier printed this caption to a grim illustration: “Crowding of families in ‘jungle’ tents, like this one in ‘Little Oklahoma’ hear Tulare, Calif., makes authorities fearful of the health and morals of dust bowl fugitives.” The accompanying text offered a definition: “the ‘Okies,’ as the refugees are called (from Oklahoma), occupy forest service camp grounds,” but the “overflow goes into ‘jungles’ of tents and shabby shacks which authorities view as breeding places of disease, crime, immorality and general misery.” (“Okies” had been the innocuous nickname of the Norman football team and had been current in jocular use, often among Oklahomans.) On 9 August 1938 the Riverside Daily Press printed an optimistic article (“Flow of Indigents to State Slowing Down”): “‘Okies’ from Oklahoma, and ‘Arkies’ from Arkansas are few and far between,” reported Robert Campbell,” an officer at a state plant quarantine border station in Blythe. More realistically, in a lecture reported in the Santa Cruz Sentinel for 25 August 1938 Frank Emery Cox declared “Tobacco Road has really come to California and for the first time in history, this state has rural slums and unlike the tenements of the large cities, they are populated by ‘poor white trash’ from other states. Approximately 60 per cent of these migrants arrived from six states of the south and southwest. Oklahoma contributed almost 26 per cent, or one out of every four.” On 26 October 1938 the New Orleans Times-Picayune showed that the terms “Arkies” and “Okies” had spread across the country: “Not since the gold rush of ’49 has there been such a migration to California. So many have flocked there from Arkansas and Oklahoma they are called Arkies and Okies.” A 19 November 1938 article in the Oakland Tribune, “Bankers Would Colonize Dust Bowl Migrants on California Farms,” repeated this terminology while attaching it to a more general geographical area than Oklahoma and Arkansas: “Middle Westerners--known in California as Oakies [sic] and Arkies—trailed into the State, their meagre belongings piled high on ancient automobiles.” The financial theorist Roger W. Babson in the Brownsville Heraldo of 3 September 1939 used “Okie” to be inclusive—“During the past few years, thousands of ‘Okies’ (refugees from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and Colorado), the unemployed, the footlo[o]se, and the half-baked from all states have drifted to Southern California where it is warm and sunny the year round.” On 25 October 1939 the Charleston (SC) Evening Post, influenced by John Steinbeck, whose latest book had been a sensation starting in April, used “Okies” as an inclusive term for all the migrants: “the thousands of ‘Okies,’ dust-bowl refugees from Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas [sic] and Texas, and thousands of Mexicans from southern California, sat on their heels while the sun dried out fields dampened by yesterday’s rain. Many of these are types portrayed by characters in John Steinbeck’s controversial novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’” The refugees from Oklahoma in fact constituted only xxxx% of the 1930s migrants to California, but even before The Grapes of Wrath was published the two terms “Okies” and “Arkies” covered most of the migrants except when “Okies” was the catch-all term for all the migrants.  Far into the reception of The Grapes of Wrath the Abilene Reporter-News on 21 December 1939 printed a new scare headline—“NEGROES COMING!” According to a Stanford professor, “a great migration of negroes from the cotton lands of the South to California is only a matter of time. When it comes, he added, the recent migration of white victims of the dustbowl—the Okies and the Arkies—will seem trifling by comparison.” (Some negroes and whites came together, as it turned out, on Kaiser trains bringing workers to wartime shipyards—but in disproportion; the Portland Oregonian on 3 October 1942 said 84 negroes had arrived out of 1160 men.)   

         The Daily News in the Texas panhandle town of Pampa (right in the middle of the Dust Bowl) on 9 August 1939 printed three associated articles on The Grapes of Wrath, which had been a sensation since its publication in April.  The overall headline was “The R[oving] R[eporter] Probes ‘Okie’ Rumpus And Presents Two Book Reviews.” The Reporter, fresh from an exploratory trip to California, issued this call: “All right, Okies, let’s have your attention for a little while—that’s what they call you Oklahomans in some places out in California, and they don’t smile particularly when they say it, and you don’t smile either. You may not even be from Oklahoma. You may be from Texas, or Arkansas, or even from Kansas, but you’re an Okie to a certain type of Californian, and he hasn’t got much use for you if you are living from hand to mouth as some 300,000 Okies are doing right now in the San Joaquin, the Santa Clara and in other productive valleys.” In the heart of Steinbeck country the reporter had experienced a striking encounter: “Many of the migrants resent being called ‘Okies.’ In a Salinas cafe, we met a tall, strong, handsome young fellow, Tony Dehls, who by the way used to work at the Courthouse cafe in Pampa. Tony is a native of Arkansas. He said that he had been thrown in jail seven times as a result of fights with persons who had called him ‘Okie and didn’t smile.’” Everyone knew Owen Wister’s 1902 The Virginian (“When you call me that, SMILE”) and many knew Gary Cooper’s star turn in the 1929 movie (“You want to call me that, smile). 
         In The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck has a man at the Colorado River explain: "Well, Okie use'ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum. Don't mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it." [280 ,my copy.] Until Steinbeck peppered the latter half of his book with “goddamn Okies” no one had characterized the refugees or migrants to California this way in print, and after Steinbeck it would be impossible for anyone to separate out the states from which refugees poured into California in the 1930s. By making the man declare that the old descriptive meaning had been replaced, Steinbeck fixed Okie as the new inclusive term for the scum invading California. Into his frequently repeated “goddamn Okie” Steinbeck focused all the currents of contempt and hatred swirling in the 1930s. As much as he sympathized with his Joads, Steinbeck more than anyone else established “Okies” as a hate term.  
         Even before it was clear how pernicious the label Okie would become, anyone who knew Oklahoma recognized that Steinbeck had never been there and had no idea of its geographical features. Any Okie knew that Sallisaw was not in the dust bowl, although, to be fair to Steinbeck, it did not wholly escape the dust, which of course at times covered desks as far away as Washington, D. C.  On 6 July 1933 the Sallisaw local paper, the Democrat-American, declared that Sallisaw three days earlier had experienced a dust storm “very much like the sand storms of western Oklahoma. The winds came from the northeast blowing clouds of sand before it and breaking limbs from trees and overturning outbuildings.” The Miami (Oklahoma) News Record reported historic rainfalls in eastern Oklahoma on 21 March 1935, an inch and a half in Sallisaw. On the same day, a dust storm was so bad that the Ada News reported that a Kansas boy choked to death, and Guymon citizens could not find their way in the storm which was “the worst in memory.” The dust was so bad in parts of eastern Oklahoma “a trace of rain fell, creating a ‘mudfall.’” The Miami News Record on 27 March 1935 reported a 40 degree drop of temperature in parts of the state and new waves of silt in central towns (Enid had a “heavy dust storm”) and eastern towns (in Tulsa visibility was two miles and dust increasing).  At that time there was no dust yet in Sallisaw.  Throughout the 1930s you could grow gardens and some crops in Sallisaw.
         Steinbeck knew the California migrant camps from his own investigations and from the massive documentation provided him by Tom Collins (the Tom of the dedication), but his dead flat Sallisaw was a joke to those who knew the Ozarks, the Ouchitas, the San Bois and other mountain ranges in eastern Oklahoma. The Oklahoman, as quoted in the 23 October 1939 Pampa News (a town that knew the worst of the dust bowl), sneered at the idea of film crews coming to Sallisaw: “The Sallisaw angle is a bit strange, for Steinbeck was ostensibly writing about Okies from the dust bowl, not from the limestone cliffs and perch pools of Big Lee creek.” According to the Oakland Tribune on 19 August 1939 (quoting the Oklahoman), “a screen army” scouting for locations in Oklahoma for “‘dust bowl’ scenes” had their jobs cut out for them: “Fiction being fiction, it was not necessary for Steinbeck to visit Oklahoma in order to compose the year’s fictional masterpiece. His imagination could plant drainage ditches and rail fences wherever the necessities of the narrative demanded.” The film crew “had better bring along a fair assignment of ditches and fence rails when they come to shoot the Oklahoma ‘dust bowl.’”  The best guess is that Steinbeck chose Sallisaw so he could have Ma Joad be acquainted with the mother of Pretty Boy Floyd and Floyd himself, who in 1934 with national publicity had been shipped in a rough pine box to Sallisaw for burial a few miles away, in Akins.  
         Just as Steinbeck did not do rudimentary research on the terrain of Oklahoma, he did almost no visible research about the history of a typical eastern Oklahoma family like the Joads.  Steinbeck drops in names of famous Kentucky-West Virginia feuding families, “ol Turnbull” saying he had Hatfield blood and threatening to shoot Tom Joad when he got out of prison, and Grampa Joad sending word to Turnbull, “‘Don’t mess around with no Joad. Maybe I got McCoy blood for all I know.’” One of the migrants (444-445) tells a generic Indian-fighting story (“I was a recruit against Geronimo”). On 317-318 the generalized voice of a representative migrant (not one of the Joads) says “We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English, German. One of our folks in the Revolution, an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.” Not until 420 is there a specific detail about the ancestry of the Joad family. In her relief at being in a camp where she can have a bath, Ma praises God that “we come home to our own people.” She continues: “We’re Joads. We don’t look up to nobody. Grampa’s grampa, he fit in the Revolution.”
         Writers in newspapers and books did not print interviews with refugees about their ancestry, but they more frequently pointed out that these were, for the most part, native white Americans. They needed to emphasize this, once they began to realize it, because everyone knew that California agri-business had exploited a succession of darker races and was slow to adapt a crucial difference about the new influx. Carey McWilliams in Factories in the Field, which appeared August 1939, four months after The Grapes of Wrath, traced the way the great landowners in California had successively exploited “coolie and peon labor”--the Chinese, the Japanese, the Filipinos, and Mexicans. The new 1930s migrants were mainly white, a change commencing “about 1933, at the bottom of the depression.” Still, people did not focus on what was happening until “it was suddenly realized in 1937 that the bulk of the State’s migratory workers were white Americans and that the foreign racial groups were no longer a dominant factor.” One of the first and most eloquent was Robert Hardie, the director of a federal camp for migratory leaders in the Wasco-Shafter district. On 14 November 1937 the Fresno Bee The Republican quoted Hardie as praising the “harvest workers of Kern County as “in the main a healthy, industrious lot, good natured and gregarious, fond of music and dancing, highly appreciative of the simple pleasures their lives afford and possessed of a simple faith in the Diety.” “Most Are Natives,” said a subhead: “They are 98 per cent native white American people who mostly hail from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona.”  The paper quoted more of what Hardie had said: “They are of good pioneer stock, descendants of the Scotch, Irish and English settlers who followed such men as Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap and settled the hill country of Kentucky and Tennessee and later the Cherokee territory.” He continued: “it is only by the barest economic accident that they go hungry and unemployed.”
         Long before Steinbeck became interested in the plight of the migrant workers in California, the Bavarian immigrant Oscar Ameringer, soon after statehood, had seen that the living standard of the Oklahoma farmers “was so far below that of the sweatshop workers of the New York east side before the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and International Ladies’ Garment Workers Unions had mopped up that human cesspool, that comparison could not be thought of.” Ameringer went on with the best description that had been made of the ancestry of the people of eastern Oklahoma, the part which had been “almost exclusively populated by people from the Old South,” white and part-white, and, Ameringer did not say, Indians who likewise descended from tribes that had occupied the Old South:
They were Americans almost to a man. Their forefathers had been starved, driven, shipped and sold over here long before and shortly after the Revolution. They were Scotch, Irish, Scotch-Irish and English with only a few exceptions. [He might have added German, for many Pennsylvanian Dutch went south in the 18th century.] They were more American than the population of any present-day New England town. They were Washington’s ragged, starving, shivering army at Valley Forge, pushed ever westward by beneficiaries of the Revolution. Pushed out of Tidewater Virginia, and out of the fertile Piedmont, and the river valleys of the Central Atlantic states, into the hills and mountains of the South Central States. They had followed on the heels of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, like the stragglers of routed armies. Always hoping that somewhere in their America there would be a piece of dirt for them.
Ameringer continued with his vision of the southern whites settling “in the hills of the Indian Territory, tenants of white land hogs, Indians, squaw men and Afro-American freemen.” A quarter century passed, he said (really, it was nearer three quarters) “burned out and tractored out, they pulled up stakes for the last time until they landed in ramshackle trucks and tin lizzies in California, as ragged, hungry and shivering as their ancestors at Valley Forge. Ameringer pointed to “the interesting spectacle of white, native, Protestant Americans working as the land slaves, tenants and share croppers of the aboriginal Indian.” As the White Father in Washington acted his part with his promises, “squaw men, usurers, land sharks, and Eastern insurance companies had come into possession” of the Indians’ inheritance, which was “to have been his ‘as long as water flows.’” Then “the position of the tenants and share croppers hit rock-bottom. So at last they pulled out onto Highway Sixty-Six on their final journey to Gethsemane.” Ameringer’s book was completed after The Grapes of Wrath was published (Carl Sandburg’s Foreword is dated March 1940). The Dallas Morning News on 26 May 1940 said Ameringer “talked Socialism to the Okies thirty years before Steinbeck discovered them. He ate biscuits kneaded by women whose hands were rotten with eczema. He slept in crowded beds were bedbugs operated like a German mechanized unit.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune on 14 July 1940 also knew Ameringer’s history: “Oscar Ameringer is a man who knew the Okies 35 years before John Steinbeck discovered them. Week after week during those years, he has written about them and for them.”      
         Ameringer concluded his look at the ancestry of Okies with this paean: “I wish someone would look up the names on the roster of Washington’s army at Valley Forge and trace the bloody footprints of their descendants across the North American continent until they were washed up and washed out on the shore of the Pacific. What an all-American Odyssey it would make! And what a great history of the Rise and Fall of American Civilization.” Writing with intimate knowledge of how people were still suffering from the Great Depression, Ameringer saw the American experiment as a rise and fall. Neither Steinbeck nor Ameringer could have known that Okie families would be rescued from their grimmest poverty by the War and that in the aftermath Oklahoma would be changed beyond recognition, for good and for ill. 
Born near Comanche, Oklahoma, from a mother born in Oklahoma Territory and a father born in Indian Territory, I am an authority on “Okie” as a hate term. It persists in the academy with ludicrous malice, as when an egregiously self-promoting writer on Melville regularly identifies me as “Hershel Parker, who hails from Oklahoma.” It took a talk with Ken Kesey in the 1970s to rid me of the shame I had internalized and start me toward this book. I did not know about Ameringer’s book until 2015, when Wayne Pounds called it to my attention. By then for more than a decade (during which in retirement I had published several books on Herman Melville) I had been working privately, surreptitiously almost, in an attempt to learn something about my ancestry. Steinbeck knew nothing about the history of the people of Sallisaw and the irony is that unwittingly he portrayed perfectly their own near total ignorance of who their grandparents had been and how their parents had ended up in Indian Territory. Because of many moves, lack of education, and a descent into lower levels of poverty since the Civil War, the Southern immigrants into eastern Indian Territory, especially, had become a people without family memory. Ornery People: Who the Depression Okies Were is an attempt to retrieve Oklahoma family history by taking myself as a representative, my Leflore County neighbors in the 1940s not significantly different from Okies in Sequoyah County to the north, where the county seat is Sallisaw. Scratch anyone and you find tragedy. Scratch the ancestral records of any mainly white Indian Territory Okie and you recapitulate stories of colonization in the mid-Atlantic and the South and the decades of thrusts westward. In retrieving my own representative family history, I contribute to what Ameringer wanted to see, an All-American Odyssey.
Copyrighted 2017 by Hershel Parker


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for the sneak peek.

  2. Terrific stuff, Hersh- the writing, the research, every word of it. Fascinating! What an incredible journey you have embarked on, my friend! Off to see Hiroshima with Josh, Travis, Paulette and the boys' girlfriends. Jimbo

  3. And while you are in Hiroshima remember that Paul W.
    Tibbets is a Warfield cousin of mine.