Although Oklahoma had its share of middle class black citizens, not all, nor even most African Americans enjoyed a stable economic exitance. As was so common across the cotton belt, many Oklahoman farmers were sharecroppers. In 1930, Oklahoma had 22,937 black farmers, 14,559 of them tenants. Meaning that 77% of black farmers in Oklahoma were landless and at the mercy of the landholders.[1] From the Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, “The status of tenancy demands complete dependency; it requires no education and demands no initiative, since the landlord assumes the prerogative of directive in the choice of crop, the method by which it shall be cultivated, and how and when and where it shall be sold. He keeps the records and determines the earnings. Through the commissary or credit merchant, even the choice of diet is determined. The landlord can determine the kind and amount of schooling for the children, the extent to which they may share benefits intended for all the people. He may even determine the relief they receive in the extremity of their distress. He controls the courts, [and] the agencies of law enforcement.”[2]

It’s difficult to tell what makes one family an Okie family, and not the other.

           New Deal relief programs often excluded or shortchanged African Americans who were already the hardest hit group in the nation. Old Age Pensions were not available to agricultural or domestic workers, jobs held by 90% of black workers.[3]Oklahoma, the fourth most economically impacted state in America, found its federal relief aid was totally suspended several times during the 1930s, due to lack of cooperation with federal agencies by state officials, and the absence of matching state funds, making it difficult for blacks in the state to receive food or cash aid.[4]

Again, I can not discern what makes one migrant worker an Okie, while the other is just a…… migrant.

      Already the most marginalized of workers in the US economy, sharecroppers, both white and black, were devastated by the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933. The lawmakers who designed the AAA were attempting to raise cotton prices by removing land from cotton production. To decrease the amount of acreage of cotton planted the AAA paid parity checks to planters who agreed to take land out of production. The AAA was written with a halfhearted attempt to protect the rights of the workers’ including the direction that parity checks were to be split with tenants and sharecroppers, and that all effort must be made to retain tenant and sharecropping farmers in their homes. Without the necessity of cheap labor there was no incentive for plantation owners to “furnish” tenants with the food and clothing that they needed to survive, and the AAA was so full of loopholes that the plantation owners could easily evict thousands of tenants leaving them homeless, penniless, and adrift.[5] Howard Kester described the AAA as “the greatest inequity since the “Bo ‘evil” that economic monstrosity and bastard child of a decadent capitalism and a youthful Fascism.” The AAA was so flawed that by 1937, the head of the Agricultural Resettlement Program offered an apology for the “unfair treatment of the Race tenant and sharecropper” and said that the agency had a “sincere desire to remedy the injustice.”[6] One estimate said that at least one-third of rural unemployment in the nation was caused by the AAA.[7] The AAA, bears much more responsibility for “Okie” migration than the dust storms.

[1] David E. Conrad, “Tenant Farming and Sharecropping,” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, (accessed November 13, 2016).
[2] Howard Kester, Revolt Among the Sharecroppers (New York: Arnon Press and the New York Times, 1934,1969), 37, Quoting Embree and Alexander Johnson, The Collapse of the Cotton Tenancy, The University of North Carolina Press, 1935.
[3] “Old Age Pension and the Negro,” Topeka Plaindealer, (April 5, 1929), p.1.
[4] Gregory, American Exodus, 13-14.
[5] Finnegan, Picturing Poverty, 35., “Launch U.S. Inquiry into Sharecroppers’’ Plight.” (1939, Jan 21). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from
[6] “U.S. Summons Race Editors to Capitol.” (1937, Dec 11). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from
[7] Gregory, American Exodus, 26-27. Dr. William Ambrose writing for the Nation in February 13, 1935. Ambrose had headed a committee that studied the state of affairs for sharecroppers and the efficacy of the AAA.

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