American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California

Originally published in 1989, this pioneering work of history tells the story of Dust Bowl refugees—more than a million people from the Oklahoma region whose cultural and social existence was upended and relocated to California during the Great Depression. Based on in-depth research, census data, and oral histories (some of which were conducted over the phone) this book masterfully chronicles the experiences of people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri who moved to California in the 1930s and 1940s.

While philanthropic agencies like the Red Cross existed in the United States before 1933, Gregory argues that they were not enough to mitigate the suffering of those enduring the worst of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. The establishment of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) temporarily helped those in need. Additional help came through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), government programs that brought steady jobs and permanent infrastructure to parts of Oklahoma. Despite the lift brought about by the New Deal, times were so bad that many were compelled to pack up and leave for California.

A story well documented in notable works of literature including The Grapes of Wrath, and chronicled by photographers like Dorothea Lange, this richly researched book deepens our understanding of the characters in this saga by illuminating the complex social history of the migrants. Gregory explores the evolving culture of the migrant communities— a so-called “Okie subculture”— by tracing how they came to be defined and redefined by particularities in politics, religion, poetry, and music.

This book features fine reproductions of rarely seen archival photographs by those witness to this American exodus—photographers like Lange who left their own indelible mark on this story while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Reviewed by Sam Redman

is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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