What's an Okie

by BrendaReeves

If you read "Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck or watched the movie, you know the answer to that question.

When I was working toward my teaching credentials, I had to take a couple of cultural studies classes. I chose classes on the black child and the Hispanic child. At one class meeting, the professor teaching the Hispanic-child class told us to go home and think about some derogatory words used to describe our racial or ethnic group and be prepared to share them the following week.

The next week he went around the room asking each student to reveal their words. When he got to me, I replied, "Okie." Although I am a native Californian, my father came from Oklahoma. A hand shot up from across the room.

"What's an Okie?" the student asked.

About ten years later, my son enrolled in a similar class and had the same assignment. When asked what word or words he had to share, he replied, "Okie." Like ten years earlier, a hand shot up across the room.

"What's an Okie?," the student asked.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl

A Short History Lesson

The Dust Bowl occurred during the 1930's alongside the Great Depression as the result of a severe drought, high winds and unsophisticated farming methods. It was the perfect recipe for disaster. The worst years occurred in 1934 and 1936, when swirling winds scooped up topsoil and hurled it into the sky creating black clouds coined, "black blizzard" and "black roller." Visibility of the land ended just a few feet in the distance. 

Millions of acres of farmland were affected, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. As seen in "Grapes of Wrath" most of these people came from Oklahoma, but migrants also came from Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. They migrated to California and Oregon with the largest concentration going to California. Due to the depression, many of these people were forced to take work as migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of them had been migrant workers in their home state.

Okies Go Home

An Unwelcome Welcome

Up until the 1930's, farm workers in California were Mexicans and Filipinos. Farmers and tenant farmers loaded their families and  few possessions into dilapidated cars and trucks and started out across the two lane Route 66.

 From 1935 to 1940 California received more than 250,000 workers. Although the farmers had advertised across the country for more migrant workers, the citizens weren't too happy with the deluge of immigrants pouring into their state. Since most of these workers came from Oklahoma, all of them were lumped into the category of Okies, a term that they meant to be derogatory. Signs of "Okie Go Home" greeted them at the border. Once they reached Barstow, California, they had the choice of traveling north to the fertile San Joaquin Valley or traveling south to Los Angeles. My father, a teenager at the time, his two brothers and my grandparents ended up in the San Joaquin Valley. Thirty-eight percent of the immigrants chose Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Police formed a "bum" blockade at their border to keep out undesirables whose greatest crime was poverty. Those who couldn't find work had a one year waiting period before they could receive public assistance. Thanks to the California Citizens Association the waiting period was extended to three years.

Many of these Okies lived in filth and squalor in tents and shanty towns along the irrigation ditches due to low wages or no work at all. Although they had no money in their pockets, they did contribute politically to California with their concern for the underdog, spirit of individualism and a sense of patriotism. They also brought country music and evangelical Protestantism to the region. Their greatest contribution to California was their Protestant work ethic.

Sympathy for these down trodden people eventually spread across the country after John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath hit the book stores and movie theaters along with photographs that appeared in magazines around the world. The fact that these were white people with families helped to garner this sympathy.

Do you have Okie roots?

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No, and I think the term is derogatory.
MaggiePowell on 06/25/2013

As a first generation American in my family, I have heard lots of derogatory terms in my life... we need to get rid of them.

davestone13 on 06/11/2013

Although Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" turned all that on it's ear.

Okie Girl's Restaurant

Proud to be an Okie

In 1990, Mary Lynn Chess, a proud Okie, opened Okie Girl's barbecue restaurant and brewery alongside Interstate 5 about 70 miles north of Los Angeles in an area known as the Tejon pass. At the time, my brother lived in the area, and I lived in a suburb of L.A. about a 45 minute drive away. One day, while I visited him, he said, "Let's go to lunch. I'll show you a new restaurant." That's how I first discovered Okie Girl's.

Due to our father's heritage, my brother and I got a big kick out of the place. Beverages were served in Mason jars and the mashed potatoes had lumps in them. The overall theme was depression Oklahoma and the Okie culture. We took our Kentucky born and bred mother to lunch there when she visited. She turned her nose up at the Mason jars. The theme was lost on her, but I'm sure our father would have gotten a kick out of the place like we did.

The humor was also lost on Caltrans. They refused to allow Mary Lynn to advertise on state controlled signs alongside I-5 saying that it insulted native Oklahomans living in the nearby San Joaquin Valley. That insulted Mary Lynn.

"If anybody has a right to call themselves an Okie, I do," protested Mary. "I'm proud of it and I always have been."She enlisted the help of Oklahoma governor, Henry Bellman.

Governor Bellman wrote to Caltrans stating, "Oklahomans wear the name "Okie" as a badge of honor, symbolizing their "strong work ethic, character and resiliency."

Caltrans agreed to allow Mary Lynn Chess to advertise along the freeway. However, Mary sued for lost income, and the court awarded her $32,000 dollars in punitive damages. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. On January 17, 1994, at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge earthquake struck sending freeway overpasses plummeting to the ground in  clouds of smoke. The disaster closed freeway access to Okie Girl's Restaurant for some time to come. Mary Lynn didn't have enough cash reserves to sustain her business until the freeways were repaired and life returned to normal. She had to close her doors.

Okie From Muskogee

Merle Haggard

California: The Golden State

The Hard Working Okie's Get the Credit

Oklahoma Governor Hellman was right when he said, Oklahomans wear the name "Okie" as a badge of honor, symbolizing their "strong work ethic, character and resiliency." The Okies poured into California willing to work at any job they could find. Nothing was too hard or demeaning for them to do. They weren't looking for handouts. They were looking for work.

The sons of these migrant workers stopped working in the fields when their government called them to fight in WWII. This "Greatest Generation" returned to California after the war and built the state up to it's post war glory. They gave birth to the baby boomers, the largest generation of all time, who accepted the baton of their parents and grandparents after they got over their hippie phase. California became the most prosperous state in the nation, and California baby boomers became the most educated generation of all time.

When I entered a community college in L.A., in 1967, I didn't have to pay a cent to get my first two years of college out of the way. After that, I entered a state university with tuition so low that most families and/or working students could afford it. If you couldn't, there were resources available. California baby boomers enjoyed one of the highest standards of living the world has ever known. Most of them owe their prosperity to the Okie's who had a dream for their children and grandchildren.

Signs saying "Okie Go Home," were lost on those thousands of Oklahomans. They were there to work and wore the title "Okie" proudly. To get an idea of the attitude, listen to "Okie from Muskogee" by Merle Haggard.

Updated: 05/05/2020, BrendaReeves
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BrendaReeves on 06/25/2013

I also read "The Worst Hard Time". It's a good catalog of what happened. Thank you for reading my article.

MaggiePowell on 06/25/2013

I just finished reading 'the Worst Hard Time' (about the dust bowl) and had read Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath'... it's alarming how all of this took place in relatively recent history.

BrendaReeves on 06/11/2013

You said it Dave.

davestone13 on 06/11/2013

Grapes of Wrath is one of the most touching stories of all time, and Steinbeck's efforts were part of what helped America grow to a more tolerant nation with more sharing and helping. We still have shortcomings, but they are nothing to what existed before and during the Great Depression.

BrendaReeves on 04/10/2013

I'm trying to find CA statistics. That's what I really had in mind.

TessaSchlesinger on 04/10/2013

88% of baby boomers finished high school and 28% of them hold degrees of various sorts. Currently, that's the same as now.


BrendaReeves on 04/04/2013

I think I'll go listen to again too.

katiem2 on 04/04/2013

Duh I completely over looked the video, ironic, off to listen.

BrendaReeves on 04/01/2013

Yes Katie, that song is by Merele Haggard. If you click on the You Tube video, you'll see him singing it. When I wrote this, I kept playing that song over and over. I couldn't get it out of my head. I think I'll go listen to it again. lol! Thanks for the comment.

katiem2 on 04/01/2013

Interesting, I've heard the term in an old country song going something like this,

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all

Blake Shelton says he's an Okie cause he's from Oklahoma

Cool article :)K

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