TEVISTON, Calif.--They emerged from the wind and the dust of Oklahoma more than half a century ago, hitching their dreams and cotton sacks to the backs of old school buses and flatbed trucks.
They headed to California across the same prairie that had blown the white Okies west during the Dust Bowl. But these Okies were black, and what they were fleeing wasn't drought but the pain of their sharecropper past.
Today, halfway between Hollywood and the Golden Gate Bridge, in the shadow of America's richest farms, their tarpaper shacks rise out of fields of salt and tumbleweed.
The old migrants and their children, a lost tribe of Black Okies, pass their last days in some of the worst poverty in the nation. Their broken piece of the promised land sits in exile from the rest of the state, a scattering of country churches and crooked huts that seem lifted straight out of the plantation South.
Some have no heating, some have no plumbing and some only a single lightbulb to ease the night.
Tucked away in a cranny of Highway 99 as it hurries past Teviston, James Dixon sleeps on a 50-year-old bed of iron with a barley sack for a pillow. The bed isn't quite long enough for his 5-foot, 5-inch frame, so the 95-year-old Dixon rests his pillow on a beekeeper's wooden box. He draws heat from a potbellied stove, burning the last limbs of a pecan tree his uncle planted years ago.
Weather and rats have chewed a gaping hole in his ceiling. To keep it from falling, he wedges empty cans of Vienna sausage into the crevices. Chickens in the San Joaquin Valley get a better roost.
"Soon as I get into bed at night, I go to praying and singing," he said with a stutter. "Church songs. I keep in good spirits."
Dixon and his neighbors had come to this land in the 1940s carrying a different dream. They left not only Oklahoma, but Arkansas and Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, looking to keep alive their rural souls, right down to the cotton picking.
They were the great exception to America's great migration. Unlike millions of other blacks fleeing the South and Southwest, liberation for them wasn't Detroit or Chicago or New York City. Liberation wasn't even Los Angeles or San Francisco, although some had worked in the shipyards and factories for a time. Liberation was the fields of white gold in the middle of California.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 Black Okies, as they still call themselves, arrived in the years after World War II. In a land rolled out flat and never ending, they could be free from Jim Crow and the forever debt that had turned tenant farming into a new form of slavery.
About 7,000 of them eventually settled in the Tulare Lake Basin, where the biggest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi was being drained dry by the nation's new cotton kings. On the alkali flats of Tulare and Kings counties, they found what they cherished of the old South--the same chickens to raise and hogs to slaughter, the same junk to pile high and maybe one day use again, the same wooden churches to fill with the same old slave songs.
Now, nearly six decades later, the survivors of that forgotten American exodus are dying one by one, a whole culture vanishing in the white dust.
"Ain't nothing but ghosts and the wind and a few of us ornery ones still holding on," said Beulah Benton, a 93-year-old sharecropper's daughter from Hearne, Texas. She traded in her cotton sack years ago for a set of shears and a beautician's iron that steamed the kinks out of her customers' hair. She is long retired now, living with a Mexican man she met fishing one day on the ditch banks of the old lake bottom.
"Ain't nothing left but old smelly men and preachers here," she said with a cackle.
Their hamlets still sit in a no-man's land at the edge of towns that long ago locked them out. Teviston, for one, is a glorified squatters' village on the outskirts of Pixley. The city cops don't come here, and neither do the city sewer lines. There are no stoplights, no schools and no business, except for a soda machine.
Every third house has been lost to fire from the blowing embers of old wood stoves.
Drugs and crime shatter everyday life. Brothers, fathers and husbands sit in the cells of three state penitentiaries that rise from the very cotton fields that brought their parents west.
Like the irrigation water that flows to the big farms, the war on poverty and the civil rights movement have passed over the Black Okies. Many of the second and third generation left to pursue opportunity in cities from San Diego to Sacramento.
Of those who stayed behind, some landed good jobs and moved into stucco houses with fences and green lawns in Pixley and nearby Hanford and Tulare. As a group, though, the 1,500 or so Black Okies still living in the lake basin--the migrants, their children and grandchildren and now great-grandchildren--have advanced in only the barest of ways.
Martha Williams, the 86-year-old widow of an Arkansas sharecropper, lives with her son in a sagging house hidden by long-needled cactuses and an intricate gathering of rusted washing machines, ovens, refrigerators, camper shells, and piles of wood and tires. There are chicken coops with too few chickens and hog pens with no more hogs. "Don't feel sorry for me," Williams said. "Yes, this is a shack, but it's my shack. God gave it to me. I ain't got nobody coming to me saying, 'You owe me rent.' I sleep as long as I want to and get up when I'm ready, and when the beautiful wind gets to blowing, I can flap my wings when I want to flap them.
"I sleep easy at night, right here in my little run-down shack by the highway. It may not be your dream, but it's mine. Now you can just turn around and leave us alone again."
The Journey West
Robert "Boots" Parker knew the Choctaw lands of Oklahoma like the sting of his father's hand, having bootlegged wildcat whiskey out of Broken Bow and Idabel during the Dust Bowl. Now it was 1948, and he was about to become an improbable savior, the man behind the wheel of a modern-day underground railroad. He would sneak blacks off the plantations of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas and cart them west.
Parker had the perfect setup. Back home in McCurtain County, Okla., sat his powerful white friend, Sheriff Walter Irons. Out here in the San Joaquin Valley fields was Irons' little brother, Gus, who had built a labor camp and needed to fill it with cotton pickers.
Sheriff Irons was guaranteeing safe passage to any black tenant farmer in Idabel who wanted to escape his debt. California was an easy sell. Cotton kings such as Col. J.G. Boswell were paying $2.50 for every 100 pounds of fiber picked. A good worker could take home $15 a day worth of tickets--the currency of the fields. There wasn't a farm or factory job that came close to that in McCurtain County, the moonshine capital of Oklahoma.
" 'Going to California!'--that's all you heard," recalled Luke Etta Hill, whose family decided to stay behind in Idabel. "I was a kid and it looked to me like they were going on a picnic. And you wanted to leave with them."
The 1,500-mile road to freedom, known as Route 66, found Boots Parker, a small, wiry man with bulging eyes, slouched over the wheel of an old Texas school bus.
"I made the journey into hell 32 times--Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas," recalled Parker, a 73-year-old farmhand who lives on the north side of the Tulare Lake Basin. "The black folk never got out of debt. Every year the boss man would tell them, 'Well, you almost got rid of it this year.' They'd do anything to get their families out."
Parker never encountered a problem in Idabel, where Sheriff Irons, a big man in starched khakis and a gray Stetson, ran the show. He'd tell blacks to gather at the courthouse on Sunday with a suitcase and $35 each, the one-way fare. Trouble started when Parker had to cross state lines to pick up blacks in Arkansas and Texas, two states that didn't take kindly to sharecroppers and tenant farmers ditching their debt.
To sneak them out, he'd set up rendezvous points in the piney woods and under bridges at 3 and 4 in the morning.
"You weren't allowed on the plantation. I had to steal them off," Parker said. "Arkansas was the worst. If you got caught with a load of blacks before you crossed state lines, they'd take the families back, threaten them and burn up the damn bus."
It wasn't until they reached the New Mexico-Arizona border that they felt light enough to start cracking minstrel jokes and singing old spirituals. If the squalid labor camps that greeted them in Central California weren't exactly their vision of the Golden State, they had plenty of time to make it right.
Back home, the only water for cotton was the water that came out of the sky. Here in the Tulare Lake Basin, with its maze of dikes and dams and ditches channeling the water of four Sierra rivers, the cotton stood waist-high and loaded with bolls. Each boll spilled a fiber puffy and pure white. It took only a little walk down the row to make 100 pounds.
Howard and Gertha Toney and their nine children from east Texas couldn't believe their eyes that first morning out. "I was told that there used to be a lake filled with water out there, but now it was just cotton. Not a building or a house or a tree as far as your eye could see. Just cotton," said Dorothy Toney, who was 10 when her family settled outside Corcoran in 1949.
Picking cotton was miserable work, damp and cold, and if the migrants yanked too hard, the sharp edges of the bolls bit their fingers. Gloves weren't an option because they needed to feel the cotton.
"There was every color and every kind working," said Gertha Toney, 95. "The thing I remember most is the chuck wagons with catfish and hot links cooking right there in the fields. You could smell the Louisiana hot sauce in the air."
Some mornings, when the fog hovered too thick and the cotton drooped wet, the call would roll across the field: Cotton too heavy. This became an invitation to light a fire in an old tire, spread your sack down at row's end and shoot craps until the fog lifted. Even when it cleared, Juanita Noble might fill only a sack or two.
"I'd pick enough to get a cotton ticket and then I'd lay that ticket down in a game of tonk," Noble said. "If I lost, I'd pick a little more and come back with another ticket. The games might last two or three days. I'd go home with a few hundred dollars without ever picking."
Beulah Handsbur was introduced to the cat-and-mouse game between picker and farmer as soon as she and her mother arrived from Okema, Okla., in the summer of 1947. The crew boss had rigged the scale so it began at five pounds in the negative. Each time she picked 100 pounds, she got credit for only 95. By week's end, a windfall of thousands of pounds of cotton went straight into the boss man's pocket.
It didn't take long for Handsbur and the others to devise a counter strategy. They stuck dirt clods and wild melons into their sacks, adding back the missing pounds of cotton--and then some.
"Did I feel bad? No," Handsbur said. "I had kids in school and clothes to buy and food to shop for. The good Lord knew I had to make it."
Shack for a Home
The plywood hut with an outhouse stands alone on the far side of the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. The weather-eaten door opens to a 4-by-8-foot room with a single lightbulb overhead and cobwebs so thick with dust that they seem to inhale and exhale with each draft.
This is where James Dixon sleeps and prays and cooks meals on a potbellied stove and keeps all the stuff that means the most to him: a tattered suitcase that brought him from Louisiana to California in 1945 and a Christmas card, dated 1965, from his brother Joseph in Pine Bluff, Ark. Joseph is gone like all the rest, 11 brothers and sisters put to the ground in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Pine Bluff. "I ain't got no Christmas cards in a long time," Dixon said.
It is last fall and Dixon steps into his back room filled with USDA food--generic applesauce, peanut butter, pork and beans, and canned salmon. "No woman has ever cooked for me since my mother," he said. "I cooked sirloin steak, pot roast and lamb chops on the Union Pacific."
At 95, he walks like a Marine. He trudges three miles to wash his clothes in Pixley. Safety pins hold his shirts together. To keep his pants from falling, he cinches a necktie around the waist. When it's time to shave, he climbs into his broken-down '64 Chevy and lathers up in front of the rearview mirror. He squeezes a golf ball at night to beat back arthritis.
But his shack has begun to crumble in a way he can no longer ignore. He wonders if maybe he should reconsider that nursing home up the road in Delano. He worries, too, about how far he can stretch his Social Security and about the winter in front of him. "I don't mind the heat, but it's hard to keep the cold out," he said.
He was just a boy in Arkansas, no more than 10, when he heard those mystical words from his uncle: "Going to California." A decade later, after his father had sold the family's 40 acres and moved back to Louisiana, Dixon decided to join his uncle out west.
It took him a while to get here. He joked that he talked with a stutter and moved westward the same way--one state at a time. In Missouri, he joined the Union Pacific, becoming a main chef on a passenger line that ran between Kansas City and Denver.
He was nearing 40 when he finally found his uncle in Teviston, clearing out a stand of eucalyptus to plant a field of cotton. The uncle died of a heart attack while digging a stump hole and never sowed a single seed. Dixon buried him and began to rethink his own life. He didn't want to keel over on some rail line between cities. He quit the Union Pacific and, in 1948, moved into his uncle's shack.
He picked some cotton and worked on a crew mixing concrete for houses. He had a little well that pumped a trickle of water so putrid that he hated feeding it to the collard greens, much less to himself. Like his neighbors, he drove to the next town to fetch his drinking water in milk pails.
Then one day in 1958, a bearded Quaker in a red beret showed up at his door with a harebrained scheme. Bard McAllister wanted to dig a deep well and deliver fresh drinking water to the 150 shacks in Teviston. Because Dixon's shack sat off in the distance, he would see to it that he would get his own small well.
McAllister was a gentle man from the hills of Kentucky. He came west to work with farm laborers as part of the American Friends Service Committee. He devised a plan to pay for the well with a federal grant and a bond issue backed by the residents. But some of the elders had been fetching water by hand for so long that they wondered if it was really necessary.
It took McAllister more than a year to persuade the kingfishes of Teviston to form their own water district. They grabbed their shovels after work and on weekends, digging and burying the pipes so fast that the man on the trencher had to tell them to slow down.
The turbine pump, a gift from the Jacuzzi family in Oakland, arrived during Christmas week 1959. A photo of residents praying over it ran in Time magazine, accompanied by a small story titled "The Gift."
"For the children this week, there were few toys, little tinsel and only one Christmas tree. But the 300 Negroes of Teviston had a promise of bounty that seemed greater than all the growing things in the green valley: fresh water that would run to every house."
If their hope was to build a black community of small farms and shops, they needed more than tap water. They needed a surge of river water from the canals that ran by their villages.
By the force of gerrymandering, the Black Okies found themselves excluded from the Pixley Irrigation District. They didn't have a vote in the district's affairs and they didn't draw a drop of the river water needed to coax crops from the ground. Still, they were assessed $12 a year for the supposed benefits they derived from canal water that seeped into their wells. Those who failed to pay watched the district go to court and seize their land.
Dixon still had his uncle's land but not the irrigation to make it bloom. He had given up long ago on his hope of clearing the weeds and planting a small stand of cotton. He raised and skinned rabbits to put food on the table and was so frugal with his Social Security checks that his neighbors swore he had a small fortune buried in the ground.
Now, as he approaches 96, Dixon dotes on two watermelon plants that have come up from spit seeds. He keeps them alive with an irrigation system that employs a plastic milk jug with a hole in the bottom. He has calibrated the hole so that a gallon of water trickles out over 20 minutes--enough time to achieve maximum soaking.
But the water doesn't hold long in the thin, salty soil and blistering heat. All that baby-sitting produces only a single melon, a small one with a split down the middle.
A month later, as the seasons change, he spends all day flattening empty cardboard boxes and stuffing them into the plywood walls to keep out the coming cold. "I worked all my days in the cotton fields and on the railroad," he said. "I wasn't lazy. What happened to my life?"
A week before Christmas, after a night of freezing temperatures, one of the pastors finds Dixon dead on the floor, his body lying next to the potbellied stove. All the wood from his uncle's pecan tree had been burned.
What had happened to the promise of a new land?
For one thing, the giant machines of California cotton began doing the work of thousands of men. The Black Okies tried moving to other crops. They swamped onions, bucked hay, pitched watermelons and cut grapes. Then came the on-again flow of Mexican migrants willing to do the work cheaper. By the late 1950s, the black field hands were more or less expendable.
For another thing, Jim Crow, California-style, came with a past they knew little about. For decades, the Ku Klux Klan controlled local boards of supervisors, police departments and school districts across the valley. In the 1930s and '40s, as the Klan finally receded in the fields, the racial baggage of the South rode out West in the mass migration of white Okies.
For a handful of blacks foolish enough to seek employment as city and county workers, the reception was not unlike the one that greeted Ruby Hill at the Delano Police Department in 1961.
The star high school running back had entered the police academy in Bakersfield without a hitch. Even though he was the only black candidate, no one had bothered to whisper a word of discouragement as he made his way through the six-week training program. He earned his certificate and ran back to Delano to apply for an opening.
The police chief, a big-bellied white man with a Sooner twang, sat Hill down in his office. More than 40 years later, Hill recalls their conversation this way:
"How long have you lived in Delano, Ruby?"
"I've lived here all my life, sir."
"Well, in all that time have you ever seen a black policeman in this town? It can't happen here, Ruby. It just isn't going to happen."
Hill shook his head but kept his cool. "I got a family. I need a job."
"Well, if it's a job you need, I can help you with that."
"What kind of job?" Hill asked.
"A garbage man," the police chief replied.
Hill hauled away Delano's refuse for eight years, all the while applying for police openings in Tulare, Porterville, Visalia and Bakersfield. The response through the 1960s never wavered. He was either one-third or one-half an inch too short or his muscular frame too stout.
The bigotry might have glowed a little more benignly in the California sun, but that was all.
"Out here, people had a smile on their face and a dagger behind their back," said Wayne Franklin, who migrated from Houston to Los Angeles in 1945. "It was a new kind of plantation, one without 40 acres and a mule. We were the mules."
Their rural isolation had lulled them into a kind of slumber. Throughout the civil rights era, they went about their business, paying little mind to the outside world. None of the children who came of age during the 1960s can recall a single march or protest against the discriminatory practices of local governments and businesses.
"These counties didn't care nothing about civil rights. We knew it and we didn't push the envelope," said Lealga Fortson, a Texas sharecropper's daughter who grew up in Delano. "I don't know why we swallowed it."
Maybe they were too scattered and their numbers too paltry. But it was more than that, they concede. A certain rural mind-set, a sharecropper's shrug of the shoulders, had come west with them. "We still have that slave mentality that God don't want us to reach any higher because he's going to make it all right in heaven," said Leon Richardson Jr., an auto body man who pulled himself up from a life of drugs and did what so many redeemed men do here: He became a Pentecostal preacher.
"My father suffered from that same sharecropper mentality," he said. "His house was being eaten up by these giant wood rats and he didn't want to change a thing.
"I was standing by the door one day talking to him and on the wall I saw a wood rat that had to be 18 inches from head to tail. He was just watching me and my dad talking, and I said, 'Dad, you see that rat?' and he said, 'Yeah, he won't bother nobody.' And I got upset. My dad was a decorated veteran, but it took me and the pastor to convince him that he deserved better."
The federal government, for its part, never set up shop here.
Unlike the Mississippi Delta, the population of displaced cotton pickers didn't seem large enough to justify a war on poverty. Except for U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to build new water systems, little of the $300 million earmarked each year for rural poverty in California has made its way to rural blacks.
Paul Boyer, a community worker with the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises, has spent 24 years patching up Teviston and gaining the trust of the Black Okies. But even Boyer has a hard time pushing the low-interest federal loans that are available to build new houses and fix up old ones.
The Black Okies mistakenly believe that such financing comes with a hidden theft, that their property--the one thing they can actually pass on to their children--will revert to the government when they die.
"They're suspicious of government, and who can blame them?" Boyer said. "Teviston looks as poor as it did the day I started. I've come to realize that I'm just helping them hang on."
They hang on like the cotton in late fall. When picking time finally comes, it must be clawed from the bolls. What cotton escapes the machine's plunder still clings to the land, to tumbleweeds and Chinaberry trees and the prison's razor wire. Months later, it still holds on, dusty little balls clumped at the side of Highway 99.
Turning to the Church
On Sunday mornings they leave behind their solitary struggle and join hands at the foot of altars beneath paintings of a Jesus who is variously white and black and colors in between.
In all its rural glory, the church is the one place where the Black Okies become a community, where spirits soar above circumstances. The old farmhands in brim hats chew Red Man tobacco while the ladies in the basement, fingers white with batter, fry up chicken thighs, and young boys chase young girls in the dust beneath the mulberry trees.
No matter its dislocations, black America has always turned to the church to bear its burdens and keep alive its hopes. In the alkali, where no other black institutions exist, the shoulders of the church must be extra wide. There may not be a black-owned business for miles around, but there are three dozen black churches standing solid across the 30-mile Tulare Lake Basin.
Rev. Alfred King tends to his flock in the middle of a cotton field in Pixley. He worked for Sears & Roebuck and a trucking outfit before he came to his calling late in life. His Shilo Church of God and Christ, founded in 1948, has just seven parishioners most Sundays, too few for the pretension of a choir. They sing to themselves right from their pews.
In Stratford, downwind from a turkey farm, there is the Church of God in Christ, where watching 100 people get seized by the holy ghost is like watching kernels of corn sizzle and pop in hot oil. The children sit patiently as the adults writhe their way through the convulsive states. "Jesus died in agony but he didn't say a mumbling word to save himself. They'll be a time when all our suffering will pay off!" preacher Oratio Smith shouts.
At the House of Prayer in Teviston, Pastor Lonnell Smith arrives from Fresno 70 miles away for Sunday services and a Wednesday night prayer. He feeds the congregation out of his own pocket--corn dogs, doughnuts and fresh fruit--and on a Sunday in December he summons the parish to join him on the altar. A rotund man in purple sunglasses, he kneels down with two plastic bowls and washes every last foot.
And then there's the Calvary Baptist Church of Lanare, where the walls inside are bare and the carpet is held together with duct tape. The preacher, Denis Turner, wearing a Bert and Ernie tie, smears a blessed oil on the hands of babies born prematurely to crack cocaine.
On a hot June day, Rev. Turner calls forward Karen Elaine Bonner, whose daddy was shot dead on Christmas morning more than 40 years ago on these same grounds. It was a juke joint back then, and the reverend leads Bonner past the spot that shattered her life when she was 8.
A towel in one hand, a Bible in the other, he takes her to the edge of a wading pool where she will be baptized this Sunday morning. "It looks like an ocean, don't it?" he said, smiling.
Bonner wasted all her youth in anger, wondering how a man who came with her father from Oklahoma could shoot him three times in cold blood and leave her mother to raise eight children alone. Years later, after he was released from prison and back in the neighborhood, she tracked him down at a corner dice game. She began playing in hopes that he would cheat or cross her, any little reason to pull out her own gun and drop him dead. "That's how much bitterness I had in my heart," she said.
Now, in a field of sunbaked weeds beside a garden of plum, nectarine, fig, apple, apricot and pomegranate trees, Rev. Turner dunks her in the plastic pool. She comes out shivering, scoured of her old hates, of that old life.
"God has been good to me," said Bonner, 50, a former correctional officer who now works as a data processor for the Internal Revenue Service. "In my other life, I was stabbed three times and beat over the head with a pistol. I shot at people and fortunately never hit anyone.
"I did this to be part of a church family," she said. "When I die now, the obituary is going say, 'Karen Bonner, she was a member of the Calvary Baptist Church of Lanare.' "
Death by Threes
When they die, they seem to die in patches of three: a preacher, a labor contractor, a homemaker. Born in Idabel, Okla.; born in New Road, La.; born in Mineola, Texas. Died in Tulare, died in Teviston, died in Lanare. The shorthand of the newspaper obituaries gives only a hint of their part in an American exodus that defied the grain.
Harbart and Gladys McKinney never doubted that they, too, would die as they lived--in their little wood house at the edge of Highway 99.
For 45 years, it had dodged the fires and sheltered four children who grew up and found success in Fresno, Sacramento and San Leandro. Then one day a few years ago, a snake showed up in the kitchen, the biggest snake Gladys McKinney had ever seen.
They tried pouring gasoline on its head and hitting it with a nail attached to a stick, but the snake wouldn't go away. They called their daughter in Sacramento.
"You gotta get out of there," she told them.
That night, they decided to tear down the mossy old shanty on concrete blocks and build a new stucco house with big front windows and a real foundation.
They would secure the financing through the same government program that so many of their neighbors didn't trust.
From start to finish, the new house took two months. They moved in on Thanksgiving Day.
"Three bedrooms and two baths," Gladys McKinney said, opening the front door. "This is the kitchen. And this is the master bedroom. And through this door is the two-car garage."
She remembers the years of chopping cotton and the trips to Wasco to dig potatoes from the hard earth. It was the worst work of all, a belt strapped around the waist and a board with hooks across the legs. On the hooks hung the itchy burlap sack.
"I kept that potato belt to remind me that with God I can do all things," she said. "He truly does all the blessing. He blessed us with our first house and he blessed us to come from that house to this home. We thank God for it every day."
From her sparkling window, she watches the future roll in like tule fog each late afternoon. The school buses from Pixley and Delano rumble down Road 80 to drop off the children of Teviston. They are no longer black but brown, the offspring of a new migration. The few hundred Black Okies still left can hear the sound of hammers drift across the cuts and trails. Young Mexican field hands are pooling their resources and building houses and fences that enclose real gardens and long-horned cattle.
Some of the old black cotton pickers resent their presence. But others, like 93-year-old Beulah Benton, who lives with a man from Mexico, shakes her head in wonder.
"They've got something we don't," she says with a catch in her chuckle. "They got time."
About This Series
Times staff writer Mark Arax and photographer Matt Black spent nearly two years chronicling the lives of the Black Okies of California's Tulare Lake Basin.
To see additional photos of these forgotten migrants, visit www.latimes.com/blackokies.
Monday in Column One: A murder in the cotton fields.