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Man Who Had a Heart for the Okies : He Helped Dust Bowl Refugees Settle In

January 18, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

WEEDPATCH, Calif. — They say I'm a dust bowl refugee

They say I'm a dust bowl refugee

They say I'm a dust bowl refugee

And I ainta gonna be treated this a way.

--Woody Guthrie, "Goin' Down This Old Dusty Road."

Bouncing west in the rumble seat of a Model-A Ford, 8-year-old Carlton Faulconer had reason to be a hopeful boy. The family farm in Oklahoma had dried up due to drought; Carlton was hungry as a result. Now, however, he and his five brothers and sisters and his mom and dad were headed for California where they expected to be eating steadily again.

But the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley received the Faulconers and many of the 350,000 other farm laborers who migrated West in 1935-39 as if they were the dreaded drought itself.

"Okie kids--they were the scum of the earth," said Faulconer, now a 54-year-old insurance agent in El Toro. "Nobody wanted us around."

Leo Hart, then superintendent of Kern County schools, watched the dust-bowl refugees accumulate in migrant camps, under bridges and in ditches throughout his jurisdiction. Most of them were children.

"It was a real problem. It affected our schools seriously," said Hart, now 90 and living in Shafter, a small farming town north of Bakersfield.

They Fought Backs

Because they were thought to be unwashed and slow-witted, the Okie children had to sit at the back of classrooms. They were bullied by classmates--and they fought back. Carlton Faulconer's older brother, Roley, was one who had a reputation for responding to classmates' taunts with his fists.

Although the newcomers weren't wanted in existing schools, Hart was determined to provide the migrant children with an education. "It was really my job," he said.

Hart leased 10 acres of land and two condemned buildings from the federal government for $10. The site was next door to the migrant camp near Weedpatch where the Faulconers were living, the same camp made famous in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

The shovel and hoe-swinging superintendent, along with 50 underfed children and a crop of hand-picked teachers, proceeded to build their own school. Roley and Carlton Faulconer helped dig water lines; their sister Joyce sewed curtains for the home economics room.

Arvin Federal Emergency School opened in September, 1940. With very little in the way of state emergency funds, Hart and the students made their school one of the best in the county. It got so that local farmers who had once ostracized the migrant families eventually demanded to send their own children to the school. (In 1944, the migrant school merged with a facility for non-migrant children. It's called Sunset School and operates today at the same site where Arvin Federal once stood.)

Hart has been retired since 1959. Nothing in his personal or professional life before or since the dust-bowl days much suggests that he is given to tackling large social inequities.

In a recent interview in his homey white cottage surrounded by plowed-under fields, Hart sat back in a recliner, his arms folded about him for warmth on the chilly afternoon. He got into education in the first place for practical reasons, he recalled. "What made me go into education was I didn't have any money."

Hart grew up in Vinton, Iowa, where his mother taught in a rural school and his father operated a plumbing business by horse-drawn wagon. Hart came back from his service in France during World War I with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in Tucson to recover.

After leaving the hospital, Hart attended Arizona State University, graduating with a master's degree in education. He was offered a job in Bakersfield, taught high school there for awhile, then ran for county superintendent of schools.

He was elected to his first term (he served two) in 1939, the same year that thousands of formerly successful farm families fled drought and dust storms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and other states. It was the same year that "The Grapes of Wrath" was published.

When Hart took over as superintendent, local farmers and migrants had already faced off in angry confrontations. Some migrant camps nearby were ordered burned by health officials for unsanitary conditions. And "The Grapes of Wrath"--a sympathetic dramatization of suffering and injustice in the migrant camps--was banned in Kern County public libraries.

Pete Bancroft, who served as principal of the migrant school, said that like undocumented workers today, the refugees were both needed and hated. Local farmers, with their neat homes and routinized lives, were threatened by the starving migrants.

As they began to organize, the laborers were perceived as desperate agitators, yet the farmers required their cheap labor to bring in the crops on time. "The farmers wanted the laborers, but they didn't want them to stay," said Bancroft, who now lives in Fallbrook.

When Hart attempted to place migrant youths in existing schools, some local residents accused him of being a communist, and said he was not fit to hold his position.

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