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THE BLACK OKIES

A Lost Tribe's Journey to a Land of Broken Promises

'Going to California' was the rally cry of black sharecroppers who traded one hardscrabble life for another in the San Joaquin Valley.

August 25, 2002|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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