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COLUMN ONE: THE BLACK OKIES

A Myth of Hope in a Land of Tragedy

Chuck Jones sought a better life out west. His grandsons found death.

August 26, 2002|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Second of three parts

ALLENSWORTH, Calif. -- Chuck Jones had heard the stories growing up in Oklahoma.

Grapes as big as jade eggs and fields of cotton that didn't quit. Row after row, mile upon mile, it was all there for the picking in a giant valley in the middle of California.

The son of a black tenant farmer, he could already taste the bitter that came with the Oklahoma land. Soon enough, the debt to the white boss man that got passed from his grandfather to his father would get passed to him.

So in the mid-1940s, like so many other Black Okies chasing a myth, he took off west to the San Joaquin Valley. Here was a land that offered the wide-open blessings of the rural without the half-empty cotton sacks of sharecropping. He had found a new South.

He fell in love with a woman named Margaret, who had seven children. They married and had two of their own. They taught them a reverence for work and a respect for the rod. In their family, the branches of the weeping willow would be known as the branches of the "whuppin' willow."

Jones made sure that his children and grandchildren would grow up knowing the seasons the way he knew them--that pomegranates meant winter and loquats meant spring and the harvest moon meant the squeal of pigs being neutered.

He lived long enough to spoil his two young grandsons, Howie and Eric, and long enough to watch his family tree stretch beyond the alkali. He died in 1984, perhaps mercifully, never having to see that myth turn to tragedy.

His youngest daughter, Hallie, the mother of Howie and Eric, grew too busy hustling crack to pass along any Black Okie dreams to her sons.

Howie left home at 15, joined a gang and began dealing his own drugs. In the fall of 1998, 14 years after his grandfather's death, he was shot dead, two bullets to the head in a beef over a craps game.

Eric, 17, tried to honor his big brother the only way he knew--by joining the same rural gang. On a cold winter night last year, he left the house wearing a T-shirt inscribed "Rest in Peace" as a memorial to Howie.

They found him the next morning in the plowed dirt beside a country road near Allensworth. He was naked and hogtied. A wooden handle protruded from his rectum and nine bullets pierced his back. His fingers bore the marks of electrical shock. He was lying at the edge of the old lake basin, in the same cotton fields that had brought his grandfather west.

Mixed Legacy

Across a distance of six decades and thousands of miles, heartbreak has chased the children and grandchildren and now the great-grandchildren of the old black cotton pickers of Tulare Lake. Highway 99, a zipper straight up the gut of California, is no longer a road to salvation. Sunday sermons don't have to venture far to find the bittersweet.

Tina Houston graduates from UCLA, gets her master's degree from Harvard while her brother, Kenneth, serves a five-year drug sentence at Ironwood State Prison.

Leon Richardson helps as a pastor at the House of Prayer in Teviston while his brother, George, passes his days as an inmate at North Kern State Prison. George's wife raises their 10 children in a trash heap of a house where dirty plastic diapers--ripped apart by pit bulls--snag on tumbleweeds. She is pregnant with an 11th child conceived during a conjugal visit. She stays away from the house for days at a time, leaving her 14-year-old daughter in charge.

The breakdown of family structure that began five and six generations ago in the rural South has accelerated in the rural West. More than seven out of 10 black children in the San Joaquin Valley are born out of wedlock. Of the 6,000 blacks in Tulare County, 45% receive welfare or food stamps.

Tulare may rank as the No. 1 milk producer in the world but it stands as the poorest county in California, with nearly one-third of its residents living below the poverty level. With so few resources to spread around, no one--not social workers, job trainers or Head Start administrators--is targeting the needs of the 1,500 Black Okies scattered in rural enclaves across the lake basin.

"Even poor people in the inner city, as bad as they have it, at least have services nearby," said Connie Conway, a Tulare County supervisor. "We don't have the public transit to help the rural people even access the meager services that we do have."

In a place so broken, even a crime as savage as the murder of Eric "Cutty" Jones has gone down as simply one more gangbanger who turned up dead beside a ditch in the forgotten middle of California.

Four of the accused killers are migrants from Mexico whose families came a generation after the Black Okies to pick the same fields. Police say Jones made the mistake of double-crossing the men who had given him a cut of their methamphetamine trade.

As the case heads to trial, 19 months after the killing, it is hardly discussed among Black Okies. The murder seems to have been swept over, absorbed into a larger narrative of lost hope.

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