Teviston, a Black Okie Community

Teviston is one of the largely forgotten Black Okie communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It straddles Hwy 99 between Tulare and Delano, sitting just 3 miles south of Pixley. I first visited in December 1960, returning in 1961, as part of a major photo and radio project on California’s farm labor. Then I spent two months photographing and recording interviews in Teviston in the Fall of 1964.

In 2002 author Mark Arax and photographer Matt Black produced a series on Teviston in the L.A. Times . Then Mark recruited Joel Pickford to start shooting a Black Okies video documentary, including many of my stills. (see this page for links.)

In March of 2015 I revisited Teviston, bringing my old photos and a new camera. (Mark Arax, Mark’s son Jake, photographer and film-maker Joel Pickford, and historian/anthropologist Michael Essinger came along with me.) I hoped to find some of my subjects and photograph them in their middle age years. My hope was more than fulfilled!

Our day started with the churches, Friendship Baptist and St. Paul AME in Teviston and then First Baptist in Pixley, with one stop at the home of one of the Black families still living in Teviston. (The population now is primarily Latino.)

Folks responded to my 60s photos with great enthusiasm. The multi-congregation service at First Baptist of Pixley was on the theme Old Fashioned Day, with members dressing in their old clothes and artifacts across the front of the room. C.L Jones and Charles Carters held up Teviston antiques: a rusty milk can with spigot  (“our water supply” for hauling water from the well), a slop bucket.(“our indoor plumbing”) and a rotary phone (“our iPhone”)  drawing waves of laughter from the  congregation. Several members and Reverend Hairston spoke of the progress they’d made since the not so good old days of the 60s.

Following the service we laid out prints and people crowded around, recognizing themselves or their relatives in many of the ones of children.

We returned again in April, attending service at First Baptist, photo touring Teviston and Pixley, and recording interviews.

My Teviston photographs have appeared in my large multi-media exhibition at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco (1966), and in many books, reports, and magazines. Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York broadcast a documentary on Teviston and a life history of Teviston resident William McKinley “Buck” Ashmore.

(The radio documentary, Just Call it the Desert, has disappeared. Please contact me if anyone has copies.)