They came from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas . . . put down new roots in settlements like Lanare, Fairmead, South Dos Palos, or Teviston . . . camps such as Harris Tractor Farm or Cadillac Jack’s Camp . . . neighborhoods in Stockton, Hanford, and other Valley towns. They were the Black Migrants, moving from rural to rural settings, a little known part of the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow south.
Some were recruited by cotton growers like J. G. Boswell. Others traveled west on their own initiative, fulfilling a powerful ambition to succeed, along with hope to escape the bitter racism they’d come up under.
From 1960 to 1966 I photographed them in the Central Valley’s onion and cotton fields, in their unknown settlements, in their tarpaper shacks and trailers. I recorded their stories so the world could hear their voices.
I was a freelance activist documentarian, never pretending to objectivity. I’d walk up to people in a camp or field and say, “I hear you folks are getting a raw deal. I’d like to take your pictures and talk with you so people back in the city can do something about it.” They seldom turned me down.
Although my work documented scenes of dire poverty and backbreaking work, I was also committed to showing the dignity and humanity of these hard working migrants. I saw their strong families and sense of community, even the joy of turning an old rope and tree into a playground for the kids.
Unfortunately the people I met also told stories of how Jim Crow had migrated to the Valley with them: sundown laws, race riots after football games, threats of lynchings. Mothers and fathers told their children, “Just walk on by. Don’t stoop to their level.”
Black Migrants also faced another challenge: by 1961 when I photographed workers picking cotton by hand in a field near Pixley, agro-engineers had developed mechanical cotton pickers that virtually eliminated the need for handpicking by the families I was photographing.
When I returned to Dos Palos and Teviston in 2015 I found many of the folks I’d photographed in the 60’s living successful lives. The children in my 60s photos had succeeded in escaping farm work for jobs in service, hospitality, and government. Their parents’ determination, powerful work ethic, and love had paid off.
Black Migrants is an exhibition of African-American farm worker photos I took in the 1960s curated by Michele Ellis Pracy at the Fresno Art Museum. The exhibition is now available for showing new venues.
While covering farm workers’ life, work, and union organizing in the 1960s I visited a number of African-American settlements in California’s San Joaquin Valley. These towns are a little known part of history, the results of the rural-to-rural stream of the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow south. more
Fresno Art Museum Director Michelle Ellis Pracy curated the exhibition.
Joel Pickford made the extraordinary prints.
Mark Arax and Michael Eissinger provided valuable background information on the history of the African-American settlements.
California Humanities Community Stories Program, Fresno Art Museum and its donors, and West of West Center for Narrative History of the Central Valley have provided funding.
once owned more land
than he could ride across
in a day’s time.
He fought Miller & Lux
for the water of the Kern River
way back before it became
a channel of dry sand.
In 1961 I pulled off 99
as a storm ended
and the dark sky opened
to let the setting sun shine
upon the shacks of Black Okies.
Teviston was lit up
puddles reflecting day’s last light.
pieced together from scrap wood
How would Lloyd Tevis
have calculated the value
of this one and only memorial
to his great wealth?
I produced this narrated slideshow on Teviston—one of California’s Black Okie Communities—for the Framing Migrant Labor exhibit at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Agrella Gallery. My photos of the Wilson family are part of an exhibit that features Matt Black’s work, along with photos by Otto Hagel and Morrie Camhi.
I sit meditating
before the Adoration of the Magi —
Fra Angelico and Fra Filipo Lippi
together captured this joy
of Christ’s birth
in a wonder filled circle.
An echo of hands rise up in Hallelujah
. . . and here
. . . and here
in the crowd of shepherds.
Blacksmiths shoe the Magi’s horses.
Children dance on a wall
to better view the new child.
I sense another, also unable to break away,
from this vision of the brothers.
We exchange glances but remain silent.
Galleries later I am caught by the same scene,
this time by Botticelli —
Magi bowing to Child and Virgin
amidst Classical ruins.
“Look, the Magi are the three ages of Man.
This one mature
. . . him aged
. . . and here the young one.”
It is my companion of the first Adoration,
speaking a gentle brogue.
We explore together, quietly noting
Joseph’s sweet smile,
a Magi’s horse rearing with excitement.
I say, “Isn’t this human nature too,
not just Auschwitz?”
He is Father Sean from Ireland,
here on a Sabbatical of prayer and study.
I walk on alone.
Then another painting glows so intensely
I cannot break away —
Dosso Dossi’s Aeneas and Achates on the Shore of Libya.
The crowd of Trojan sailors,
two tall trees,
and the curving shore
all an Impressionist dazzle,
with the two heroes alone
still living in Renaissance clarity.
And again Father Sean stands besides me.
“Father, I am so baffled by evil!”
My hand sweeps around the bright scene.
“How, when we have such beauty in us,
how do we choose
to do so much evil?”
“That’s a hard one, son.
St. Augustine wrestled with your question.
Evil is a state of deprivation.
You can only understand it
in the context of the good.
It can’t stand alone.”
Then I come finally to Rafaello’s Alba Madonna,
again a circle,
a painting I thought I knew well.
The Christ Child’s translucent nakedness
reclines against Mary’s thigh,
holding a toy in his right hand.
His mother gazes serenely at the toy.
Young John the Baptist,
clad already in animal skins,
looks up at the toy.
They sit upon wildflowers.
Orchards and fields,
farmhouses and forested hills
stretch off behind the three.
The Christ Child
is total peace
in a circle
of total peace
and the toy He holds
July 1991, at the National Gallery
The West of the West Center has produced Black Okies, a documentary on the history of Teviston directed by Joel Pickford. You can view this film by going to this site:
https://vimeo.com/user25968631/blackokies Enter the password (case sensitive): Bokies0415
Michael Essinger is a doctoral student at UC Merced who is studying the forgotten history of African-American communities up and down the Central Valley. You can view or download his papers at this site:
Black Okie History
Mark Arax, Director of the West of the West Center, wrote several articles on Teviston in 2002 when he was a reporter for the LA Times. These are available at:
Mark speaks of the migration to rural California and some of the people he found in Teviston in this video:
Acres of Aspiration by Hannibal Johnson documents the all Black towns established in Oklahoma from the 1890s to the 1920s. They attracted independent, hard-working families from the deep South. This helps explain the strength of the younger generation that moved to California in the 50s to found Teviston and other primarily Black communities in California. One can order from Alibris.com.