Opinion

Seeking The Promised Land – photographs bring to life California’s ‘Black Okies’

Benjamin Beavers watches his children play in front of their house in Teviston in 1961. A collection of photographs by Ernie Lowe will be shown in a new exhibit that opens from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the Fresno Art Museum. Lowe, a radio producer at KPFA in Berkeley in the 1960s, made nearly 1,000 photographs of Black Okies. The negatives have been printed by photographer and filmmaker Joel Pickford and curated by Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum’s executive director.
Benjamin Beavers watches his children play in front of their house in Teviston in 1961. A collection of photographs by Ernie Lowe will be shown in a new exhibit that opens from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the Fresno Art Museum. Lowe, a radio producer at KPFA in Berkeley in the 1960s, made nearly 1,000 photographs of Black Okies. The negatives have been printed by photographer and filmmaker Joel Pickford and curated by Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum’s executive director. Courtesy Joel Pickford, Pickford Pictures

Howard and Gertha Toney and their nine children came westward like a stutter.

From the far corner of Texas, they migrated to Abilene and from Abilene they migrated to Oklahoma, and from Oklahoma they landed in the Arizona desert in a labor camp just a quarter mile from where Japanese-Americans were corralled.

It was 1943, and the Toneys and thousands of other black sharecroppers were headed to California to answer the ads of “Cotton Pickers Wanted” in the fields of the San Joaquin.

When I found Gertha Toney in 1999 in her little shack on the outskirts of Corcoran, she was close to 100 years old. She liked to boast that she came from a family of slaves raised up in the white man’s house. Her elders could read and write, and three of her aunties were schoolteachers. She had married Howard when she was only 16 and their journey to California happened in such fits and starts that she gave birth to five children in different towns along the route.

Her “stopover kids” she called them, roaring with laughter. If you caught her before her favorite soap opera, she could be coaxed out of her big soft chair to play a tune on the tiny upright piano in her living room. Photos of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren stared down on her. As her elegant fingers found the keys, the framed faces of those living and those dead vibrated.

One of her stopover kids, Dorothy, sat next to me as I recorded her mother’s extraordinary story on a little Sony I carried with me that summer and the next summer, and the next.

“I was born before we got to Oklahoma,” Dorothy said. She talked in a bellow of a drawl that 60 years in California could not erase. “We came west because my dad was afraid he was going to get lynched in Texas and he had married that woman, my momma, who was always protesting about everything.”

Howard, a church deacon who loved to belt out gospel songs after dinner, had gone to a Land of No Mores. “No more heartache. No more bills. No more racism,” Gertha told me. She was ready to join him there.

Each time I returned, she was sitting and smiling in her big chair. Visit to visit, she and Dorothy took me deeper into their lives. In 2003, I had the privilege of writing about them in “The King of California.” Not only the Toneys but scores of other Black Okies I found in the alkali dust of Corcoran, Hanford, Lemoore, Pixley, Tulare, Allensworth, Teviston and South Dos Palos.

They were the great exception to the Great Migration. Their exodus out of the Texas and Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana – the “four steps of Hell,” they called them – found a different Promised Land. It wasn’t Detroit or Chicago or New York or even Los Angeles. They went from rural South to rural West and landed in the Valley, perhaps 35,000 of them, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

I thought for a time that photographer Matt Black and I were the first to document their story. Then I came across the remarkable photos that Ernie Lowe had taken from 1960 to 1964. He was a radio producer at KPFA in Berkeley when he caught the bug to capture the lives of California’s migrant farmworkers. He took nearly a thousand photos of Black Okies whose journey west had never been told – not by John Steinbeck, not by Dorothea Lange.

He found them trailing their 12-foot cotton sacks near Pixley. He found them hauling drinking water by bucket and barrel in Teviston. He found their children building wagons out of melon crates in South Dos Palos. They’d been locked out of towns and cities by real estate codes that said “No Negroes, Asiatics or Armenians,” among the barred. In a new land of tall cotton, old Jim Crow had stalked them West.

Ernie’s photographs have made their own striking journey. A collection of them will be shown in a new exhibit that opens this Friday, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Fresno Art Museum. Ernie’s historic negatives have been lovingly printed by photographer and filmmaker Joel Pickford and lovingly curated by Michele Ellis Pracy, the museum’s executive director.

They have accomplished nothing less than returning to illumination a lost shard of Valley history.

Gertha died in 2006 at the age of 100. Dorothy died three years later at 70. Nearly all the Black Okies I met in my mad rovings to preserve their mark in middle California are gone, too. Their voices, thank goodness, still stick to my 90-minute cassettes.

They’ve been digitized and will soon go up on the website of the West of West Center, which I founded five years ago. Westofwestcenter.org will eventually feature hundreds of hours of oral histories representing most every group of Valley farmworkers, as well as the voices of its biggest farmers, men such as J.G. Boswell, Stewart Resnick and Jack Woolf. You will be able, with a click, to hear them tell their own stories. The WOW Center – its oral histories, published books, films and reportage – aims to become a repository of the making of the Valley.

Like Gertha once quipped. “You don’t know your past, you don’t know you.”

Mark Arax is an author of “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Dust and Water Across California,” which will be published by Knopf in May. Contact him at mark.arax@sbcglobal.net.

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