Sunday, February 23, 2020

Our Oklahoma Roots, February 23, 2020

I’d rather drink muddy water
Sleep out in a hollow log
Than be in California
Treated like a dirty dog

In my family research I continue to marvel at how many of our family members came to California in the 20th Century from Oklahoma. Numerous relatives were either born in Oklahoma or lived there for significant periods of time before settling in California. The list includes my parents Eugene and Maida Shepard, both my Shepard grandparents and their 4 children, both my Gower Grandparents and their 3 children, Cindy's parents Joe and Paula Harris, her father's Grandparents Fred and Mary Harris, as well as her aunt and uncle Juanita and Gene Eeds. This is quite a collection of family members with roots in Oklahoma who settled in California. This influx of Oklahomans to Southern California occurred in the 1930s when a huge migration took place. Many had lost their farms because of the Dust Bowl and were desperate to find jobs.

Harris Family Immigrants from 
Oklahoma to California: Fred and Mary Harris 
with their children Mittie, Sammie Joe and Nikki
The Okie Movement to California. During this period an estimated 100,000 people per year moved westward from Oklahoma and surrounding states. So many flooded into California that the City of Los Angeles decided to take action to stem the tide. The name "Okie" came to be a negative moniker referring to poor immigrants from several states who became an alarming drain on community resources in California. “Okies” were the butt of derogatory jokes and the focus of political campaigns. Politicians blamed them for the state's reeling economy. The impact of all these migrants became a very controversial topic throughout the state. At the top of this post are the words of a popular song migrants sang in response to their poor treatment in California.

For several months in 1936, the Los Angeles Police Department, under the direction of Police Chief Edgar Davis, set up what was called a "Bum Blockade" along California's eastern border. 136 LAPD officers were deployed to 16 different border stations to turn away "Okie immigrants" who could show “no visible means of support.” It sounds surprisingly similar the immigration problem at our international border today. The blockade of 1936 was obviously a tremendous miscarriage of justice. Yet equally surprising was the fact that it received a lot of support, in particular from the Governor of California, Frank Merriam. Even so it did not take long for the illegality of that "Bum Blockade" to catch up with the LAPD. Within just a few months, the State Attorney General's Office got involved, law suits were filed, public opinion rose up against it, and the Blockade ended. 

William and Bura Shepard (right) 
with children Pauline, Eugene and Thelma, 
son-in-law Bill Russell and 
grandchildren Rex and Beverly
The Shepards, Gowers and Harrises In San Diego. It was just a few years later, after the furor died down, that my paternal grandparents, Oklahomans William and Bura Shepard, migrated to California. In the fall of 1940 they, and their family of 9, arrived in San Diego (8 of the 9 are pictured on the left). They came from the panhandle of Oklahoma via Southeast Colorado looking for jobs. Just two years later my maternal Grandparents, Leroy and Nola Gower, with their family of 6 (4 of whom are pictured below), migrated to San Diego from central Oklahoma with similar dreams and aspirations. Later in the 1940s Cindy's grandparents Fred and Mary Harris came from Southern Oklahoma to California with their family (see picture at the top of this post). All of them came west looking to establish better lives than what they had in the drought and depression of Oklahoma.

Last week on February 19, my cousin Hershell Gower celebrated a birthday. Born in 1943, he was the first in our family to be born in San Diego. A year later his brother Jimmie Gower was born. By the time my brother Gary and I came along in 1946 and 1948, the Shepard and Gower families had begun to settle into life in San Diego. The stigma associated with being "Okies" was dying out. Instead of a put-down it had become a lighthearted way in which they referred to themselves. Even so, the fact of being from Oklahoma continued to have an indelible influence on the life of our family.

My grandparents Nola and Leroy Gower
with their children Maida and Vicky Gower
My father Eugene Shepard came to San Diego from Oklahoma in 1940. He lived the last 63 years of his life here on the West Coast, but until his dying day he thought of himself as a country boy from Oklahoma. The same could be said about many of our relatives who came from Oklahoma and settled in San Diego. Being from Oklahoma was a significant part of our family's identity for many years through the middle part of the 20th Century. It was an identity that was reinforced by family friends who had followed a similar path: the Gibbs, Indermills, Kilpatricks and others, some of whom still live in Southern California.

Three Immigrant Okies Remain. I can identify just 3 people alive today who were part of that family migration from Oklahoma to San Diego nearly 80 years ago: my mother Maida Gower Shepard (of Anacortes, Washington), my aunt Thelma Shepard Boyd (of El Cajon, California), and my aunt Vicky Gower Johnston (of Chandler, Arizona). Our thanks go to them and their now departed parents who had the foresight to see the possibilities of life on the West Coast.
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Steve Shepard
(his, him, his)