A man tilling the land with a horse drawn plow.
A man tilling the land with a horse drawn plow.

During the years between the stock market crash in 1929 and America's entry into World War II, when jobs became plentiful, the country struggled through one of the greatest economic catastrophes in history. Although the federal government didn't keep official statistics, an estimated 15.5 million people were unemployed at the lowest point in the Great Depression. Many of these people picked up and followed the seasons, planting and harvesting crops as migrant farm workers.

From Bread Basket to Dust Bowl

Over-cultivation of farm land to compensate for an overall drop in market prices for crops, combined with a lack of adequate soil conservation, led to environmental disaster in America's Great Plains. A seven-year drought beginning in 1931 led to dust storms by 1932, and the nation's "Bread Basket" became known as the "Dust Bowl." By 1940, as many as 2.5 million people had abandoned failed farms in states including Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. For example, the population in the rural town of Boise City, Oklahoma dropped by 40 percent.

California or Bust

Many farming families from the Great Plains -- commonly called "Okies" by Californians, whether they were from Oklahoma or not -- packed up and headed to California. The state's comparatively mild climate allowed for an extended growing season, and staggered planting and harvesting cycles ensured plenty of work would be available on farms there -- or so the migrants were led to believe by the popular stories and songs of the time. In the fall of 1931, as many as 1,500 migrants a day arrived in the state. Not all Californians welcomed these newcomers with open arms. For example, the police chief of Los Angeles responded by sending more than 100 police officers to the border to try to turn Dust Bowl refugees back.

The Persistence of Racism

Before the Great Depression, migrant workers in California were primarily of Mexican or Filipino descent. When the white Dust Bowl migrants arrived, they displaced many of the minority workers. Some 120,000 migrant workers were repatriated to Mexico from the San Joaquin valley in the 1930s, according to PBS. Dust Bowl migrants, such as those immortalized in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, picked grapes and cotton in their place. White, English-speaking migrants also reaped the greatest benefit from migrant camps set up by the federal Farm Security Administration, since minority workers were frequently turned away.

Taking Action

The camps set up by the FSA, a division within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sought to remedy the health and sanitation problems migrant workers dealt with on a daily basis. Low wages and a relatively transient lifestyle meant many migrant workers and their families lived in ditches or ramshackle huts with no running water. These temporary shelters placed tremendous burdens on state and local governments and frequently were targets of vigilantes who attacked migrants and burned down their shacks. Despite being little more than groups of tents on raised platforms, FSA camps provided a level of health and safety not typically available to migrant workers.