"Okie" has been historically defined as "a migrant agricultural worker; esp: such a worker from Oklahoma" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary). The term became derogatory in the 1930s when massive migration westward occurred. "Okie" usually described "white" migratory agriculture workers; "Okie" was never, or at least rarely used, about African American migrants during the Great Depression. Most migrant agricultural workers, or "Okies," were white and traveled westward from the midwestern drought and cotton-growing states. Most African American migrants in the 1930s came from southern cotton-growing states and migrated northward seeking nonagricultural work in Chicago, Detroit, and other industrial cities.
"Okie" reached its lowest level of acceptance as a reaction against John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joad family was depicted as a typical Oklahoma farm family. They supposedly were forced from their farm by greedy bankers. This scenario was inaccurate, for the progressive Oklahoma Constitution and Oklahoma's comprehensive banking code made it financially impractical for banks to foreclose on farmers. Most of the real migrants from Oklahoma were tenant and sharecropper cotton farmers who were forced away from their farm homes not by bankers, but by the farmer-landlords who owned the land. Contrary to public opinion that associates "Okies" and the Dust Bowl, most were from eastern and southern Oklahoma, not from the sparsely populated Dust Bowl counties in northwestern Oklahoma.
The usage of abbreviated terms to indicate state origins is long in practice, and "Okie" is no exception. "Arkie" for Arkansas and "Tex" for Texas are well known and accepted, and there is evidence that "Okie" was used as early as 1905 as an abbreviated term for Oklahomans.
"Okie" was not widely used until it became a disparaging term to deride the ways of migratory agriculture workers, who through the usage of the term automatically became associated with Oklahoma, even though many had never even driven through the state, much less were able to spell its name.
The term became synonymous with migrants when Ben Reddick, a journalist with the Paso Robles Press in California, saw in migrant camps numerous "old cars with Oklahoma license plates reading 'OK'." On the back of a photo depicting the camps and autos he wrote "Okies," and the image was published with that caption in newspapers. From that time, the term applied to migratory workers.
In 1937 California passed an "Anti-Okie Law," making it a misdemeanor to "bring or assist in bringing" any indigent person into that state. The law was later declared unconstitutional, but the bias remained. There are those who, like Will Rogers, believed that the migration of "Okies" to California raised the intellectual level of both states. In many western states "Okie" continues to be used as a derogatory term. In Arizona an "Okie" is a person with "a pee-stained mattress on top of his car," and an "Okie credit card" is a siphon hose and gas can. In other states an "Okie" is a calf of the lowest quality run through an auction ring.
In the late 1960s Gov. Dewey Bartlett attempted to make the word a complimentary name for Oklahomans, and in 1970 an Oklahoma writer, Mike McCarville, also attempted to dignify the term in his book Okie. Commercial companies joined the movement; the Tulsa Bottling Company even bottled a soft drink, "Okie Cola," for a short time. The attempts failed, for you cannot change a derogatory word into a compliment by declaring that it is merely an abbreviation for state origin. Most old-time Oklahomans still resent the insulting implications, for they are Oklahomans, not "Okies." Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century Webster's dictionary amended its definition to state that the primary definition of "Okie" is a native or resident of Oklahoma.
Matthew Paul Bonnifield, The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).
James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939).
Guy Logsdon, The Dust Bowl and the Migrant (Tulsa, Okla.: Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, 1971).
Paul B. Sears, Deserts on the March (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935).
Walter J. Stein, California and the Dust Bowl Migration (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973).
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking Press, 1939).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Guy Logsdon, “Okie (term),” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=OK007.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.