Although Oklahoma agriculture had been in the doldrums for a decade, signs of the Great Depression emerged only in 1930 as a drought hit the region. This coincided with the opening of the East Texas oil field, which created a petroleum glut and caused rapidly falling oil prices and extensive layoffs. By the end of 1930 Tulsa and Oklahoma City formed unemployment committees. The economy reached bottom in the winter of 1932–33. Joblessness probably exceeded three hundred thousand, out of an urban population of around eight hundred thousand. Rural Oklahomans, who numbered 1.5 million, saw farm income fall 64 percent in the 1930s. Tenant farmers made up more than 60 percent of the farming population.
Prior to the New Deal, because neither a tradition nor a system of public welfare existed, local unemployment relief was scanty. Communities reluctantly met needs through charity and innovation. Will Rogers (noted humorist) gave benefit performances that raised $100,000, and the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other community fund agencies intensified their appeals. Oklahoma City accelerated public works and built a "Hooverville" community camp along the North Canadian River to provide a modestly upgraded settlement for the homeless, who had been residing in tents, shacks, and caves; Tulsa had its "Hooverville" as well. Chickasha restaurants distributed table scraps for a short time. Tulsa's plan of issuing scrip to the unemployed for redemption at a central commissary was nationally acclaimed and was echoed in Shawnee and Boise City. Despite city fathers' concern that soup lines would attract transients, Gov. William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray ordered Oklahoma City's St. Anthony Hospital to keep its soup line open. Murray also proclaimed martial law to halt farm foreclosures and to suspend oil production to boost petroleum prices.
State relief efforts were equally limited. Gov. William J. Holloway's administration provided seeds for farmers and accelerated highway work. Under Murray the state provided $1.2 million for seeds and unemployment relief.
In the 1932 presidential election Franklin D. Roosevelt won every county in Oklahoma, and soon his New Deal began to furnish assistance. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) poured $40 million into the state, and the Civil Works Administration provided over $18 million for jobs. But this fell woefully short of the need, and fierce political infighting flared between Murray and the president. Roosevelt removed the FERA from the governor's control, because Murray insisted on operating the agency as if it were his own.
Ernest W. Marland, who campaigned to "bring the New Deal to Oklahoma," became governor in 1935. He proposed a thoroughgoing restructuring of the state government and asked the state legislature for $5 million in relief, numerous state recovery programs, and several tax increases. When a cost-conscious legislature led by Leon C. "Red" Phillips denied the governor most of his agenda, Marland persuaded the people to approve an initiative for homestead exemptions. A pension plan initiative failed on a technicality. Marland's second legislature, the "Spending Sixteenth," authorized a generous relief provision, unemployment insurance, and extensive road building funds. But this meant appropriations exceeded expected revenue by $40 million. Moreover, corruption tainted the distribution of state and federal relief funds. Although Marland fell short of his goals, his programs exceeded those of both his predecessors and of his obstructionist successor, Leon Phillips, who perceived New Deal projects as federal interference.
Although the New Deal failed to provide adequately or to bring the state out of the depression, federal programs had a significant impact on Oklahoma. The FERA dispensed extensive direct relief and initiated programs as diverse as tuberculosis eradication, cattle processing, and emergency nurseries, but the agency's activities absorbed only a portion of the unemployed. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with its forty-nine camps, African American and white, built several state parks and furnished job training. A separate CCC for American Indians served several state tribes. With the 1936 Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act the federal government tailored the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act to the needs of Oklahoma's Indians, providing health and educational opportunities and authorizing bands or tribes (except the Osage) to incorporate to borrow federal funds. However, most groups rejected reorganization. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) implemented in 1935 employed more than 116,000 Oklahomans at its peak and provided $59 million in revenue to the state through October 1937. Road building was the WPA's main task, but planting shelterbelts, building National Guard armories, and housekeeping and shoe repair programs for women helped absorb out-of-work Oklahomans. The Federal Art, Music, Theater, and Writers' Projects employed Oklahoma artists, musicians, actors, and writers.
Before the Depression the state had sought to prorate (limit) petroleum production in order to promote conservation of a vitally important national resource. National Recovery Administration (NRA) production codes assisted in this. However, it was the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact, negotiated by Marland in 1935, and the Connally Act of the same year, that underwrote the states' proration agreement and finally brought stability to the oil industry.
Agricultural conditions grew only bleaker through the 1930s. During the Dust Bowl the drought in the Oklahoma Panhandle and northwest section of Oklahoma reached its peak at mid-decade. Blowing dust turned day into night throughout the state. Rural population declined, and urban population grew as some farm families moved to town in search of work. Although most out-of-state migration did not originate in the Panhandle, Oklahoma farmers moved from land they found only marginal. Out-migration caused an estimated 15 to 18 percent population decline in the 1930s. These migrants, many descended from families with a peripatetic tradition, came to personify largely negative images of the depression. Although not all of the migrants in California were from Oklahoma, all were stereotyped as "Okies" by John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. Through subsidies, soil conservation programs, and loans to tenant farmers (the Bankhead-Jones Act of 1937), the Agricultural Adjustment Administration assisted those who remained.
Oklahomans reacted mainly with resignation as the depression wore on. There was a food riot in 1931 in Oklahoma City and other peaceful protests in that city and in McAlester. The Farmers' Union revived, and the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union recruited, somewhat ineffectually, throughout the state. Ira Finley's Veterans of Industry of America lobbied for Marland's pension initiative and represented the interests of WPA workers, all quite peacefully. Boosted by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, unions, especially the Congress of Industrial Organizations, organized widely. Several strikes aimed at union recognition broke out, notably in the coal and oil industries.
The Great Depression's legacy in Oklahoma seems more negative than in most states. Murray and Phillips and Sen. Thomas P. Gore opposed Roosevelt, and the state probably suffered for their actions. By the end of the 1930s, especially in agriculture, the state was still beaten down by the economy and the weather, and Oklahoma's image had been cast for decades by those who chose to leave for better opportunities. It would take Oklahoma a long time to heal from the myriad of scars that the Depression left behind.
Keith L. Bryant, Jr., "Oklahoma in the New Deal," in The New Deal, Vol. 2, The State and Local Levels, ed. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975).
Norman W. Cooper, "Oklahoma in the Great Depression, 1930–1940: The Problem of Emergency Relief" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1973).
Loren Gatch, "Money Matters: The Stamp Scrip Movement in Depression-Era Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 84 (Fall 2006).
Loren Gatch, "'This is Not United States Currency': Oklahoma's Emergency Scrip Issues during the Banking Crisis of 1933," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 82 (Summer 2004).
Kenneth E. Hendrickson, Jr., ed., Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983).
James R. Scales and Danney Goble, Oklahoma Politics: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
William H. Mullins, "Great Depression," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GR014.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.
Links of Interest
- LeRoy H. Fischer, ed., Oklahoma's Governors 1929–1955: Depression to Prosperity, The Gateway to Oklahoma History