"Oklatopia": The Cultural Mission of California's Migratory Labor Camps, 1935-1941

Kelly R. O'Kelly

"Oklatopia": The Cultural Mission of California's Migratory Labor Camps, 1935-1941
O'Kelly, Kelly R.
Thesis Advisor(s):
Kessler-Harris, Alice
B.A., Columbia University
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Geographic Area:
United States
This thesis examines the migratory labor camps established by the Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in California during the 1930s in response to the migration of "Okies" to the state. These camps were meant as much more than just emergency solutions; rather, they were intended to "rehabilitate" the Okies, transform them into productive citizens, and assimilate them into California culture. Many historians who write about New Deal programs, even those who focus on RA and FSA projects, deal with the migratory labor camp program only tangentially. Most of the research done on these camps has been isolated from a larger understanding of the New Deal. However, the camps are fascinating because they acted as magnets for various strains of New Deal thought and provided an experimental environment where these ideas could be tested. This thesis delves into the ground-level dynamics of the camps. Although the national bureaucracy established a framework for the camps, the regional administrators and camp managers had enormous latitude in the program's everyday operation. In California, issues of the social and cultural citizenship of the Okies and tensions between migrants and "native" Californians complicated a picture of rehabilitation. This thesis examines the specific cultural values the RA/FSA attempted to instill in the Okies; these cultural values composed a civic mission that animated the camp program. In this thesis, I examine a variety of RA/FSA internal documents, including correspondence on both the national and regional levels. I focus on the camp managers' reports, which were submitted to the regional office on a weekly basis and which now provide an invaluable perspective on the camps. I also review camp newsletters, which the migrants themselves wrote and produced. These newsletters reveal the everyday operation of the camps. Taken together, these sources provide a window into the civic mission behind the camps.
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Suggested Citation:
Kelly R. O'Kelly, , "Oklatopia": The Cultural Mission of California's Migratory Labor Camps, 1935-1941, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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