The Bum Blockade – Stopping the Invasion of Depression Refugees

Drought refugee arriving in California

Drought refugee arriving in California, by Dorothea Lange, 1936.

Seeking to halt the “invasion” of dust-bowl Depression refugees in February, 1936, Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis declared a “Bum Blockade” to stop the mass emigration of poverty stricken families fleeing from the dust-torn states of the Midwest

In 1931, a severe drought hit the Southern and Midwestern plains. As crops died and winds picked up, dust storms began, literally blowing away the crops in “black blizzards” caused by years of  poor farming practices and over-cultivation combined with the lack of rain. By 1934, 75% of the United States was severely affected by this terrible drought. The region most affected – the Great Plains, included more than 100 million acres, centered in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, Kansas, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico. These millions of acres of farmland became useless and soon, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.

Many of these destitute families packed up their belongings and migrated west, hoping to find work and a better life, about 200,000 of which were California bound. Instead of finding the promised land of their dreams; however, they found that the available labor pool was vastly disproportionate to the number of job openings that could be filled.

Migrants who found employment soon learned that this surplus of workers caused a significant reduction in the going wage rate, and even when the entire family worked, they were unable to support themselves. Many set up “ditchbank” camps along irrigation canals in the farmers’ fields, which fostered poor sanitary conditions and created a public health problem. And, of those who could find work in agriculture, it did not put an end to their travels. Instead, their lives were characterized by transience if they wanted to maintain a steady income, which required them to follow the various harvests around the state.

In the meantime, the Golden State was overwhelmed, trying to figure out how to absorb as many as 6,000 migrants crossing its borders daily. Also feeling the effects of the Depression, California infrastructures were already overburdened, and the steady stream of newly arriving migrants was more than the system could bear.

Though these refugees came from a number of states, Californians often lumped them together as “Okies” or “Arkies,” who became the butt of derogatory jokes and the focus of political campaigns in which candidates made them the scapegoat for a shattered economy. They were accused of many crimes, as well as shiftlessness, lack of ambition, school overcrowding and stealing jobs from native Californians.

On August 24, 1935, the Los Angeles Herald-Express ran an article warning emigrants to stay away from California. It read:

Stay Away From California Warning To Transient Hordes

San Francisco, August 24 — Indigent transients heading for California today were warned by H. A. Carleton, director of the Federal Transient Service, “to stay away from California.”

Carleton declared they would be sent back to their home States on arrival here due to closing of transient relief shelters and barring of Works Progress Administration work relief in the State to all transients registered after August 1.

California is carrying approximately 7 percent of the entire national relief load, one of the heaviest of any State in the Union,” said Carleton. “A large part of this load was occasioned by thousands of penniless families from other States who have literally overrun California.”

Carleton estimated the transient influx at 1,000 a day.

Drought refugees stopped at inspection station on the California-Arizona state line

Drought refugees stopped at inspection station on the California-Arizona state line

A program to construct camps for these many migrants streaming in to California was begun and abandoned by the state government in 1935, but, was quickly taken over by the Resettlement Administration.

Even with the assistance of the Federal Government, Californians feared the additional expenses for welfare relief and public education. As a result, Los Angeles “declared war” on these many emigrants by implementing the “Bum Blockade” in February, 1936. Usurping California’s state powers, Police Chief James E. “Two-Gun” Davis, with the support of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, many public officials, the railroads, and hard-pressed state relief agencies, dispatched 136 police officers to 16 major points of entry on the ArizonaNevada and Oregon, with orders to turn back migrants with “no visible means of support.”

Loosely interpreting California’s Indigent Act, passed in 1933, which made it a crime to bring indigent persons into the state, Davis contended that his men needed no special approval because “any officer has the authority to enforce the state law.”

Asking border-county sheriffs to deputize his officers, most complied. However, some refused, including Modoc County, who forced 14 LAPD officers to leave after they turned away local residents trying to return home.

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