From Dust Bowl to The Bum Brigade

The fateful day of October 29, 1929, forever etched in history as “Black Tuesday,” marked the onset of an economic catastrophe. On that single day, the stock market hemorrhaged a staggering fourteen billion dollars, equivalent to a mind-boggling one hundred eighty-eight billion dollars in today’s currency. This catastrophic event triggered the Great Depression, a harrowing period of economic turmoil that would haunt the United States for nearly a decade. The lingering effects of this devastating downturn would persist until 1939, when the world was thrust into the chaos of World War II.

As if the economic woes weren’t enough, the heartland of America faced yet another calamity—a severe drought that coincided with the economic downturn, wreaking havoc on rural communities. Beginning in 1931, this drought, compounded by unsustainable farming practices, gave rise to nightmarish dust storms that engulfed vast swathes of the American Midwest. These relentless storms, persistent throughout the 1930s, inflicted insurmountable damage to the land, decimating crops and stripping away precious topsoil. The consequence? Many farmers found it impossible to eke out a living from the barren earth.

The calendar marked April 14, 1935, as a day of promise, bathed in the glow of spring. Little did anyone know that this day would go down in infamy as “Black Sunday.” On that ominous day, a colossal dust storm, sweeping from northern Canada to the southern reaches of Texas, blotted out the sky. When news reports reached the public, they introduced a new term into the American lexicon—the “Dust Bowl.” The afflicted region encompassed the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, parts of Kansas, Colorado, and select areas in New Mexico.

The Exodus of Desperation

In the face of relentless dust storms, economic collapse, and the hope for a better life, numerous families and farmers opted to uproot their lives and seek refuge from the Dust Bowl. With wagons and automobiles laden with their belongings, they set their sights on the west, akin to their predecessors during the California Gold Rush a century earlier. It marked one of the largest mass migrations in U.S. history, with an estimated 200,000 people, roughly one in 600 Americans, embarking on this arduous journey.

The Road to Hope and Desperation

The iconic Route 66, often referred to as the “mother road,” had recently paved the way from Chicago to Los Angeles, offering a glimmer of hope to those seeking a fresh start. Even today, Route 66 stands as one of America’s most famous highways, symbolizing a path of dreams and aspirations. The Dust Bowl refugees, often derogatorily labeled “Okies” despite their diverse origins, streamed into California, particularly the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. The city, just a few decades earlier, had experienced a massive influx of residents following the devastating Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

It was estimated that almost a thousand people were entering Los Angeles every day during the height of the Dust Bowl migration. However, the reality of the Great Depression meant that jobs, which many migrants believed to be abundant, were anything but. The influx of newcomers swelled the labor pool, making it increasingly challenging for native Angelenos to secure employment. This oversupply of labor allowed businesses to hire desperate workers at reduced wages, further exacerbating the plight of the residents. In May 1935, the California State Assembly proposed the Jones-Redwine Bill, aiming to restrict the entry of destitute individuals into the state, highlighting the escalating crisis.

A Warning Against Migration

On August 24, 1935, the Los Angeles Herald Express issued a stark warning to potential refugees considering California as their destination. H.A. Carleton, the director of the Federal Transient Service, advised indigent transients against coming to California, citing the state’s burden of supporting nearly seven percent of the national relief load. Thousands of impoverished families from neighboring states had inundated California, overwhelming relief efforts and local resources.

The Heavy-Handed Approach

With the mass migration showing no signs of abating, one man decided to take matters into his own hands. James Davis, known as “Two-Gun,” served as the chief of police in Los Angeles. Davis had a reputation for ruthlessness and was the mastermind behind the notorious “Gun Squad,” a group of officers granted sweeping powers to eliminate criminals by any means necessary, even if it meant violating the law. He famously declared that he wanted criminals brought in “dead, not alive.”

In November 1935, Chief Davis deployed 136 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department to sixteen entry points along California’s borders with Arizona, Oregon, and Nevada. Their orders were clear: turn back any newcomers with “no visible means of support.” Davis argued that he was merely upholding the California Destitute Act of 1933, which made it illegal for destitute individuals to enter the state. He garnered support from state aid organizations, overwhelmed by the influx of migrants, as well as public officials, railroads, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

The Legacy of The Bum Brigade

As we’ve explored the intriguing history of the Dust Bowl migration and the controversial actions of Chief James “Two-Gun” Davis, it’s essential to consider the potential future impact of such historical events and societal responses. The Dust Bowl migration and the measures taken by authorities during the Great Depression provide valuable insights into the resilience of individuals and communities in the face of adversity. Let’s delve into what we can learn and how it may relate to you and your understanding of today’s world.

One of the enduring lessons from the Dust Bowl migration is the importance of compassion and empathy during times of crisis. While Chief Davis’s heavy-handed approach may have stemmed from desperation, it also serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of neglecting those in need. As you navigate your own life, you can draw from this history to cultivate a greater sense of compassion for those facing challenges and difficulties. Your actions, whether large or small, can make a significant difference in the lives of others.

Resilience in the Face of Adversity

The Dust Bowl migration exemplifies the resilience of individuals and families when confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Those who left their homes in search of a better life during those trying times displayed remarkable strength and determination. Their stories serve as an inspiration for you and your own journey, reminding you that even in the most challenging circumstances, there is potential for growth and transformation. When faced with adversity, remember the indomitable spirit of those who weathered the Dust Bowl.

During the Dust Bowl migration, communities came together to support one another, sharing resources and offering assistance to those in need. In times of crisis, the bonds of community and the power of collective action become evident. As you reflect on this historical chapter, consider the role of community in your own life. Whether it’s your family, friends, or local networks, nurturing these connections can provide vital support during challenging times and enhance the overall quality of your life.

The economic challenges of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migration mirror some of the struggles we continue to face in the modern world. Disparities in wealth, access to resources, and economic opportunities persist. By understanding this historical context, you can engage more effectively in discussions about economic equity and advocate for positive change in your community and society at large. Your efforts can contribute to a fairer and more just future for you and your fellow citizens.

Preserving Historical Memory

Lastly, the history of the Dust Bowl migration and Chief Davis’s actions serve as a reminder of the importance of preserving historical memory. By acknowledging and learning from our past, we can make informed decisions about our future. Encourage and support initiatives that document and share these stories, ensuring that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. You and your generation can play a vital role in ensuring that history informs the present and guides the future.

Danielle Rose