Ginnie Graham: Family stories of Dust Bowl, Great Depression survival left at Gilcrease Museum

Family StoriesTulsa World
Ginnie Graham

Burials on the roadside. Starvation. No clothes. Lost businesses.

These are among themes in handwritten notes left at a Gilcrease Museum kiosk at the end of a current exhibit of Dorothea Lange photographs.

It’s a reminder how much the Great Depression and Dust Bowl are Oklahoma stories. The state was hit with that double whammy leading to a diaspora of Middle Americans to coastal and urban cities.

That migration changed the course of the state and country, leading to stereotypes and attitudes felt to this day. It awakened our nation to the need for agricultural conservation, public social programs and a government role in economics.

Lange is among the most famous to document the plight of the poor to drum up national support for relief programs. Her image of “Migrant Mother” became an enduring impression of that desperate era.

Gilcrease beautifully showcases Lange’s work including the five images of the “Migrant Mother” series. Work from other Great Depression photographers are displayed with context about the cultural, political and economic struggle.

As Woody Guthrie’s voice sings about how this land belongs to you and me, going through the exhibit hits a familial and familiar note for native Oklahomans.

My own Oklahoma ancestors were farmers and lucky to have lived near water, something many people take for granted. Their land was able to weather that years-long drought.

They weren’t wealthy but understood their fortune. My grandfather often told me about the occasional migrants stopping by for a meal or the necessity of eating potato soup for weeks.

With a tanking economy, absence of social relief programs and ongoing weather crisis, many Oklahomans were forced off their farms and into homelessness. They faced tragic deaths, hunger and poverty. It had a far-reaching domino effect.

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