Migrant Memories

Migrant MemoriesThe Tulsa Voice
Kimberly Burk

The sounds of working-class anthems from Oklahoma’s own Woody Guthrie fill the gallery at Gilcrease Museum showcasing classic American photographs depicting hardships of the depression era.

Dorothea Lange’s America, a traveling exhibition at the Gilcrease Museum on display through Jan. 5, is very much an Oklahoma story. But it’s also a universal story, and in many ways timeless. Lange did much of her work in California, where she captured as a Farm Security Administration photographer such iconic images as “Migrant Mother” and “White Angel Breadline.”

But Florence Owens Thompson, who decades later would reveal herself to be that anonymous weather-beaten “Migrant Mother” in the pea-pickers camp, was born near Tahlequah. And some 60,000 of her fellow Oklahomans would make their way west in an often futile attempt to escape the twin scourges of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Mark Dolph, the museum’s curator of history, said Lange’s work was “propaganda in the best sense of the word, based only on fact. It shows the conditions people were living in.”

The Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration were created by President Franklin Roosevelt to resettle destitute farmers in more productive areas, provide them with low-interest loans and implement soil conservation programs on the unproductive lands. To justify to Congress the need for the funds, photographers such as Lange were hired to document the plight of sharecroppers, migrant workers and other displaced families.

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