University of Arizona English and Africana Studies professor Dr. Geta LeSeur will make a presentation for Black History Month at the Tempe History Museum about the lives of five women from rural, agricultural towns in Arizona who managed to become self-educated activists despite heavy oppression. LeSeur will discuss her book, “Not all Okies are White: The Lives of Black Cotton Pickers in Arizona.”
Ted Simons: Although Arizona has never been home to a large number of African-Americans, there have been pockets in rural parts of the state that drew black migrant workers who came to Arizona to join others in picking cotton. Here to tell us about the lives of those migrant workers is Dr. Geta Leseur, a professor of Africana studies at the University of Arizona and author of the book "Not All Okies are White: The Lives of Black Cotton Pickers in Arizona." Pleasure having you here. Thank you for joining us.
Geta Leseur: Of course, treat.
Ted Simons: That's nice. Not all Okies are white. Explain that title.
Geta Leseur: Okay. It came out of nowhere actually, what I was thinking, I was very impressed and charged up by the book, "The Grapes of Wrath" when I was in high school. That book stayed with me. Something about oppression and not having anything. I'm a migrant child myself. I came from the Caribbean, was born in Jamaica. My mother came here to work in the government service of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. So, it was supposed to be a good thing, which was wonderful. Whole thing turned on its heel when I came here. People who were migrants -- not a big deal, it was just a abd thing to happen to them -- that story stayed with me. For some reason, I went on and got my degrees, etc., etc., and life went on until something else brought it back you know out of my childhood to my maturehood, if you will. And so that's the black Okies that people who suffered like Steinbeck's Okies were also black and other people of color.
Ted Simons: And came to Arizona, came to California, I guess probably Mexico to pick cotton.
Geta Leseur: That's right.
Ted Simons: There is a town you focus on, Randolph, Arizona.
Geta Leseur: That's correct.
Ted Simons: Where is Randolph, Arizona?
Geta Leseur: Randolph is about eight miles off of I-10, Route 87, going towards Coolidge. When you come up I-10, you will see a sign for Coolidge, which is what tourists see and they fly right by Randolph and head to Coolidge and the ruins. People who pass it every day don't even know it is there. It's nondescript. Like a run-down place. Marker for the town you don't see them until you are maybe a few yards from the place. I wouldn't even call it a town. It is very easy to miss.
Ted Simons: And these folks settled in Randolph? This was a town that had some -- the black migrants, the cotton pickers, if you will, and you interviewed some folks there.
Geta Leseur: That's right. That's right. I think they didn't come to make a town, like they did in the old days, pioneers, would do that, homesteading. This is mine. They came because of the cotton industry, which people don't know is one of the largest producing money in the state of Arizona. When I came here, I understand there were like three, four C's, cotton, cattle, citrus, and then they added climate after that. The pickers, and cotton is really, really brings in a lot of dollars for Arizona. In the picture of the world, largest producer of cotton. I think it is going down, and what we are seeing is empty fields. Real estate, shopping malls, etc., etc. These people had worked the land for so long.
Ted Simons: I was going to ask you that. These people -- we're very familiar with the story of black people in the south going north for opportunity and for jobs.
Geta Leseur: That's right.
Ted Simons: These folks went west.
Geta Leseur: Uh-hmm.
Ted Simons: Why?
Geta Leseur: Which is fascinating.
Ted Simons: Why did they do that?
Geta Leseur: There is something called the great migration, you probably heard of that part of the emancipation thing when -- not everybody went north. Some stayed in the south. Some went back to wherever they came from. But a lot took the other route, the western route. They came here this way because they heard about work. They were seeing the same flyers, work wanted. 100 men to pick acres and acres of land, good weather, all of the things that the white Okies saw. That got around. They continued to find where won't be cold, won't be snow, you know. All of the inducements that the west brings. They were no different from anybody else and they were landless and exactly like the whites were.
Ted Simons: When you talked to these folks, 1930s, 1960s they made this trek.
Geta Leseur: That's correct. The dates they would give me was in the '30s, the first group, and that continued on to the '50s when the machines came in as people said it took the food right out of our mouths.
Ted Simons: Interesting. What did they tell you about their lives? The families, the community, what was it like back then?
Geta Leseur: It was hard.
Ted Simons: Yeah.
Geta Leseur: But what was touching for me, actually cried sometimes when I would hear the stories that they would tell. Is that, you know, it was hard, but we made it. They never complained. How noble is that? You know, they said family picking together just like Hispanic and migrants and so forth -- we had a home for our kids. We knew where they were. They picked together. Even though the children didn't get a proper education because they always have to help the family to pick to get the money or the money to be better. It was okay. Some would say it was no different than slavery. I heard it over and over again. It is as if they just took it and some -- uncle tom-ish, they are going to take this -- this was the way of life for them. I think they think about how far they could go with what little they had. They brought everything with them, chickens, old truck, a lot of the similarities of the other migrants moving across the land. My question, why here? Why Mobile? Why Coolidge? A little town -- they were everywhere. That's where the jobs were. That's where the crops had to be picked. And they were contracted, obviously. White farmers would go back to those places, and pickup trucks full of people or -- I am going to bring my uncle. I am going to bring my cousin. Nice young boy back there, he needs to get out of -- or Oklahoma or wherever, and so it is a whole -- the whole migration is so fast because of the way they came and stayed. Once they knew everybody, knew each other, there they were.
Ted Simons: Interaction with Latinos, interaction with American Indians, interaction with whites. Talk about that dynamic.
Geta Leseur: Interaction with native Americans, newest thing for me. I interviewed a woman named Myrtle Jordan, from the Gila River reservation -- they came off of the reservation to make money like everyone else. So much per pound for cotton. While there, she met a black man who she subsequently married and had a bunch of children. She was fascinating. Native people were there. African-American were there, and, as you know, the Hispanic people were there. But the biggest pickers were the black pickers, money, experience picking, they would brag about their cotton picking. She could pick a lot more that her husband. He could never make 100 pounds. I beat him everyday, you know. It was, you know. They just took it inside. That was their life. You know. Even though things weren't great and there oppressive things happening, things were stolen, you know, people got into fights, and -- all of the cotton towns had similar experiences.
Ted Simons: Where did they go when the machines took over?
Geta Leseur: Some of them went to pick fruit in California. Because some -- the men left first. What I would see when I started doing the story there, just turned out it was a great thing to do, was there were very few men. Presence of women and children were the largest, you know, population that I saw. So, I wanted to ask why, just like you just asked me, why? You know they have to find work to send money back home.
Ted Simons: Migrant story.
Geta Leseur: That's right. Send money back home. And if they die and get sick, they come back. They don't die and get buried there. They come back and get buried in Randolph and all of the places.
Ted Simons: Isn't that something.
Geta Leseur: It is.
Ted Simons: We have about a minute or so left. Obviously you learned a lot, but what really surprised you here? Was it something in particular?
Geta Leseur: They were so patient about everything. Understanding about everything. And no bitterness. I'm not saying that some whether or not bitter and got into trouble and -- but it was the patience, fortitude. I call them noble people really because you don't catch too many of those these days. But that is what really amazed me. It amazed me that were some, even though -- there was one woman, she came as a contractor, she would bring workers back for the farmers. But she never picked cotton. She felt way above that. But she made cotton ornaments.
Ted Simons: Oh.
Geta Leseur: Like to decorate her house and she opened a day care. But, you see, there is that, too. They didn't take that story outside. It was difficult, let me tell you, sir, when you go into what I call a closed society, people are very secretive. Protective of their stories and I was fortunate to get as much as I did.
Ted Simons: We have to stop you there. Thank you for joining us.
Geta Leseur: My pleasure.
Ted Simons: That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.
Dr. Geta LeSeur:English and Africana Studies Professor and Author, University of Arizona;