Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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MIGRANT CAMPS

During the early years of the Great Depression large numbers of homeless families congregated in squatters' camps in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. In Oklahoma City these "transient camps" proliferated especially along the North Canadian River between Byers and Pennsylvania avenues. According to a 1934 study, about half of the camp residents were former tenant farmers or sharecroppers who came from Oklahoma's rural areas.

Irby Camp, OKC

Cities across the nation had seen the emergence of "Hoovervilles," but Oklahoma City was unusual in developing a municipal transient camp. By 1931 nearly six hundred families were living in one of the shanty towns that had sprung up along the North Canadian River. City residents feared that these camps bred disease and crime and harbored political agitators. To manage this squalor, in 1932 Oklahoma City refashioned a private transient camp into a municipally owned "Community Camp," where families could live for one dollar per month or eight hours of donated labor. Located on a wooded tract next to the city dump, the camp covered sixty-five acres in the flood-prone North Canadian River bottom between Blackwelder and Pennsylvania avenues, near the Oklahoma National Stockyards.

Residents of the camp named it Elm Grove, but that sylvan sobriquet belied the sordid conditions. Although the city had erected rows of canvas tents with wooden floors, housing consisted primarily of shacks made of wood scraps, cardboard, tin, and other castoffs. For a brief time the camp's infrastructure included a system of dirt roads, sewerage and electrical service, showers, and toilets, facilities unheard of in other Hoovervilles. The camp also provided such amenities as a health clinic, free milk and a soup kitchen, social services, a church, a sewing room, a school for children from kindergarten through fourth grade, a playground, and various youth clubs. Russell Kurtz of the Russell Sage Foundation heralded it as a model camp.

Irby camp women sewing

The camp's model status proved short lived. In 1933, at the urging of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the city eliminated most services out of fear that "transients" were becoming permanent residents and that clean camps would attract more homeless people to the area. FERA helped families find rental housing throughout the city by providing one month's rent, but soon these members of the hard-core unemployed drifted back to the squatters' camp. By then the camp had reverted to private ownership. Although the city continued to provide nursing services and half-day classes for elementary students, it suspended garbage collection. Toilets went uncleaned, and only one water pump served some two thousand residents, making the camp a hotbed for disease, especially tuberculosis and typhoid. Conditions improved in 1937 when the Elm Grove Foundation (an affiliate of Oklahoma City's First Christian Church), the Works Progress Administration, and the city refurbished the camp with two hundred sanitary toilets and an expanded elementary school, called Lowell School. The camp remained a disquieting landmark along the North Canadian River through the mid-1950s.

Despite the efforts to congregate homeless families into Elm Grove, at least one other shanty town persisted in Oklahoma City through the 1930s. Russell Lee, a photographer with the U.S. Farm Security Administration, made famous the May Avenue Camp, located just south of the North Canadian River and west of the meat packing district, with the images he took in 1939 of tar-paper shacks, destitute children, and mothers struggling to care for families.

SEE ALSO: GREAT DEPRESSION, OKIE MIGRATIONS, TWENTIETH CENTURY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mattie Cal Gibson, "The Dependent Family in the Oklahoma City Community Camp" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1934). Ruth Fisher Lowry, "Analysis of One Hundred Families Residing in Community Camp, Oklahoma City, 1941" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1945). William H. Mullins, "In the Midst of Adversity: The City, the Governor, and the FERA, Part I," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 76 (Winter 1998 99). Marsha L. Weisiger, Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933-1942 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

Marsha L. Weisiger

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