Hard Times Familiar in Okfuskee County, Okla.

Feb 11, 2012
Originally published on February 11, 2012 4:23 pm

Okfuskee County in Oklahoma is the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 this year. Much of the economic problems Guthrie sang about were from what he saw in the county, which was once the largest all-black community in the country. Guthrie's music still resonates there, especially in the town of Boley, where hope is hard to come by. Logan Layden of State Impact Oklahoma reports.

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And staying in Oklahoma, Okfuskee County is home to what was once the largest all-black community in the country. It's also the birthplace of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie. But today, the county has the highest poverty rate in Oklahoma. If he were alive, Guthrie would turn 100 this year. And as State Impact's Logan Layden reports, his songs still resonate there today.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is March 22, 1940, and we're continuing with Mr. Woody Guthrie's records of Dust Bowl songs from Texas, Oklahoma and California. Mr. Guthrie is now going to sing us the "Hard Times."


LOGAN LAYDEN, BYLINE: If there was anyone who spoke for the downtrodden in Oklahoma, it was Woody Guthrie.


WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) I'm gonna have me a hard time, a hard time...

LAYDEN: Decades after this recording, hard times continue in Okfuskee County. That's especially true for tiny Boley, a historic, mostly black town that's among the poorest in the area.


JERRY MITCHELL: Okfuskee County. I feel it. Don't you feel it?


LAYDEN: Like a growing number of other townspeople, Jerry Mitchell moved to Boley after retiring, but his pension just isn't enough.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I'm retired and got to go back to work.

RAZ: His wife, Leonice Banks-Mitchell, known in these parts as Pookie, runs the only restaurant in town.

POOKIE: Yes. I mean, people are struggling, you know? The only reason - because everything that I own is already paid for - I'd be struggling, too, which I am kind of a little bit, you know, because business is so slow and business is not like it used to be.

LAYDEN: Boley didn't always have a depressing storyline. A century ago, the town of 25,000 people was seen as a refuge from discrimination where blacks were in charge. It was the site of the first African-American-owned banks and electric company in the nation. A century later, Boley's population stands at around 1,200, and that includes the roughly 800 inmates at a nearby prison which also serves as the town's biggest employer.


LAYDEN: At the Boley Community Center, town elders, including Theola Cudjo-Jones, have lunch and share their thoughts on the problems facing the area they love.

THEOLA CUDJO-JONES: When our children go to school here and finish school, what do they have? They have to leave to get a job. When Nate moved out and went to California, and when she moved to Wichita and I moved to Oklahoma City, we had no other way. We - there was nothing for us here.

LAYDEN: The people in Boley wonder if anything can be done to help their small rural town and others like it across the country. Beth Mattingly is the director of research on vulnerable families for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

BETH MATTINGLY: People are recognizing that there are some key differences between rural poverty and urban poverty in terms of both somewhat how it's experienced but also some of the obstacles the families are facing, some well-known things like transportation and access to services, also things like stigma, you know, everyone kind of knows your business. If you go on food stamps, everyone's going to know.

So for generations, people have been confronting high poverty, and it's, you know, in such places, I'd like to say that, oh, yeah, all we need is X, Y, or Z, but it is hard to imagine a quick turnaround.

LAYDEN: That leaves Boley Mayor Joan Matthews a bit frustrated.

JOAN MATTHEWS: Yes, but there's not a whole lot that I can do about it other than worry and pray. And I do a lot of that.



LAYDEN: Still, Matthews says with its simple, quiet way of life and close-knit community, Boley is a great place to live and retire to. But ongoing hard times mean it's not the best place to find a job. For State Impact, I'm Logan Layden.


GUTHRIE: (Singing) And my father...

RAZ: And that report was part of State Impact. It's a public media collaboration between NPR and member stations examining how state policy affects people and communities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.