This is one of the world's most famous photographs.
It's commonly known as Migrant Mother, and it was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, during
the Great Depression.
In the U.S. Library of Congress, the photograph is labeled as, "Destitute Pea Pickers in California."
And there are two stories here--the story of the photograph, which has been famous since
1936, and the story of its subject, who was as it turns not a pea picker, and whose identity
wasn’t known until the late 1970s.
But let's begin with the photograph, which was printed in newspapers in 1936 and helped
spur a relief movement that saved many people from starvation.
Since then, it's become one of the most reproduced images in history--it's been on a postage
stamp, t-shirts, magazine covers.
The picture is ubiquitous partly because it isn't copyrighted-- it was taken as part of
Lange's work with the Farm Security Administration so it’s in the public domain, meaning that
anyone can re-create it for any reason without paying royalties--hence the existence of,
for example, the 1000-piece Migrant Mother jigsaw puzzle.
But lots of Depression-era images are in the public domain.
This one has stuck with us because it is, you know, brilliant.
The mother's worried eyes.
The kids turned away from us.
The rough textures of their clothes contrasted with human skin.
It takes a moment even to notice the swaddled baby, and for me at least, that's when the
real weight of the picture hits--three kids, literally leaning on their mom, and her eyes
are carrying all that weight.
Lange took six other photographs of the mom and her children on that day, which give us
a small sense of what the area outside the famous photograph looked like on March 6th, 1936.
The migrant mother and her kids were just outside of a pea-pickers camp.
Many years later, in 1960, Lange wrote about this moment in Popular Photography magazine:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.
I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she
asked me no questions...
I did not ask her name or her history.
She told me her age, that she was thirty-two.
She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and
birds that the children killed.
She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.
There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to
know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.
There was a sort of equality about it.
But Florence Owens Thompson, the woman depicted in the photograph, did not feel there was
a sort of equality about it, and remembered the encounter quite differently.
When Thompson was identified more than 40 years after the picture was taken, she
told a newspaper reporter, “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture.”
The photograph became a symbol of the Depression in the United States and the suffering it
caused, especially among farm workers.
A single image that could represent something deep about motherhood and resilience and poverty
But the photograph's symbolic resonance is very distant from the lived experience of
the people captured in that picture.
The migrant mother was not, as the photo's caption identified her, a "destitute pea-picker."
Florence Leona Christie was born in 1903.
She was a native American, born to Cherokee parents in what was at the time called Indian
Territory--it wouldn't become the state of Oklahoma until 1907.
The life she lived has a lot to tell us about the United States and 20th century history
and also a lot to tell us about motherhood.
She was 17 when she married a 23-year-old farmer named Cleo Owens in 1921.
And over the next ten years, they would move to California and have five children together,
three girls and two boys.
Florence was pregnant with their sixth child, Katherine, when Cleo died in 1931 of tuberculosis.
As a single mother with six children, Florence often worked two jobs—picking cotton or
doing other farmwork during the day and then working at restaurants in the evening—to
support her family.
Her children recall her as a loving and devoted mother.
Her daughter Ruby told a reporter, “If she could have gave us all these material things,
maybe she would have, but that I don’t think would have replaced what she did give us.
She gave us a sense of worth that nobody owes us anything.”
Katherine recalled, “She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate.”
By the day the famous picture was taken 1936, Florence had remarried—to a man named Jim
Hill—and had another baby, Norma Lee.
The family was always on the move, driving their Hudson sedan from farm job to farm job.
They were on their way to the lettuce fields of California’s Pajaro Valley when the Hudson’s
timing belt snapped.
They stopped just outside of the pea-pickers’ camp, and Jim and two of the older kids walked
to a nearby town to get a new timing belt.
Meanwhile, Florence set up a lean-to to and cooked food for her kids.
So according to the family, they had not been living on frozen vegetables from the fields,
nor had they sold their tires for food.
Florence’s son Troy would later say, “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t
have any to sell.
The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them.
I don’t believe Lange was lying; I just think she had one story mixed up with another.”
And this is important to understand, because while Florence and her family were extremely
poor, they were better-off than most of the actual “destitute pea-pickers” who were
living in the camp at the time.
Florence would later recall that while she cooked for her children that day, other kids
came over from the camp and asked if they could have a bite or two.
Many of the pea pickers in the camp were Mexican Americans, and because of their ethnicity
they were at constant risk of deportation as part of the so-called “Mexican Repatriation.”
During the Depression Era, over a million Mexican Americans—most of whom were U.S.
citizens—were deported without due process.
Lange photographed some of these people in Nipomo’s pea-pickers camp as well, but it
was Florence and her children who captured the public’s imagination; within a few days
of the picture’s first publication, 20,000 pounds of food aid was delivered to the pea
picker’s camp, but by then Florence and her family had moved on to the lettuce fields.
Florence would continue to find seasonal work until after World War II, when she at last
found a measure of economic stability.
Recalling her career late in life, she said, “I worked in hospitals.
I tended bar.
I worked in the fields.
I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”
She would eventually have eleven children, and in the 1970s, they would pitch in to buy
Florence a house in Modesto, California, but Florence decided she preferred living in a
mobile home, and moved back into one.
In 1983, when Florence was 80, her children made a public appeal for help with Florence’s
She’d had a stroke, and had no savings - a reminder that the uniquely American phenomenon
of medical fundraisers is nothing new.
The appeal raises $35,000, and more than 2,000 people wrote to Florence Owens Thompson.
Her family read her the letters in the hospital, where she died a few weeks later.
Florence and her family had a complicated relationship with the picture.
Norma, the baby in the photograph, said, “When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me.
That’s not how I like to remember her.”
It’s true, the kids acknowledge, that they grew up desperately poor.
They had no toys, picked cotton from a young age, and because they were so often working
had very few educational opportunities.
But that is not the whole story, any more than a single photograph is a whole life.
Florence loved music, her children want us to know.
She was a great storyteller.
She had a dog named Montana Slim, and volunteered as a union organizer.
But they also resist attempts to romanticize poverty or their mother.
In 1992, when an interviewer asked, “When you think about the good things of that period,
what comes to mind?”
Florence’s daughter Katherine, replied, “I don’t have no good memories of that period.
Maybe that's why I blocked most of it out of my mind.
And it was hard for the family to accept that Lange became famous for the photograph while its subjects
continued to struggle so desperately.
As Katherine put it, “That photo never gave mother or us kids any relief.”
But at the end of Florence’s life when the notes poured in from around the country, their
family began to reconsider Migrant Mother.
Now we knew the picture was important. You know we'd been contacted by different people.
And we'd seen it in different magazines. Life Magazine. And newspapers periodically.
I something came up.
But we never really knew how my mom affected the nation.
One donor to the medical fund wrote, “The famous picture of your mother for years gave
me great strength, pride, and dignity--only because she exuded those qualities.”
And as the letters flooded in, Florence’s children, one of whom had described the picture
as a “curse,” began to see it as something more than that.
Florence Owens Thompson didn’t want to be the face of American poverty.
But I don’t think in the end it is a picture of mere poverty.
There were many migrant mothers photographed during the Depression by the Farm Security
Administration’s photographers, including many taken by Dorothea Lange.
What makes this one special is not that its subject is especially pitiful, but instead
its subject’s manifest strength and dignity.
It is a picture of a mother’s fear and a mother’s exhaustion, sure, but also of a
mother’s love and determination.
And so the curse did eventually became a source of pride.
Florence’s kids had her tombstone inscribed, “Migrant Mother: A Legend of the Strength
of American Motherhood.”
And that seems a brilliant summation of the relationship between the famous picture and
its long-unknown subject.
Florence Owens Thompson became a legend of the strength of motherhood and to so many
people then, and to many more today, she is the embodiment of that legend.
But to her eleven children, she was much more.
She was funny, strict, stuck in her ways, loving, hard-working, and supportive.
In short, to them, she wasn’t a legend.
She was their mom.
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