Whose Migrant Mother was this?

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 and desperation. 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 cooked. 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 medical costs. 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. None whatsoever. 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. Thanks to all our Patrons for supporting the Art Assignment. Especially our Grandmasters of the Arts Vincent Apa and Ernest Wolfe. If you want to lean more about our Patreon their is a link in the video info below.


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