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The Migrant Mother- The personal story of the lady in the Iconic Great Depresion Photo …

Anyone who has seen anything regarding the Great Depression of the 1930s is familiar with the Dorthea Lange photo depicting a poor migrant woman surrounded by her children who are dressed in rags.

The subject was Florence Leona Christie Thompson who was born on 1 September 1903 in Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma.

Her parents, Jackson Christie and Mary Jane Cobb, separated before Florence was born and in 1905 Mary Jane married a Choctaw Indian, Charles Ackerman. The family lived on a small farm near Tahlequah.

Florence Owens Thompson
Florence Owens Thompson with her kids

When Florence was seventeen, she married twenty-three-year-old Cleo Owens, a Stone County Missouri farmer’s son on Valentine’s Day of 1921. They had three children together, two girls, Viola and Violet and a son, Leroy.

When Owen’s family decided to move to California Florence, Cleo and the children went as well.

Florence Owens Thompson montage by Dorothea Lange
Florence Owens Thompson montage by Dorothea Lange

They worked in the Sacramento Valley at the local sawmill and on various farms. In 1931, when Florence was pregnant with their sixth child, Cleo died from tuberculosis. In order to support her children, Florence was forced to work in restaurants and in the fields.

By 1933, Florence had moved back to Oklahoma and another child fathered by a local businessman had come along.  Fearing that she would lose custody of the baby boy, she, her children and her parents migrated to Shafter, California where she met Jim Hill.

Florence and Jim had three children together and lived the life of migrant workers in California and Arizona.

Florence Owens Thompson with Children, Nipomo, California (1936)
Florence Owens Thompson with Children, Nipomo, California (1936)

In an interview given later in life, Florence remembered picking almost five hundred pounds of cotton from sunup until after dark.

In 2008, Florence’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, told CNN that her mother would put the baby in a sack and drag it along as she picked cotton.  “We would pick the cotton and pile it up in front of her, and she’d come along and pick it up and put it in her [empty] sack.”  The family lived in tents and in their car.

When they stayed somewhere long enough for the children to attend school, they were teased by the other children for not being clean and well dressed. “They’d tell you, ‘Go home and take a bath.’ You couldn’t very well take a bath when you’re out in a car [with] nowhere to go.  We’d go home and cry.”

When the family was traveling to a job picking lettuce in Pajaro Valley, their car broke down near a pea field in Nipomo Mesa that had been destroyed by freezing rain.

While Jim and two of the older boys walked into town to get the car radiator fixed, Florence and the children set up camp.

Over two thousand others had responded to the call for pea pickers but found themselves camped near the field with no work and no food.

It was at this time that professional photographer, Dorthea Lange, was traveling through Nipomo on an assignment for the Resettlement Administration.

In the Camp with Baby (1936)
In the Camp with Baby (1936)

She had been taking photographs of migrant workers and was on her way home to Berkeley when she passed the pea field. After driving twenty more miles, she decided to turn around and take more pictures at the camp.

According to McIntosh, who was four years old at the time, “She asked my mother if she could take her picture — that … her name would never be published, but it was to help the people in the plight that we were all in, the hard times, so mother let her take the picture, because she thought it would help.”  Lange took six pictures and her notes consisted of: Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.  Lange later wrote:  I did not ask her name or her history.

She told me her age, that she was 32. 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.  According to Florence’s son Troy, “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 Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

The pictures were sent to the San Francisco News and to the Resettlement Administration in Washington DC.

The newspaper published the sixth picture in the next day’s edition with a report that thousands of starving migrant workers were camped in Nipomo.

Within a few days, twenty thousand pounds of food arrived at the camp from the federal government but Florence and her family had already moved on. McIntosh recounts, “The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times were.”

People was starving in that camp. There was no food,” she says. “We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.  The picture was always talked about in our family.  It always stayed with her.”

She always wanted a better life, you know.  She was the backbone of our family,” McIntosh says of her mother. “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.”

The photo became famous. Photographer Roy Emerson Stryker referred to the photo as the “ultimate” photo of the Depression Era: “[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture …

The others were marvelous, but that was special …

In the camp, Nipomo , California (1936)
In the camp, Nipomo , California (1936)

She is immortal.” Fellow photographer, Edward Steichen described them as “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.”

By 1945, Florence and Jim had parted ways and she had settled in Modesto, California.  Florence married hospital administrator, George Thompson and finally enjoyed financial security. In 1978, Emmett Corrigan, a reporter for The Modesto Bee, discovered the identity of the Migrant Mother.

He found Florence living in her mobile home in Modesto and even after forty years, he immediately recognized her as the subject of the famed picture.

She had written a letter which was circulated by the Associated Press titled “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.”  Florence complained, “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

The photos were owned by the Resettlement Administration and therefore public domain, which meant Lange never received any royalties. They did, however, make Lange famous and a respected member of the professional photography community.

In 1998, the photo was turned into a US Postage Stamp in the Celebrate the Century series. The stamp received additional attention because McIntosh and her sister, Norma were still alive at the time. The Postal Service normally waits at least ten years after the death of an individual to print a picture on a stamp.

Later in 1998, a signed print with Lange’s notes on the back sold for $244,500 at Sotheby’s Auction in New York.

Lange’s personal copy sold from Christie’s Auction in New York for $141,500 in November of 2002.  Additionally, thirty-two original photographs by Lange found in a dumpster at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce by Bill Hendrie in the late 1960s sold from Southby’s Auction for $296,000 in 2005.

In August 1983, Florence suffered a stroke and needed around the clock care. In order to pay for a nurse, her children publicly asked for financial help and received about $35,000 in donations. On September 16, 1983, Florence died surrounded by her family of more than 100 including grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

She was buried next to George Thompson in Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson, California. Carved on her marker is “Florence Leona Thompson – Migrant Mother: A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”

McIntosh told CNN that the photo’s fame had  shamed the family and resolved them never to be as poor again.

Here’s another story from us: The Lord who faked his funeral, later caned his wife for not crying over his death

She and her brother, Troy said that the more than 2,000 letters received along with donations for his mother’s medical fund led to the family’s re-appraisal of the photo: “For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of a curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”

Neil Patrick

Neil Patrick is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News