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Migrant Mother

May 5, 2013

 

On May 10, 1908, Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia. Neither a wife nor a mother herself, Anna wanted to encourage Americans to honor the women who are the strength of the nation. When the holiday became so quickly commercialized, Jarvis protested. The sale of cards and flowers and the proliferation of Mother’s Day advertising, detracted from Anna’s initial vision of a simple day to express gratitude for our mothers and grandmothers.

Arthur Brisbane, a famous newspaper editor, gave this advice to his fellow journalists, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Picture a woman whose face you have seen and probably recognize. She is not a famous celebrity; neither a beauty queen, nor a film star. When she gave permission for her most familiar photograph, she was not strutting on a red carpet. She was under a makeshift tent, nursing the youngest of her seven children. Though the photograph became an immediate success, the mother in the picture never received any compensation. For the photographer, the picture brought fame. For the woman pictured and her family it became a source of shame.

The thirty-two-year-old mother could have been on the cover of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Her story is similar to that of Steinbeck’s Ma Joad. The mother of six, Ma is a poor but strong woman married to a tenant farmer. Driven from their Oklahoma home by the Dust Bowl drought, the Joads set out for California.

In 1936, three years before Steinbeck published his work of fiction, Dorothea Lange snapped several black and white photographs of a destitute mother with three of her children. Lange worked for the United States Government Resettlement Administration as a photographer. While visiting a migrant workers’ camp near Nipomo, California, she captured the picture that made her famous.

Lange selected one of the pictures to send to the San Francisco News. The newspaper printed the picture immediately, along with the caption that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California. Within days, the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. By the time the shipment arrived, the young mother and her family had moved on to another camp.

The iconic portrait of an American mother living on the brink of starvation was entitled “Migrant Mother.” As an illustration of severe poverty, the worried and worn woman in the picture unwittingly became the face of the Great Depression.

Because Lange had been funded by the federal government when she took the picture, the image was always in the public domain. As a collection, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography. Ken Burns included many in his recent The Dust Bowl, a documentary film which aired on the Public Broadcasting System. The film recounts the impact of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This picture appears in the episode entitled “Reaping the Whirlwind,” a phrase taken from the Old Testament book of Job.

The connection to Job’s suffering is appropriate. The Library of Congress entitled the image, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

In Lange’s field notes preserved with the photograph in the Library of Congress, she recorded that the young mother and her family were “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.” Lange later wrote of the meeting:  “I did not ask her name or her history.”

Who was the mysterious woman in the mythical portrait?

Because Lange failed to get the woman’s name, it was more than forty years later that the woman in the picture told her story. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Florence Owens Thompson at her mobile home in the Modesto Mobile Village. He recognized her from the forty-year-old photograph.

Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on Sept. 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her father had abandoned her mother before Florence was born. Her mother remarried Charles Akman who was of Choctaw descent. The family lived on a small farm outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

At age seventeen, Florence married Cleo Owens on February 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy. The family migrated west with relatives to California. Cleo worked at a sawmill and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley.

By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933 Florence had another child. She became the common-law wife of Jim Hill.

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Florence and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville where they hoped to find work in the lettuce fields.  On the road, their automobile broke down, and they coasted to a stop at the crowded migrant camp on Nipomo Mesa.  The crops had been destroyed by freezing rain.

Florence remembered setting up a temporary camp and cooking vegetables that had been frozen in the field for her children while her husband and two of her sons worked to repair the car. It was then that Dorothea Lange drove up and started taking photos including the one that bears witness to the deprivation and suffering of the Great Depression.

During the 1930s the family labored as migrant farm workers following the crops in California. Florence would later recall picking cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to see. She added, “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.”

Florence and Jim Hill had three more children.

The family settled in Modesto, California in 1945. After World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson.

In a television interview with Cable News Network (CNN), daughter Katherine McIntosh, remembered her mother as a strong lady who was the backbone of the family.  She said, “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. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her. She loved music, and she loved to dance.”

In 1998, the photo of “Migrant Mother” became a 32-cent postage stamp in the 1930s Celebrate the Century series. In the same month the stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold at auction for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York. Florence, the woman in the picture, never got one red cent.

Florence died on September 16, 1983. She was buried in Hughson, California.

Her epitaph reads:

FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON
Migrant Mother
A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood

Anna Jarvis had the right idea. On Mother’s Day we celebrate with gratitude the women who, like Florence, have been the strength of our nation.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2013
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