You know the photo. You’ve seen it before – we all have. The woman’s strong, hardened face, worn and worried. Her children leaning into her – their mother – the one that is supposed to protect them from harm. Dorothea Lange, the woman behind the camera, called her photo “Migrant Mother.” She took it at a pea-pickers camp in California in 1936.
And the woman in front of the camera? Her name is Florence Owens Thompson, and she was an impoverished mother of ten during the worst decade of her lifetime. But she wasn’t identified until the 1970s. In fact, she despised the photo and felt exploited by it. Thanks to an Associated Press story, the truth finally came out about who she really was.
This is her story…
Before we learn Thompson’s story, it’s essential to understand its context – the kind of situation she found herself in. The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939, and it was the worst economic recession in the history of the industrialized world. It began with the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a fright and wiped out millions of investors.
In the years to come, consumer spending and investment dropped, which meant that there were steep drops in industrial output and employment. By 1933, when the Depression reached its lowest point, about 15 million Americans were unemployed, and about half the banks in the country had failed.
It was a major contrast to the decade prior – the “Roaring Twenties” – when the economy expanded, and the nation’s total wealth doubled between 1920 and 1929. Wall Street’s New York Stock Exchange saw everyone from millionaires to cooks to janitors pouring their savings into stocks. By August 1929, the stock market hit a boiling point.
By that point, production was already on the decline and unemployment on the rise, so stock prices were much higher than their actual value. As the country entered a mild recession in the summer of 1929, stock prices continued to rise. By the fall of that year, stocks reached insanely high levels. A crash was inevitable.
Nervous investors started selling overpriced shares all together, and on October 24, 1929, as some had predicted and feared, the stock market finally crashed. A record 12.9 million shares were traded that day, which came to be known as “Black Thursday.”
Five days later, on October 29, known as “Black Tuesday,” nearly 16 million shares were traded after another wave of panic. Millions of shares proved worthless, and anyone who bought stocks with borrowed money was wiped out entirely. Soon enough, Americans who were forced to buy on credit fell into debt. Despite President Herbert Hoover’s assurances, things continued to worsen. By 1930, four million Americans were unemployed; by 1931, the number had risen to six million.
Meanwhile, industrial production dropped by half. Bread lines, soup kitchens, and homeless people became more and more commonplace all over the country. Farmers, who couldn’t afford to harvest their crops, were forced to leave them rotting in the fields as people elsewhere were starving.
In 1930, harsh droughts in the Southern Plains brought dust from Texas to Nebraska, killing livestock and crops and people. The “Dust Bowl” led to a mass migration of people from the farmlands to the cities searching for work. By the fall of that year, the banking panics began. By 1933, thousands of banks had to close their doors.
The people who were able to get jobs during the Great Depression were women. From 1930 to 1940, the number of employed women in America rose 24 percent (from 10.5 million to 13 million). Women had been entering the workplace for decades, but they were forced to seek work as male breadwinners lost their jobs with the recession.
There was also a 22 percent decline in marriage rates between 1929 and 1939, which created an increase in single women seeking employment. Although the jobs available to women paid less, they were also more stable during the crisis.
Women took up jobs as nurses and teachers, as well as secretaries and cleaners. They were aided by an increase in secretarial roles in FDR’s rapidly expanding government. Those who were married had to face an additional hurdle.
Eventually, by 1940, 26 states instituted restrictions known as marriage bars. Working wives were considered to be taking jobs away from non-disabled men. The irony is that these women worked jobs that men wouldn’t have even wanted to do anyway. While many women were able to find employment, there were many – especially those with multiple young children – who simply didn’t have the luxury…
Susan Sontag famously wrote that “To photograph people is to violate them.” But Dorothea Lange’s photograph of the “Migrant Mother” didn’t infringe on the mother’s personal space or harm her in any way.
The opposite, actually. Her photo was a sign of respect – a photograph that depicted the woman’s soul – with its pain and hardship. It captured the heart of the nation, giving us a look into what life was actually like for the disenfranchised. That was, at least, how Lange and most of the country saw it. The Migrant Mother, on the other hand, didn’t feel the same way. While a picture is worth a thousand words, this one didn’t tell the whole story.
It was a dark, wet afternoon in March of 1936. Dorothea Lange, a 40-year-old photographer, had just completed a month-long assignment chronicling the dilemma of migratory farm laborers in the Los Angeles area. She was driving north on Highway 101 to her home in the Berkeley foothills.
“Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night,” Lange later recalled. “My eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead. I felt freed.” As she passed through Santa Maria, on the border of Nipomo, Lange saw a sign.
It was a makeshift wooden sign on the side of the road that read “Pea-Pickers Camp.” Franklin Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration’s staff photographer had already collected a month’s worth of notes and photographs. But the sign tempted her to pull over to take more pictures.
After a few clicks, she got back in her car and drove away. Twenty minutes later, just before she reached San Luis Obispo, she decided to make a U-turn on the empty highway. It was as if the sign was calling her. At Nipomo, she turned onto a muddy road.
That’s where she discovered a large, filthy campsite with nearly 2,500 migrant farmworkers struggling to beat starvation and the elements. They were only there because they had been lured by newspaper advertisements promising them work in the pea fields.
But there was no work. They were left stranded when lengthy, late-winter rains destroyed the crops. Almost immediately, Lange zeroed in on a woman who was huddled with a handful of children in a tattered, crude tent. “I was following instinct, not reason,” Lange later recalled. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet.”
Mesmerized by the scene, Lange pulled out her Graflex camera and snapped a quick, wide-angle portrait of the ragged family. Over the next 10 minutes, she took five more photos, moving a little bit closer each time.
The final photograph was of the mother’s despair-ridden eyes staring off into the distance. A hand raised to her mouth. Lange then packed up her camera equipment and jotted down a few notes. She spoke briefly to the woman and learned that she was 32 years old. But that was pretty much it.
Lange never asked the woman what her name was nor where she was from, nor how she found herself in this forsaken campsite. What the photographer wanted was now safely concealed on silver nitrate inside her Graflex. Her mission was complete.
“I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers,” she said. “I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.” As Lange returned to her home in Berkeley, the poor woman and her children returned to their own, remarkably different lives. Neither woman realized that the woman’s profound agony with no name that was captured that afternoon would forever be frozen in history.
That sixth image of the Migrant Mother is arguably the most tragically touching photograph in American history archives. In the fateful encounter in Nipomo, Lange’s somber portrait achieved almost mythical status, symbolizing an entire era in the nation’s history.
Roy Emerson Stryker, the head of the New Deal’s photography project, referred to Migrant Mother as the “ultimate” photo of the Depression. “[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture,” he wrote. “The others were marvelous, but that was special. She is immortal.” Yet, as acclaimed as that photo was, it remained a mystery.
Migrant Mother has long remained cloaked in mystery and controversy for decades. For whatever reason – maybe she felt rushed to get home – Lange was uncharacteristically negligent in discovering information about her subject. It simply wasn’t like her.
The little she did record was misleading and factually incorrect. For instance, she noted the dates of the photos in her notes, which were reported as both February and March of 1936. Because of her apparent carelessness, Lange effectually carried out a case of historic deception on the American public, including one specific person.
The person who grew the angriest and the most bitter about Lange’s portrayal was the Migrant Mother herself: Florence Owens Thompson. The Lange photo stamped a “Grapes of Wrath” stereotype (of unjust oppression) on Thompson’s life.
Her life was far more complex and complicated than the American public ever imagined. And it took about four decades for the identity of the woman to be discovered, which is – some might say – another injustice.
It was only in the late 1970s that Thompson’s identity was finally made public when the Associated Press published a story called “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” It turns out that Thompson saw the photo and wrote a letter to her local newspaper editor stating how much she despised the image.
The Associated Press’ story reported that Thompson declared that she felt “exploited” by the portrait. “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture,” she stated. “I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”
Having already dealt with so much pain in her lifetime, the now 60-something woman had to deal with yet another cross to bear. Five years later, Thompson was in the headlines again after having suffered a stroke and passing away soon thereafter in her son’s home in Scotts Valley.
Her obituary, along with Lange’s photographic portrait, appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country. And with it, many of the errors recorded initially by Lange in 1936 resurfaced. Thompson would have indeed been upset by it. Carrying forward her frustration were those she left behind…
Thompson’s children grew increasingly frustrated at the way in which their mother’s legacy was being treated. Her son Troy Owens and two of her daughters, Katherine McIntosh and Norma Rydlewski (who both appeared with their mother in the photograph), decided to set the record straight.
One of the biggest historical inaccuracies furthered by Lange’s photograph was the perception that Florence Owens Thompson and her children were the typical Dust Bowl European refugees who joined the migration to California from the farmlands of the Midwest. Thanks to her children, the world was finally able to learn the full story.
Indeed, the real migrant mother was a native of Oklahoma, but she was also a full-blooded Native American whose family was displaced from tribal lands. She and her first husband, Cleo Leroy Owens, were living in California for most of the 1920s and ‘30s.
She was born Florence Leona Christie in the Indian Territory of the Cherokee Nation on September 1, 1903. Both of her parents claimed blood rights. Her father, Jackson Christie, served time in prison and abandoned her mother, Mary Jane Cobb before Florence was even born.
In 1905, her mother remarried to a man named Charles Akman, of Choctaw descent, and together they raised Florence on a small farm in Indian Territory outside Tahlequah, Oklahoma. For all Florence knew, Akman was her true father.
On February 14, 1921, 17-year-old Florence married 23-year-old Cleo Owens, a farmer’s son from Stone County, Mississippi. Soon enough, their first daughter, Violet, was born, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and then a son, Leroy. By 1926, their family was growing even more, as Florence was pregnant again. They joined other members of the Owens clan and migrated west to Oroville, California.
In California, the family found work in two places: the sawmills of the Sierra foothills and the farmlands of the Sacramento Valley. By the spring of 1931, Florence had given birth to two more children, Troy and Ruby, and was pregnant with her sixth child.
Then, tragedy struck. Her husband died of tuberculosis. Six months later, her daughter Katherine was born. Florence was now widowed with six children, working in the fields during the day and at a restaurant at night – doing what she had to in order to support her family.
Eventually, she became involved with a well-to-do business owner in Oroville. In 1933, she became pregnant by him with her seventh child. But Florence was fearful that she would lose her infant son to the father’s influential family, so she took her kids and fled back to the Akman farm in Oklahoma.
There, she left her newborn son, Charlie, to be raised by his grandparents. As her son, Troy recalled, “Her biggest fear was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life.”
The following year, they embarked on another migration. This time, Florence, her parents, her seven children, and other Akman relatives went from Oklahoma to Shafter, outside of Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley. There, she got involved with another man, James R. Hill.
Hill was a handsome bartender and butcher from Los Angeles. And before she knew it, Florence was pregnant for the eighth time and eventually gave birth to Norma Lee in March of 1935. As for Hill, well, he was a nice man from a respectable family who just never seemed to be able to get his act together.
“I loved my dad dearly,” Norma later said, “but he had little ambition. He was never was able to hold down a job.” As well-meaning as he was, the burden of providing for the family, and keeping it together, fell on Florence’s shoulders.
The years she spent with Hill involved constant movement and the despair that came along with it. They followed the crops throughout the state of California and occasionally went into Arizona. Florence ended up having three more children by Hill. But one of them, Leana, died before her second birthday. Ultimately, Florence was a mother of ten.
Florence, the kids, and Hill were picking beets in the Imperial Valley in March of 1936 before they packed up their belongings into their Hudson sedan and headed north toward Watsonville. They were hoping to find work in the lettuce fields of the Pajaro Valley.
They were driving along Highway 101, near Nipomo, when the timing belt on the Hudson broke, forcing them to pull into the pea picker’s camp to fix it. They were stunned when they saw just how many people were there – over 3,500 when they first arrived. Leroy and Troy were removing the belt of the car and put a hole through the radiator.
The boys had to haul the thing into the town of Nipomo, which happened to be the afternoon that Dorothea Lange arrived at the camp. “I remember that day very clearly,” Troy said. “We had the radiator on an old hand wagon that you guided with ropes.”
He continued: “I remember a hill of some kind just before we reached town because Leroy decided he was going to get on the wagon and ride down it. He ran into a concrete abutment along the road, and he and the radiator went flying, and he got all skinned up.”
The boys eventually got the radiator fixed and rushed back to camp to fix the car. When they got there, “Mama told us there had been this lady who had been taking pictures, but that’s all she told us…. It wasn’t a big deal to her at the time.”
After the boys and Hill fixed up the Hudson, the family made its way to Watsonville. In the field notes that Dorothea Lange filed with her Nipomo photographs from that day, she included the following description: “Seven hungry children. Father is a 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.”
As you can imagine, the family was more than a little bit surprised to find out. Troy, for one, scoffed at the description. “There’s no way we sold our tires because we didn’t have any to sell,” he stated in an interview. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson, and we drove off in them.”
As to what he thought about Lange and her notes, he said he didn’t believe she 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.” Both explanations are entirely possible.
According to Florence’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo (the one who has her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder, her mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions.
This means that whatever Lange wrote, she must have gotten from other people in the camp. Katherine also explained that Lange told her mother that “the negatives would never be published – that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.” It is possible that Lange meant what she told Florence, but the photos were indeed published in the end.
Whether or not Lange intended to keep the photos private, she nevertheless sent the negatives to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, which happened to create a positive result. The photos immediately impacted federal bureaucrats, who quickly rushed 20,000 pounds of food supplies to the pea-picker camp in Nipomo.
However, Lange also gave the photos to the editor of the San Francisco News. They then published a piece, featuring two of the wider-angle exposures, on March 10, 1936, with the heading: “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor.”
The very next day, the Migrant Mother portrait appeared in the News in an editorial titled, “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean to This Mother and Her Child?” By that point, Florence and her family, none the wiser, were camped on the outskirts of Watsonville, in the heart of the Pajaro Valley.
Troy and Leroy, still just boys, tried to make extra cash for the family by selling out-of-town newspapers among the farm community. They happened to be walking through a downtown neighborhood when Troy spotted a newspaper lying on a lawn. Tryo then screamed out, “Mama’s been shot, Mama’s been shot.”
“There was her picture, and it had an ink spot right in the middle of her forehead, and it looked like someone had put a bullet through her,” Troy described. “We both ran back to camp, and, of course, she was OK. We showed her the picture, and she just looked at it. She didn’t say nothin’.”
In a more recent Lange exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curator Sandra Phillips argued that Lange’s photo most likely saved Florence’s “life.” That statement alone made Florence’s children snarl.
“We were already long gone from Nipomo by the time any food was sent there,” said Troy. “That photo may well have saved some peoples’ lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn’t save ours,” Katherine explained that their lives continued to be difficult long after that photograph was taken.
“That photo never gave mother or us kids any relief,” she said. In recent years, these and other photographs in the same archives have come under growing criticism. Many people consider them manipulative and condescending, with a “colonialistic” attitude toward their subjects.
Norma remembers her mother as a woman who loved to enjoy life, “who loved her children. She loved music and dancing. “When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her.” According to Norma, the Depression was obviously hard on them, but it wasn’t all suffering.
She explained that her parents took them to movies a lot and to the carnival whenever it was in town. When they had spare cash, they bought them ice cream. Troy reiterated his sister’s sentiments: “They were tough, tough times, but they were the best times we ever had.”
Florence would go on to marry a hospital administrator named George Thompson after World War II. Her stormy relationship with her famous portrait took an ironic turn in the final months of her life. And she probably wasn’t even aware of it.
In the spring of 1983, at 79 years old, Florence was living by herself in a Modesto trailer that her children bought her, recently diagnosed with cancer. Before her doctors could operate on her, she needed surgery on her arteries to increase her blood circulation. It was that surgery that resulted in her stroke.
Florence was sent to a nursing home, where her children hoped she would be able to regain her strength. But she only got weaker. Troy decided to take her into his own home in Scotts Valley, figuring that his care would nurse her back to health. However, she just kept on deteriorating.
By mid-summer, she required round-the-clock nursing care that cost over $1,400 a week. The family simply couldn’t afford it. Troy decided to issue a plea to the public to raise funds. He turned to Jack Foley of the San Jose Mercury News, who then wrote a story about Florence’s predicament.
It gained national attention, and more than $35,000 poured into a special Migrant Mother Fund, most of which was in the form of crumpled dollar bills from all across the country. A good deal of the money, though, came from the farm towns of the San Joaquin Valley – Fresno, Wasco, Tulare, Selma, Visalia – the place Florence called home for most of her life.
One woman wrote, “The famous picture of your mother for years gave me great strength, pride, and dignity–only because she exuded those qualities so.” Another anonymous note with a check for $10 included the note, “Enclosed is a check for $10 to assist the woman whose face gave and still gives eloquent expression to the need our country still has not met.”
About 2,000 letters arrived. The response was overwhelming, which forced the Owens-Hill children to reconsider the portrait of their mother. They now saw how much it affected people. “None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama’s photo affected people,” said Troy.
He explained how from their perspective, the photo “had always been a bit of curse.” But after seeing the effect it had on people all over the country, it gave them a “sense of pride.” As for Florence, she never fully recovered from her stroke. She was able to open her eyes, but she couldn’t speak.
On September 16, 1983, just a few weeks after her 80th birthday, Florence Thompson died at her son’s home. Right before she died, as recalled by her nurse, Sarah Wood Smith, “she opened her eyes and looked right at me. It was the most conscious she had been in a long time.”
Smith went to get the family, giving them those final, special moments with their dying mother. They got to hold her, kiss her cheek, and stroke her hair. They told her how much they loved her before she took her last breath. “It was a beautiful, very peaceful moment. It felt very complete,” said Smith.
Florence Thompson was buried in a cemetery in Empire, California. Her gravestone reads: “Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”