It’s one of the most iconic photos in American history. A woman in ragged clothes holds a baby as two other children come closer, hiding their faces behind her shoulders. The mother narrowed her eyes in the distance, a hand raised towards her mouth and an anxiety engraved deep in the lines of her face.
As soon as it appeared in the pages of a San Francisco newspaper in March 1936, the image known as the “Migrant Mother” came to symbolize the hunger, poverty and despair endured by so many Americans during the Great Depression . Photographer Dorothea Lange had taken the photo, along with a series of others, a few days earlier at a migrant farm worker camp in Nipomo, California.
Lange worked for the Federal Resettlement Administration – later the Farm Security Administration (FSA) – Creation of a New Deal era agency to help struggling farm workers. She and other FSA photographers are said to be taking nearly 80,000 photographs for the organization between 1935 and 1944, helping many Americans wake up the plight of thousands of displaced people in the drought-ravaged region known as Dust Bowl.
How the photo was taken
WATCH: The photo of the “migrant mother”
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if attracted by a magnet”, Lange Told Popular photography magazine in 1960. She spotted a sign indicating the migrant workers’ camp traveling north on Highway 101 through San Luis Obispo County, about 175 miles north of Los Angeles. Bad weather had destroyed the local pea harvest and the pickers were out of work, many of them on the verge of starvation.
Lange did not ask for the woman’s name or find out her story. She said that the woman told her that she was 32 years old, that she and her children lived on frozen vegetables and birds that the children had killed and that she had just sold the tires in her car to buy the food.
Shortly after the publication of the photos in the San Francisco News, the US government has announced that it is sending 20,000 pounds of food to the pea picker campsite. But by the time he arrived, the still anonymous woman and her family were gone. Although her image has been widely reprinted and reproduced on everything from magazine covers to postage stamps, the “Migrant Mother” herself seems to have disappeared.
The real “migrant mother”
Then in 1978 a woman named Florence Owens Thompson wrote a letter to the editor of Modesto Bee newspaper. She was the mother of the famous photo of “Migrant Mother,” said Thompson – and wanted to set the record straight.
In an Associated Press article that follows, titled “A Woman Who Fights a Photo of a Famous Depression,” Thompson told a reporter that she felt “exploited” by the portrait of Lange. Like Geoffrey Dunn wrote in the San Luis Obispo New Times in 2002 Thompson and his children challenged other details in Lange’s account and sought to dispel the image of themselves as stereotypical refugees from the Dust Bowl.
Born in Oklahoma, Thompson was in fact a full blood Native American; both of her parents were Cherokee. In the mid-1920s, she and her first husband, Cleo Owens, moved to California, where they found a mill and agricultural work. Cléo died of tuberculosis in 1931, and Florence was left to care for six children while picking up cotton and other crops.
When Bill Ganzel, a photographer for Nebraska public television, interviewed and photographed Thompson in 1979, she told him that, as a young mother, she generally picked up about 450 to 500 pounds of cotton a day, leaving the house before daylight and returning home after nightfall. “We just existed,” she said. “We survived, let’s say it this way.”
When Lange found her at Nipomo that day in March 1936, she had two other children and lived with a man named Jim Hill, the father of her little daughter Norma. After their car broke down on the way to find work to pick lettuce, the family was forced to withdraw to the pea picker camp.
Two of Florence’s older sons were in town when the iconic photo was taken, repairing the car’s radiator. One of them, Troy Owens, categorically denied that his mother sold his tires to buy food, as Lange had claimed. “I don’t think Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had a story mixed with another”, Troy said Dunn. “Or she was borrowing to fill what she didn’t have.”
Life after the famous photo
The family continued to move after Nipomo, following agricultural work from place to place, and Florence would have three more children. After the Second World War, she moved to Modesto, California, and married George Thompson, a hospital administrator.
In 1983, five years after claiming his identity as a “migrant mother”, Thompson lived alone in a caravan. She suffered from cancer and heart problems, and at one point her children had to ask for donations for her medical expenses. According to Dunn, thousands of letters poured in, as well as more than $ 35,000 in contributions.
Florence Owens Thompson died in September 1983, just after her 80th birthday, ending a life marked by economic hardship, maternal sacrifices and human dignity.
READ MORE: How the dust bowl made American refugees in their own country
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