My experience on a clean-up at Lollapalooza this past weekend has helped to remind me of that iconic Dorothea Lange photograph that became known as Migrant Mother.
Dorothea Lange was contracted by the Farm Security Administration from 1935 to 1939 to bring to the nation’s attention the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers. Lange was funded by the federal government and had no rights to the pictures nor did she collect royalties. The Library of Congress titled the photo “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” Lange’s own notes were sketchy and riddled with errors. In 10 minutes she took 6 images and left. She never got the subjects names—only the woman’s age, 32.
It was a photograph that would change lives.
Notices had been sent out for pickers but when the workers showed up they learned the pea harvest had been destroyed by freezing rain. There would be no harvest nor wages for the 2,500 to 3,500 in the migrant camp already starving. Within days, the response from the sorrowful photo rallied the public and the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government.
The anonymous family in the picture by then was long gone. One of the things Lange got wrong was that the woman and her children were waiting in the camp for her husband and the men folk to come back with parts to fix their broken down truck. True enough she was a migrant worker, just not at that camp. Lange photographed the woman and her 5 children—truth be told she had a total of 10.
It took 45 years for someone to think about tracking down the woman and identifying her. In 1978, a reporter from the Modesto Bee found the Migrant Mother in a trailer park outside Modesto, California.This from Wikipedia:
Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on September 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. Her father, Jackson Christie, had abandoned her mother, Mary Jane Cobb, before Florence was born, and her mother remarried Charles Akman (of Choctaw descent) in spring, 1905. The family lived on a small farm in Indian Territory outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
17 year-old Florence married Cleo Owens (a 23 year-old farmer's son from Stone County, Mississippi) 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 other Owens’ relatives to Oroville, California where they worked in the saw mills and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley. By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when her husband Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence subsequently worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933 Florence had another child, returned to Oklahoma for a time, and then was joined by her parents as they migrated to Shafter, California north of Bakersfield. There Florence met Jim Hill, with whom she had three more children. During the 1930s the family worked as migrant farm workers following the crops in California, and sometimes into Arizona. Florence would later recall times in which she would pick 400-500 pounds of cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to work. 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.”
The family settled in Modesto, California in 1945. Well after World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson, which, compared to the previous years of toil, brought more security.
That is sure one hard-luck story. Right out of the pages of The Grapes of Wrath. She had one of the most recognizable faces and yet no one knew who she was. She was a famous model and yet was able to live under the radar for years.
The reporter asked Thompson about the life she eked out for her family. She spoke plainly, with no sentimentality. “We just existed,’ she said. “Anyway, we lived. We survived, let’s put it that way.”
It is a picture that depicts very little hope and a lot of hard work. That’s what I observed on the faces of the women sent out to clear the grounds of Lollapalooza. Tiny little migrant women in trash-filled fields after all the thousands of concert-goers had vacated. I recognized those furrowed brows and the look of suffering on their faces.
I didn’t catch their names.