The Art Assignment

S6 E9 | FULL EPISODE

Whose Migrant Mother was this?

Dorothea Lange captured this iconic photo known as Migrant Mother in 1936. But who was the woman pictured? And how did she and her family feel about its existence in the world? Guest host John Green introduces you to Florence Owens Thompson, her family, and her story.

AIRED: August 14, 2019 | 0:10:59
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TRANSCRIPT

this is one of the world's most famous

this is one of the world's most famous photographs it's commonly known as

photographs it's commonly known as migrant mother and it was taken by

migrant mother and it was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 during the Great

Dorothea Lange in 1936 during the Great Depression in the u.s. Library of

Depression in the u.s. Library of Congress the photograph is labeled as

Congress the photograph is labeled as destitute pea Pickers in California and

destitute pea Pickers in California and there are two stories here the story of

there are two stories here the story of the photograph which has been famous

the photograph which has been famous since 1936 and the story of its subject

since 1936 and the story of its subject who was as it turns out not a pea picker

who was as it turns out not a pea picker and whose identity wasn't known until

and whose identity wasn't known until the late 1970s but let's begin with the

the late 1970s but let's begin with the photograph which was printed in

photograph which was printed in newspapers in 1936 and helped spur a

newspapers in 1936 and helped spur a relief movement that saved many people

relief movement that saved many people from starvation since then it's become

from starvation since then it's become one of the most reproduced images in

one of the most reproduced images in history it's been on a postage stamp

history it's been on a postage stamp t-shirts magazine covers the picture is

t-shirts magazine covers the picture is ubiquitous partly because it isn't

ubiquitous partly because it isn't copyrighted it was taken as part of

copyrighted it was taken as part of Lange's work with the Farm Security

Lange's work with the Farm Security Administration so it's in the public

Administration so it's in the public domain meaning that anyone can recreate

domain meaning that anyone can recreate it for any reason without paying

it for any reason without paying royalties

royalties hence the existence of for example the

hence the existence of for example the 1000 piece migrant mother jigsaw puzzle

1000 piece migrant mother jigsaw puzzle but lots of depression-era images are in

but lots of depression-era images are in the public domain

the public domain this one has stuck with us because it's

this one has stuck with us because it's you know brilliant the mother's worried

you know brilliant the mother's worried eyes the kids turned away from us the

eyes the kids turned away from us the rough textures of their clothes

rough textures of their clothes contrasted with human skin it takes a

contrasted with human skin it takes a moment even to notice the swaddled baby

moment even to notice the swaddled baby and for me at least that's when the real

and for me at least that's when the real weight of the picture hits three kids

weight of the picture hits three kids literally leaning on their mom and her

literally leaning on their mom and her eyes are carrying all that weight Lange

eyes are carrying all that weight Lange took six other photographs of the mom

took six other photographs of the mom and her children on that day which give

and her children on that day which give us a small sense of what the area

us a small sense of what the area outside the famous photograph looked

outside the famous photograph looked like on March 6 1936 the migrant mother

like on March 6 1936 the migrant mother and her kids were just outside of a pea

and her kids were just outside of a pea Pickers camp many years later in 1960

Pickers camp many years later in 1960 Lange wrote about the moment in popular

Lange wrote about the moment in popular photography magazine I saw and

photography magazine I saw and approached the hungry and desperate

approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet I do not

mother as if drawn by a magnet I do not remember how I explained my presence or

remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do remember she

my camera to her but I do remember she asked me no questions I'd

asked me no questions I'd not ask her name or her history she told

not ask her name or her history she told me her age that she was 32 she said that

me her age that she was 32 she said that they had been living on frozen

they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields

vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed

and birds that the children killed she had just sold the tires from her car

she had just sold the tires from her car to buy food there she sat in that

to buy food there she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled

lean-to tent with her children huddled around her and seemed to know that my

around her and seemed to know that my pictures might help her and so she

pictures might help her and so she helped me there was a sort of a quality

helped me there was a sort of a quality about it but Florence Owens Thompson the

about it but Florence Owens Thompson the woman depicted in the photograph did not

woman depicted in the photograph did not feel there was a sort of equality about

feel there was a sort of equality about it and remembered the encounter quite

it and remembered the encounter quite differently when Thompson was identified

differently when Thompson was identified more than 40 years after the picture was

more than 40 years after the picture was taken

taken she told the newspaper reporter I wish

she told the newspaper reporter I wish she hadn't taken my picture the

she hadn't taken my picture the photograph became a symbol of the

photograph became a symbol of the depression in the United States and the

depression in the United States and the suffering had caused especially among

suffering had caused especially among farmworkers a single image that could

farmworkers a single image that could represent something deep about

represent something deep about motherhood and resilience and poverty

motherhood and resilience and poverty and desperation but the photographs

and desperation but the photographs symbolic resonance is very distant from

symbolic resonance is very distant from the lived experience of the people

the lived experience of the people captured in that picture the migrant

captured in that picture the migrant mother was not as the photo's caption

mother was not as the photo's caption identified her a destitute pea picker

identified her a destitute pea picker florence leona christie was born in 1903

florence leona christie was born in 1903 she was a Native American born to

she was a Native American born to Cherokee parents in what was at the time

Cherokee parents in what was at the time called Indian Territory it wouldn't

called Indian Territory it wouldn't become the state of Oklahoma until 1907

become the state of Oklahoma until 1907 the life she lived has a lot to tell us

the life she lived has a lot to tell us about the United States and 20th century

about the United States and 20th century history and also a lot to tell us about

history and also a lot to tell us about motherhood she was 17 when she married a

motherhood she was 17 when she married a 23 year old farmer named Cleo Owens in

23 year old farmer named Cleo Owens in 1921 and over the next 10 years they

1921 and over the next 10 years they would move to California and have five

would move to California and have five children together three girls and two

children together three girls and two boys Florence was pregnant with their

boys Florence was pregnant with their sixth child Catherine when Cleo died in

sixth child Catherine when Cleo died in 1931 of tuberculosis as a single mother

1931 of tuberculosis as a single mother with six kids Florence often worked two

with six kids Florence often worked two jobs picking cotton or doing other farm

jobs picking cotton or doing other farm work during the day and then working at

work during the day and then working at restaurants in the evening to support

restaurants in the evening to support her family her children recall her as a

her family her children recall her as a loving and devoted mother her daughter

loving and devoted mother her daughter Ruby told a reporter

Ruby told a reporter she could've gave us all these material

she could've gave us all these material things maybe she would have but that I

things maybe she would have but that I don't think would have replace what she

don't think would have replace what she did give us she gave us all of sense of

did give us she gave us all of sense of worth that nobody owes us anything

worth that nobody owes us anything Katherine were called she didn't eat

Katherine were called she didn't eat sometimes but she made sure us children

sometimes but she made sure us children ate by the day the famous picture was

ate by the day the famous picture was taken in 1936 Florence had remarried to

taken in 1936 Florence had remarried to a man named Jim Hill and had another

a man named Jim Hill and had another baby

baby normally the family was always on the

normally the family was always on the move driving their Hudson sedan from

move driving their Hudson sedan from farm job to farm job they were on their

farm job to farm job they were on their way to the lettuce fields of

way to the lettuce fields of California's Paro Valley when the

California's Paro Valley when the Hudsons timing belt snapped they stopped

Hudsons timing belt snapped they stopped just outside of that people's camps and

just outside of that people's camps and Jim and two of the older kids walked to

Jim and two of the older kids walked to a nearby town to get a new timing belt

a nearby town to get a new timing belt meanwhile Florence set up a lean-to and

meanwhile Florence set up a lean-to and cooked food for her kids so according to

cooked food for her kids so according to the family they had not been living on

the family they had not been living on frozen vegetables from the fields nor

frozen vegetables from the fields nor had they sold their tyres for food

had they sold their tyres for food Florence's son Troy would later say

Florence's son Troy would later say there's no way we sold our tires because

there's no way we sold our tires because we didn't have any to sell the only ones

we didn't have any to sell the only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove

we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them

off in them I don't believe Lange was lying I just

I don't believe Lange was lying I just think she had one story mixed up with

think she had one story mixed up with another and this is important to

another and this is important to understand because while Florence and

understand because while Florence and her family were extremely poor they were

her family were extremely poor they were better off than most of the actually

better off than most of the actually destitute pea Pickers who were living in

destitute pea Pickers who were living in that camp at the time Florence would

that camp at the time Florence would later recall that while she cooked for

later recall that while she cooked for her children that day other kids came

her children that day other kids came over from the camp and asked if they

over from the camp and asked if they could have a bite or two many of the

could have a bite or two many of the people's in the camp were Mexican

people's in the camp were Mexican Americans and because of their ethnicity

Americans and because of their ethnicity they were at constant risk of

they were at constant risk of deportation as part of the so called

deportation as part of the so called Mexican repatriation during the

Mexican repatriation during the Depression era over a million

Depression era over a million mexican-americans most of whom were US

mexican-americans most of whom were US citizens were deported without due

citizens were deported without due process

process playing photographs some of those people

playing photographs some of those people in Nipomo speakers camp as well but it

in Nipomo speakers camp as well but it was Florence and her children who

was Florence and her children who captured the public's imagination within

captured the public's imagination within a few days of the pictures first

a few days of the pictures first publication 20,000 pounds of food aid

publication 20,000 pounds of food aid was delivered to the P pictures camp but

was delivered to the P pictures camp but by then Florence and her family had

by then Florence and her family had moved on to the lettuce fields Florence

moved on to the lettuce fields Florence would continue to find seasonal work

would continue to find seasonal work until after World

until after World - when she had last found a measure of

- when she had last found a measure of economic stability recalling her career

economic stability recalling her career late in life she said I worked in

late in life she said I worked in hospitals our ten bar I cooked I worked

hospitals our ten bar I cooked I worked in the field I'd done a little bit of

in the field I'd done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids

everything to make a living for my kids she would eventually have eleven

she would eventually have eleven children and in the 1970s they would

children and in the 1970s they would pitch in to buy Florence a house in

pitch in to buy Florence a house in Modesto California but Florence decided

Modesto California but Florence decided she preferred living in a mobile home

she preferred living in a mobile home and so moved back into one in 1983 when

and so moved back into one in 1983 when Florence was 80 her children made a

Florence was 80 her children made a public appeal for help with Florence's

public appeal for help with Florence's medical cost she'd had a stroke and had

medical cost she'd had a stroke and had no savings a reminder that the uniquely

no savings a reminder that the uniquely American phenomenon of medical

American phenomenon of medical fundraisers is nothing new the appeal

fundraisers is nothing new the appeal raised $35,000 and more than 2,000

raised $35,000 and more than 2,000 people wrote to Florence Owens Thompson

people wrote to Florence Owens Thompson her family read her the letters in the

her family read her the letters in the hospital where she died a few weeks

hospital where she died a few weeks later Florence and her family had a

later Florence and her family had a complicated relationship with the

complicated relationship with the picture Norma the baby in the photograph

picture Norma the baby in the photograph said when I look at that photo of mother

said when I look at that photo of mother it saddens me that's not how I like to

it saddens me that's not how I like to remember her it's true the kids

remember her it's true the kids acknowledged that they grew up

acknowledged that they grew up desperately poor

desperately poor they had no toys picked cotton from a

they had no toys picked cotton from a young age and because they were so often

young age and because they were so often working had very few educational

working had very few educational opportunities but that's not the whole

opportunities but that's not the whole story any more than a single photograph

story any more than a single photograph is a whole life

is a whole life Florence loved music her children want

Florence loved music her children want us to know she was a great storyteller

us to know she was a great storyteller she had a dog named Montana slim and

she had a dog named Montana slim and volunteered as a union organizer but

volunteered as a union organizer but they also resist attempts to romanticize

they also resist attempts to romanticize poverty or their mother in 1992 when an

poverty or their mother in 1992 when an interviewer asked when you think about

interviewer asked when you think about the good things of that period what

the good things of that period what comes to mind

comes to mind Florence's daughter Catherine replied I

Florence's daughter Catherine replied I don't have no big memories of that

don't have no big memories of that period none whatsoever

period none whatsoever maybe that's why I black most over doubt

maybe that's why I black most over doubt in my mind and it was hard for the

in my mind and it was hard for the family to accept that Lange became

family to accept that Lange became famous for the photograph while its

famous for the photograph while its subjects continued to struggle so

subjects continued to struggle so desperately as Katherine put it that

desperately as Katherine put it that photo never gave mother or us kids any

photo never gave mother or us kids any relief but at the end of Florence's life

relief but at the end of Florence's life when the notes poured in from around the

when the notes poured in from around the country their family began to reconsider

country their family began to reconsider migrant mother

migrant mother no we knew that the picture was

no we knew that the picture was important we knew that you know we'd

important we knew that you know we'd been contacted by different people we'd

been contacted by different people we'd seen in magazines and in Life magazine

seen in magazines and in Life magazine and in the newspapers periodically if

and in the newspapers periodically if something came up but we never really

something came up but we never really knew how my mom affected the nation one

knew how my mom affected the nation one donor to the Medical Fund wrote the

donor to the Medical Fund wrote the famous picture of your mother for years

famous picture of your mother for years gave me great strength pride and dignity

gave me great strength pride and dignity only because she exuded those qualities

only because she exuded those qualities and as the letters flooded in Florence's

and as the letters flooded in Florence's children one of whom had described the

children one of whom had described the picture as a curse began to see it as

picture as a curse began to see it as something more than that

something more than that Florence Owens Thompson didn't want to

Florence Owens Thompson didn't want to be the face of American poverty but I

be the face of American poverty but I don't think in the end it's a picture of

don't think in the end it's a picture of mere poverty there were many migrant

mere poverty there were many migrant mothers photographed during the

mothers photographed during the Depression by the Farm Security

Depression by the Farm Security Administration's photographers including

Administration's photographers including many taken by Dorothea Lange what makes

many taken by Dorothea Lange what makes this one special is not that its subject

this one special is not that its subject is especially pitiful but instead its

is especially pitiful but instead its subjects manifest strength and dignity

subjects manifest strength and dignity it's a picture of a mother's fear and a

it's a picture of a mother's fear and a mother's exhaustion sure but also of a

mother's exhaustion sure but also of a mother's love and determination and so

mother's love and determination and so the curse did eventually become a source

the curse did eventually become a source of pride Florence's kids had her

of pride Florence's kids had her tombstone inscribed migrant mother a

tombstone inscribed migrant mother a legend of the strength of American

legend of the strength of American motherhood and that seems to me a

motherhood and that seems to me a brilliant summation of the relationship

brilliant summation of the relationship between the famous picture and its long

between the famous picture and its long unknown subject forints Owens Thompson

unknown subject forints Owens Thompson became a legend of the strength of

became a legend of the strength of motherhood and to so many people then

motherhood and to so many people then and to many more today she is the

and to many more today she is the embodiment of that legend but to her 11

embodiment of that legend but to her 11 children she was much more she was funny

children she was much more she was funny strict stuck in her ways loving

strict stuck in her ways loving hard-working and supportive in short to

hard-working and supportive in short to them she wasn't the legend she was their

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