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Migrant Mother -- Background

This relates to the Challenge: History through Photos (https://mycommunity.ywpvt.org/node/281) 

This is the transcript of the recording of Florence Owens Thompson, the woman pictured here in Dorothea Lange's iconic taken in 1936 when Ms. Thompson was camped near a pea farm during the Great Depression and had been a migrant worker, picking vegetables and cotton wherever she could, to keep her family alive.

"I left Oklahoma in 1925 and went to Oroville [California]. That's where them three girls' dad [Cleo] died, in Oroville, 1931. And I was 28 years old [in 1931], and I had five kids and that one [the baby in this photo, Norma] was on the road. She never even saw her daddy. She was born after he died. It was very hard. And cheap. I picked cotton in Firebaugh, when that girl there was about two years old, I picked cotton in Firebaugh for 50-cents a hundred."

Question: "A 'hundred' [meaning] weight?"

"A hundred pounds."

Question: "How much could you pick in a day, then?"

"I generally picked around 450, 500. I didn't even weigh a hundred pounds. I lived down there in Shafter, and I'd leave home before daylight and come in after dark. We just existed! Anyway, we lived. We survived, let's put it that way. I walked from what they called a Hoover camp ground right there at the bridge [in Bakersfield], I walked from there to way down on First Street, and worked at a penny a dish down there for 50-cents a day and the leftovers. Yeah, they give me what was leftover to take home with me. Sometimes, I'd carry home two water buckets full.

     "Well, [in 1936] we started from L.A. to Watsonville. And the timing chain broke on my car. And I had a guy to pull into this pea camp in Nipomo. I started to cook dinner for my kids, and all the little kids around the camp came in. 'Can I have a bite? Can I have a bite?' And they was hungry, them people was. And I got my car fixed, and I was just getting ready to pull out when she [Dorothea Lange] come back and snapped my picture.

"I come to this town [Modesto] in 1945. I transferred from Whittier State to Modesto. And when this hospital opened up out here, I went to work there. And the first eight years I lived in this town, I worked 16 hours out of 24. Eight-and-a-half years, seven days a week."

Question: "Are you comfortable now?"


B A C K G R O U N D   M A T E R I A L:

Florence Owens Thompson, (1903-1983) the woman in the Migrant Mother picture taken in 1936 by Dorothea Lange (and seen to the left, sitting in 1979) was born on an Indian reservation – "in a tepee," she said – in Oklahoma in 1903. Her father died when she was 13 months old, but her mother lived to be 108. Even before the Depression, Florence, her husband Cleo and their growing family left Oklahoma for California. For a time, they found work around Shafter, California. But as the Depression settled in, they were forced to become migrant farm workers. They followed the harvests until the war created jobs. Florence settled in Modesto, California in 1945. Her family put down roots, although Florence was most comfortable living in a mobile home. She died of cancer in 1983.  (Photo on left was with three of her daughters in the 1936 photo; c. 1979)

Background for photo: She and her family had left Oklahoma in 1925, before the Depression. The 30s made their situation worse. She and the family were following the migrant trail moving from place to place as crops became ready for harvest. "It was very hard and cheap," Florence said. "We just existed! We survived, let's put it that way." California – the state that had once advertised for more migrant workers – found themselves overwhelmed by up to 7,000 new migrants a month, more migrants than were needed. So for several months in 1936, the Los Angeles Police Department sent 136 deputies to the state lines to turn back migrants who didn't have any money. Bordering states like Arizona were angry that California was trying to "dump hoboes" back on them. Eventually, the police were returned to Los Angeles, but the migrants kept coming. There was some work, especially in the new fields of cotton that were being planted in California – a crop that southern plains people knew a lot about. But there was not enough work for everyone who came. Instead of immediate riches, they often found squalor in roadside ditch encampments.

B A C K G R O U N D   M A T E R I A L:

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), (pictured left in Life magazine photograph; more here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap03.html) was one of many top photographers hired by the U.S. government to chronicle the Depression era.

On the day she took the iconic "Migrant Mother" photo in March, 1936 -- and later she said she didn't fell like it was hers -- she was heading home from assignment. She saw a ragged sign for "Pea Pickers Camp" and the Thompson family camped beside the road but drove on. Here is what she said in 1960 about the experience:

"It was raining, the camera bags were packed, and I had on the seat beside me in the car the results of my long trip, the box containing all those rolls and packs of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington. It was a time of relief. Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night, and my eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead. I felt freed, for I could lift my mind off my job and think of home.

“I was on my way and barely saw a crude sign with pointing arrow which flashed by at the side of the road, saying 'Pea-Pickers Camp.' But out of the corner of my eye I did see it; I didn't want to stop, and didn't. I didn't want to remember that I had seen it, so I drove on and ignored the summons. 

"Then, accompanied by the rhythmic hum of the windshield wipers, arose an inner argument: 'Dorothea, how about that camp back there? What is the situation back there?
 Are you going back? 
Nobody could ask this of you, now could they?
 To turn back certainly is not necessary. Haven't you plenty if negatives already on this subject? Isn't this just one more if the same? Besides, if you take a camera out in this rain, you're just asking for trouble. Now be reasonable, etc. etc., etc.' Having well convinced myself for 20 miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing I made a U-turn on the empty highway. I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign, 'Pea-Pickers Camp.'  I was following instinct, not reason; I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.

"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made six exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

"The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment."

T H E   O T H E R  5  P H O T O S:

 References: Lange, Dorothea, "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother," Popular Photography (February 1960); Curtis, James. Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. (1989).