In the midst of one of the darkest chapters in American history, an image emerged that would come to symbolize the immense suffering endured by countless families during the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange’s powerful photograph, known as the “Migrant Mother,” captured a woman’s harrowing struggle and became an enduring emblem of the era’s desperation. But who was the woman behind the photo, and what was her real story?
A Symbol of Suffering
Published in a San Francisco newspaper in March 1936, the “Migrant Mother” photo depicted a destitute woman, ragged and worn, cradling a baby while her other children clung to her side. The lines etched on her face told a story of hardship, hunger, and hopelessness, resonating with a nation grappling with the devastating effects of the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), had captured this iconic image in a camp of migrant farm workers in Nipomo, California.
An Unforgettable Encounter
Dorothea Lange’s encounter with the “Migrant Mother” was both serendipitous and heartrending. Spotting a sign for the migrant workers’ campsite while driving through San Luis Obispo County, Lange felt drawn to the hungry and desperate mother like a magnet. The local pea crop had been devastated by bad weather, leaving the pickers unemployed and on the brink of starvation.Lange approached the woman without knowing her name or her history. The woman, later revealed to be Florence Owens Thompson, recounted her struggles as a 32-year-old mother trying to sustain her family on frozen vegetables and meager resources. Lange’s powerful photographs were soon published, sparking a response from the U.S. government, which sent 20,000 pounds of food to the campsite.
A Name Revealed
For decades, the identity of the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photo remained a mystery. It wasn’t until 1978 that Florence Owens Thompson herself came forward, writing a letter to the editor of the Modesto Bee newspaper. In her poignant revelation, Thompson sought to set the record straight and dispel the stereotype of the Dust Bowl refugees.Born a full-blooded Native American of Cherokee descent, Florence had endured immense hardships before crossing paths with Lange. Her first husband, Cleo Owens, had died of tuberculosis in 1931, leaving her to support six children through grueling cotton and crop-picking labor.
Unraveling the Truth
During an interview with Nebraska Public Television in 1979, Thompson shared the truth behind her life as a young mother, picking hundreds of pounds of cotton each day to survive. Her encounter with Lange occurred after her car broke down while seeking work in lettuce picking. Her older sons, not her, had left to fix the car’s radiator when Lange took the iconic photo.
While Thompson didn’t discredit Lange, her son Troy Owens clarified that the details may have been mixed up. Despite the image’s profound impact on the nation, Thompson continued to face economic hardships, living in a trailer and dealing with cancer and heart problems.
A Legacy of Resilience
In September 1983, Florence Owens Thompson passed away just after her 80th birthday, leaving behind a legacy of strength, sacrifice, and human dignity. Her life epitomized the struggles of countless families during the Great Depression, and her photograph remains a poignant reminder of the resilience displayed by many in the face of adversity.
President Ronald Reagan himself offered condolences, recognizing Thompson’s representation of strength amid the turbulent times. As we remember the woman behind the “Migrant Mother,” we honor the countless individuals who weathered the storm of the Great Depression, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s history and shaping the spirit of perseverance that still resonates today.