September 16, 1983
She died on September 16, 1983. For more than 40 years, no one knew her name, but they knew about the photo taken of her and her children, a photo that would become a strength and inspiration for mothers everywhere.
The famous photo named “Migrant Mother” taken by Dorothea Lange has been compared to the Mona Lisa achieving “near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in United States history,” making the “Migrant Mother” immortal.
Her name is Florence Owens Thompson. Although she has been misidentified for years as being of European descent, Thompson was actually “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian” from Oklahoma.
A new book, “Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother,” written by Sarah Meister, a photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art, confirms this information. According to the New York Times, “the book comes out at a time when faces of desperately poor people in migrant caravans dominate the news.”
Florence Owens Thompson was born in 1903, in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma, the daughter of Cherokees displaced from their native tribal land. Although both her parents were Cherokee, her father abandoned her mother before Florence was born. Her mother remarried another man (of Choctaw descent). The family lived on a small farm in Indian Territory outside of Tahlequah.
Speaking of Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother”, the New York Times said that if people had realized Thompson was Native American, the photograph may not have had the same impact.
“We have never been a race-blind country, frankly,” Meister said. “I wish that I could say that the response would have been the same if everyone had been aware that she was Cherokee, but I don’t think that you can.”
Thompson struggled all her life, just trying to make ends meet, trying to be a good mother, raise her children well and hopefully give them a future in which they can have a better life than she had.
Thompson would say in an interview, “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.”
After Lange had taken the photograph that would be known as “Migrant Mother”, Thompson hoped the picture might help her or her children. She always wanted a better life. At the very least, she hoped it would share awareness of the working poor.
It did share awareness, but, at that time, it did not help Thompson or her family. After the picture was published, people became aware of the migrant workers who were starving and within days, the migrant camp where Thompson was would received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government, but Thompson and her family had already left the camp.
Thompson never received any payment for the photograph, and she was mostly ashamed of the photos. And, since she was never identified by name, her identity would not be known for 40 years.
Toward the end of her life, suffering from cancer and a recent stroke, she wasn’t sure how to pay for all her medical bills. The cost of her care was too much, now the entire family was burdened with uncertainty and the future looked bleak for her children.
She then remembered the picture, the picture she once said was “a curse” because it shamed her. She had so much pride then.
After being hospitalized and wondering how the family could ever pay their medical bills, Thompson and her children made a public appeal. And, the public would remember her – based on Lange’s famous photograph.
The family received more than 2,000 letters from people who had drawn strength and inspiration from the “Migrant Mother” photo. The family would also receive $35,000 in donations to help pay for her medical bills. Her son would say, “For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”
A month later, on September 16, 1983, Thompson died of “cancer and heart problems” at the age of 80 at Scotts Valley, California. But, she left this Earth, knowing that her family would not be burdened by her financial problems and that she did all she could to be a good mother.
Thompson’s daughter would later recall that her mother was a “very strong lady”, and “the backbone of our family . . . We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.”
When Thompson died, she was surrounded by her 10 children, the same children who were there when her photograph was taken, the same children she nurtured, fed, and took care of through the worst of times, becoming a symbol for mothers everywhere.
Her gravestone reads: “FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.