An expansive exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University showcases work that inspired the imagination during a time of great turmoil. Named after a line uttered by Stanford biology professor Laurence Bass-Becking to describe the photography of friend Edward Weston, Reality Makes Them Dream is on show until 30 July
Her name was Florence Thompson. Other photos in the series.
Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on September 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. Both of her parents claimed Cherokee descent. Her father, Jackson Christie, allegedly abandoned her mother, Mary Jane Cobb, before she was born, and her mother married Charles Akman (of Choctaw descent) in the spring of 1905. The family lived on a small farm in Indian Territory outside Tahlequah. Cherokee Nation tribal records indicate that Jackson Christie's blood quantum was either full blood or one-half. Mary Jane Cobb claimed she was Cherokee on her May 27, 1894 marriage record to Christie, but later testified under oath before the Dawes Commission that both of her parents were white. While many sources claim Christie abandoned Cobb, he disputed the allegation. Christie served three years in a federal penitentiary in Detroit, Michigan.
Aged 17, Thompson married Cleo Owens, a farmer's 23-year-old son from Stone County, Missouri, on February 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy (Troy). 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, Thompson was pregnant with her sixth child, when her husband Cleo died of tuberculosis.
Thompson then worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933, Thompson 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, Thompson 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 at times into Arizona. Thompson later recalled periods when she picked 400–500 pounds (180–230 kg) of cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to work. She said: "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, Thompson met and married hospital administrator George Thompson. This marriage brought her far greater financial security than she had previously enjoyed.
Thompson's children bought her a house in Modesto, California in the 1970s, but she preferred living in a mobile home and moved back into one.
Thompson was hospitalized and her family appealed for financial help in late August 1983. By September, the family had collected $35,000 in donations to pay for her medical care. Florence died of "stroke, cancer and heart problems" at Scotts Valley, California, on September 16, 1983 at age 80. She was buried in Lakewood Memorial Park, in Hughson, California, and her gravestone reads: "FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood."
In a 2008 interview with CNN, one of Thompson's daughters, Katherine McIntosh, recalled her mother as a "very strong lady", and "the backbone of our family". She said: "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." A son, Troy Owens, said that more than 2,000 letters received along with donations for his mother's medical fund led to a re-appraisal of the photo: "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."
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