NBC's Bob Dotson interviews Florence Owens Thompson, migrant mother of five, whose image haunted the nation during the Great Depression. She was called the Mona Lisa of the 30's.
Interview with Florence Owens Thompson, the Mona Lisa of the Dust Bowl
JOHN CHANCELLOR, anchor:
The Great Depression of the 1930s was no fun for those who lived through it, and the memory of it stands today as a reminder of how tough life can be when the bottom drops out of everything. The Great Plains turned into a dust bowl, forcing the farmers there into a long, hard migration westward to California where they were often put into migrant camps. But these were tough people, survivors. Bob Dotson has the story of one of them.
BOB DOTSON, reporting:
Today, there’s a trailer park on the site of the old migrant camp in Modesto, California. Many of the folks who live here, lived here then. During the depression it was just one of the many stops on their endless road, now it is home. And it is here we found Florence Thompson, who more than anyone else came to symbolize America’s determination to survive those desperate times. Florence Thompson, she lives right over there in that trailer. No, you wouldn’t recognize the name, but few people forget the face.
FLORENCE THOMPSON: Me and my kids we lived in tents, and lived in bamboo houses and everything else so I could make a living.
DOTSON: She was called the Mona Lisa of the ‘30s, a migrant mother whose picture haunted the nation. Florence Thompson was 27 years old when the depression started. She had five children and was pregnant with another, and her husband was dead.
THOMPSON: I chopped cotton in fireball down there for 40 cents an acre. I picked cotton and shafted for 50 cents a hundred, 40 cents a hundred. I’d hit that cotton field before daylight, and stayed till it got so dark I couldn’t see, and I didn’t even weigh a hundred pounds.
DOTSON: Her children make more in one hour than their mother made all week. Daughter Catherine works in a turkey factory that can process 18,000 birds a day. Her sister Ruby raises birds, pigeons for the gourmet table. She and her husband now have things her mother never knew.
RUBY (Daughter of Florence): If she could have gave us all these material things, maybe she would have, but that I don’t think would have replaced what she did give us. She gives us all a sense of worth that nobody owes us anything. We have pride you wouldn’t believe because of the idea of someone feeling sorry for us. That we didn’t want.
DOTSON: They did not have much, but they had each other.
Unidentified Man: Looking right here. Okay, that’s one.
DOTSON: Florence Thompson kept the family together. Her ten children and their grandchildren still live in her valley, and they still return for their father’s family reunion, a father some of them never even knew.
THOMPSON: I worked in hospitals, I tend bar, I cooked, I worked in the field, so I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.
DOTSON: Did you ever lose hope?
THOMPSON: Nope, if I’d ever lose hope, I’d never make it.