Sunday, June 16, 2013

Americans Haven't Quite Reached This Spot Again...Not Yet

Florence Owens Thompson and children, March 1936
Dorothea Lange's iconic photo of Florence Thompson and three of her children will, it seems, forever be imprinted on the psyches of Americans as an image of untellable suffering in this Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Most people will have little or no idea what was going on or who these people were or even where or when this picture was taken. It is the most singular icon of the Dust Bowl Era/Great Depression, without doubt or dispute. There are other photos from the era that resonate to be sure, but nothing like this one.

First off, I think it is of some note that this picture was taken in 1936, when the Depression, or at least its worst aspects of mass suffering, was perceived to be mostly over. FDR, the New Deal and all that.

It was taken on California's Central Coast, not Dust Bowl Oklahoma, and though Florence and her older children (not these -- her younger children were born in California) were from Oklahoma, they had been in California mostly working in the fields up and down the state since 1931. They were not Dust Bowl refugees -- at least not any more. They were migrant laborers in the fields of California, like tens of thousands of others did then -- and still do.

 Of course in those days, many of the California field hands were white. Nowadays, not so much. Nearly all of the field hands today are Hispanic, mostly from Mexico, though many are from Central America, and not a few were born and raised in California of Mexican or Central American parents.

For a time, and even in Thompson's time, it seemed to be possible to go from the fields in California to a fairly comfortable, fairly middle class lifestyle in one or at most two generations. That passage seems far from certain now. In this country today, if you're born poor, you'll most likely stay poor the rest of your life. Same for any children you might have. There is less social and economic mobility in the United States today than perhaps at any time in its history, less mobility in fact than in most other places in the developed world.

Florence and her children were poor to be sure, but they were not truly destitute at the time of the photo, though that's how they were portrayed by Lange and the press, a press which glommed onto the photo immediately and presented it as a portrait of despair and destitution of unparalleled magnitude in this land of plenty, and this after three years, three years!, of the New Deal.

According to the story Florence told later, what happened was that the family -- which included Jim Hill, her (common-law?) husband at the time, her older children and these younger ones -- were traveling from fields they'd been working in the Imperial Valley toward Watsonville near Salinas, where they hoped to find more work, but the timing chain on their Hudson broke and they coasted into a large ad hoc migrant camp (that held at that time maybe 2,000 or 3,000 hopeful workers) in Nipomo. (I'm very familiar with all these places, having lived and worked in or near California's agricultural areas most of my life. There are also other connections which may come up in other posts.)

The workers were there because they'd heard there was field work to be done picking peas, but when they got there, a freezing rain had ruined the crop and there was no work.

Many of the migrants in the camp were destitute and starving, but Florence's family were not. Comparatively speaking, they were doing OK.

Florence and her children were laying over in the camp while Jim Hill and the older boys were in town getting the car fixed so they could continue their journey north toward Watsonville. While in the camp, Florence said they subsisted on frozen peas they collected from the fields and the few birds the children were able to kill for the cooking pot. Hungry children came by and asked if they could please have a bite. Once the car was fixed, they moved on.

That they had a car and were used to the migrant labor life in California was to their advantage. While they had advantages that many others didn't, their life in the fields could not have been pleasant.

California's field hands were and are terribly exploited, often wretchedly housed and provided for, and frequently treated with feudal levels of abuse. Migrant field workers in California were and are beneath the level of an oppressed underclass; they were frequently seen and treated as disposable slaves by their employers.

Eventually, the Florence and family moved to California's Central Valley, still doing mostly farm labor, but apparently settling down near or in Modesto,  where Florence would meet and marry George Thompson, a hospital administrator, and from 1945 onwards, the family would live in modest financial security.

Florence claimed to be a full-blood Cherokee, born ("in a teepee") and raised outside of Tahlequah, OK. Her blood father was a Christie, and so could have been full-blood Cherokee, but he abandoned Florence's mother (of the Cobb family, and thus likely not full-blood Cherokee) before she was born. Her mother then married Charles Akman, of Choctaw descent. (All this, according to the Wiki...)

The other day, I was in the company of a genealogist out of Tahlequah who is a Christie descendant on his mother's side, and he said he'd been trying to trace Florence's Cherokee ancestry and was coming up short. Of course Cherokee lineages can be complicated. Just ask anyone who's tried to demonstrate their blood quantum to the satisfaction of the authorities of the Cherokee Nation. It can be quite a complex and drawn out process, even for full-bloods.

Of course Florence, even if a full-blood Cherokee (which is unlikely in any case), would not have been born "in a teepee" as teepees were not used by Cherokee people (nor by Choctaw) at any time.  But then, people tell tales...

The Cherokee Christies were and are based around Wauhillau, OK, not far from Tahlequah, and Florence's biological father was said to be Jackson Christie, who appears on the Dawes Rolls from Wauhillau as a full-blood. Her mother, a Cobb, however, is the more problematical ancestor, as there is no Mary Jane Cobb listed on the Dawes Rolls, and the only Mary Cobbs listed are of 1/4th and less Cherokee blood quantum. Of course, there were plenty of Cherokee of all blood quantums who were never listed on the rolls, so nothing conclusive can be said about Florence's mother's Cherokee ancestry -- or lack thereof.

That a Cherokee genealogist cannot trace her with any certainty is interesting but not unusual, given the fact that Florence's biological father (apparently a full-blood Cherokee) ran off before she was born, and she was raised by a (supposed) Choctaw adoptive father. Well, in Indian culture, she wouldn't have been raised by either father but instead would have been brought up in her mother's matrilineal household, with slight contact with "fathers." But if Florence's mother was a Cobb (there's no reason to doubt it), it's quite possible she was less culturally Cherokee, and so she might not have raised her daughter in the culture. On the other hand, she just as well might have.

Florence kept company with several men and (officially) married two of them though both died before she did. She had six or seven children, all of whom seem to have had great admiration for her. She appears to have engaged in field work in California for as long as she had to and was physically able to, but when the opportunity arose, she left the fields to work in hospitals, and by 1945 she had settled down in Modesto with her last husband, a hospital administrator -- which no doubt relieved her of any obligation to work the fields of California again.

When Dorothea Lange took that iconic picture, Florence's situation was not as dire as it was made out to be in the press, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking it was somehow "good" just because she and her children weren't actually stranded and starving, and she hadn't actually sold the tires on her car to buy food. The family's car would be repaired, and they would move on. But that didn't mean their situation was much better than miserable.

The status of the thousands of others at the Nipomo camp really was dire, though, and some actually were starving. The "Migrant Mother" picture of Florence and her younger kids led to the transport of tens of thousands of pounds of food to the camp to help succor those still trapped there. The fact that Americans could still be in such appalling circumstances, years after the advent of the New Deal under Roosevelt, came as a shock to many who had convinced themselves the New Deal had eliminated this level of destitution and desperation.

It did not. It wasn't until the 1960s and the Great Society programs of the Johnson Era that "Freedom from Want" was actually made a social and political principle in this country, a principle that we may note is being dismantled as our governing representatives seek ways to cut benefits for the masses, including Social Security and food stamps, while continuing to increase rewards and benefits for the highest of the mighty.

This is why the National Surveillance/Security State has become so essential to those few who are accumulating such remarkable rewards during a period of such economic decline and hardship for so many. As we see the identity of "terrorist" re-defined over and over and over again to include more and more individuals and groups that might one day prove problematical to the rule by the very few and the unfettered exploitation and impoverishment of the masses, we see the true nature of the Security fetish of Our Rulers. We see the "why" being answered with action.

We are all, ultimately, potential suspects and thus we all must be surveilled. This is essential for the survival and continued prosperity of Our Betters. Uppitiness must be channeled and controlled, revolt must be suppressed.

I find it interesting that some people who point out that this is the way it has been for a long time are being denounced as "Obots" and whatnot, when they are trying to get across the notion that some people have been yelling about the Surveillance State and the Security Fetish of the Ruling Class for many years and have generally been ignored or shushed, on the fictional basis that it's not really happening, or if it is, it isn't really all that worrisome, or if it is worrisome, it's better to keep quiet about it. Instead of taking it seriously when something might have been done about it, too many of those with prominent platforms in the media and on the internet were either silent or extra cautious, fearing that if too much was said or made of it, or if objections actually led to action, the Stasi would be on their tails like white on rice.

Now, interestingly, they aren't afraid, nor do they hesitate to accuse those who were calling for action years ago of being tacit supporters of universal surveillance and the security state all along. It is very much a through-the-looking-glass and down-the-rabbit-hole situation, by no means the first in these realms.

Now it's an all-important issue, but what's to be done about it -- apart from arguing and debating in endless circles?

In 1936, Americans discovered to their shock and horror that the New Deal hadn't really accomplished what they thought it had set out to do, and many millions of Americans, symbolized by Dorothea Lange's portrait of Florence Thompson, were still suffering severely. They would be reminded again in the 1960s with exposés of economic and social hardships  all over the country. In those days, Americans and their representatives in Congress assembled were empowered to and capable of doing something to alleviate that suffering.

Now? Not so much. No, let's be honest: not at all. Our Rulers are actively instituting programs of impoverishment and suffering for the masses, and the public is advised to acquiesce quietly or be subjected to the tender ministrations of or brutal suppression by the bloated National Security State -- as has been demonstrated against various groups and individuals for years. We are well past the point where the People might have intervened to halt or reverse our collective disempowerment.

Now the options for reversing what's been under way for so many years are highly constrained. Lawsuits are among the options available. But when the courts are part of the problem...

Congressional agitation is potentially useful, but when congress itself is part of the problem...

Popular outrage is hard to sustain when the Ruling Classes really don't give a shit about what the People want any more...

It's another fine mess we've got ourselves into...


  1. Interesting post with great info.

    I am also working on the ancestry of Florence Leona Christie (within a broader context of mixed ancestry populations). It may be that her lineage is the following: she was the daughter of Mary Cobb. Mary Cobb was the daughter of Daniel Cobb and Sara Jane Blackwell. Daniel Cobb was the son of John P. Blackwell and Ann Griggs. John P. Blackwell was the son of Peter Blackwell and Lydia Padgett (1793- ). Peter Blackwell was the son of Joel Blackwell. Joel Blackwell was married to my ancestor, Sarah Ann Doggett, Henrietta Byars and Rebecca Watson. A James Padgett (permitted white) married a Christie (Cherokee, of the Ned Christie family) daughter in the generation of Jackson Christie's father. Lydia Padgett (1793- ) and James Padgett may be related. I know a lot about the descendants of Sarah Ann Doggett. She had a child with a Tapp, a Wicocomico. I have traced the family of the husband of one of her descendants to the Chambers family (Philip Chambers and Salome Clubb). A Chambers descendant married a Cagle (a descendant of Leonhart Cagle). A descendant of Leonhart Cagle, Benjamin Bookout, married Mary Cooper. Mary Cooper was the daughter of Nancy (daughter of Black Fox) and Isaac Cooper. The ties between Chief Black Fox, the daughter of Attakullakulla, Dragging Canoe, the Troxells, Doublehead, Cornblossom and related families have been researched by many.

    My family is Redbone-Melungeon. My great-grandfather was born in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama. He worked as a sharecropper during the Depression after he and a family member lost their dry goods store. He was a socialist and an atheist. I am a second generation anarchist (through paternal ancestry--the other side of my family).

    There is a marriage certificate (I have read online) for Jackson Christie and Mary Jane Cobb, as well as a petition to the Dawes Rolls as intermarried white (according to online source). According to one source, Florence Leona Christie believed Akman to be her father. Her mother married Akman in 1905. They lived on a small farm in Oklahoma. In an interview, Florence Leona Christie claims that the story about tires and a car was incorrect.

    If any of the above is in error, I apologize in advance. I am putting this information forward to help researchers who are interested in migration and intermarriage patterns of mixed ancestry populations (not as irrefutable data about specific ancestries). I am focussing on mixed populations originating in southern Appalachia/the southeastern US.

    1. Thanks for the information you've found. There is a lot of information -- and misinformation -- out there, and it can be difficult to sort through. Cherokee genealogy is particularly difficult and complicated, despite the rolls and censuses and all.

      Ned Christie's genealogies are certainly interesting -- and complicated!

      Of course there's lots and lots of inter-marriage and more casual relationships as well. Good luck in finding and untangling the many threads.

    2. Does this mean that Salome Clubb was Cherokee?