An Emblem of the American Black Worker


Photograph by: Gordon Parks Image Source: U.S. Library of Congress


Titled, Washington, D.C. government charwoman (1942), it is one of the most iconic photographs by one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, Gordon Parks. The image has created an indelible impression in the eyes of viewers who have equated it to Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic (1930). Parks’ photograph depicts Ella Watson, who was an employee at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) office. At the time, Parks was new to the capital, having arrived after receiving a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that placed him under the tutelage of the formidable Roy Stryker, who headed the Information Division of the FSA. Eager to document the African American community, Stryker suggested that Parks begin exploring the area without his camera. What he discovered though was the abject bigotry that prevailed against his community, and created a major dent to his morale. After recounting his experiences to Stryker, Stryker suggested that he should begin photographing what was the closest to home, pointing to Watson, who was present at the time of the conversation. The two immediately struck up a relationship that would lead him, for the next four months, into her private life. What he achieved through this partnership was an intimate perspective on the reality of the African American community in the capital of the country. The photograph above was an outcome of this, and should be examined within the context of discrimination and segregation during World War II.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Better Photography.