Culture  /  Book Excerpt

She Was No ‘Mammy’

Gordon Parks’s most famous photograph, "American Gothic," was of a cleaning woman in Washington, D.C. She has a story to tell.

In his memoir, A Choice of Weapons, Parks recalled entering the FSA offices for the first time, walking “confidently down the corridor, following the arrows to my destination, sensing history all around me, feeling knowledge behind every door I passed.” Roy Stryker, the head of the FSA’s Historical Section, sensing that Parks’s naivete would not serve him or his future subjects well, encouraged him to leave his camera behind and get to know the city by going for a bus ride, taking in a movie, shopping at a drugstore or a department store, or dining at local restaurants. “I wanted to kill everyone,” Parks said about those experiences. “I’ve never been so mad.” Unlike in Saint Paul, where he came of age, or even his more recent home, Chicago, in D.C., he faced the harsh reality of the district’s strict segregation laws and was denied service or entry everywhere he went. Furious, Parks told Stryker that he needed to document this story of American racism and then plotted his plan in bold strokes. “I wanted to photograph every rotten discrimination in the city, and show the world how evil Washington was,” Parks said. “I had the biggest, vaguest ideas in the world.” After making it clear that such a project would require him to hire all of Life magazine’s photographers for the rest of their lives, Stryker encouraged Parks to focus on and follow one person to achieve his goals. Stryker indicated a woman who was mopping the hallway floor nearby. “Go have a talk with her before you go home this evening,” he said. “See what she has to say about life and things. You might find her interesting.”

Born in late March 1883 in Washington, D.C., Ella Watson had been a domestic for most of her life by the time she met Parks. In 1898, at age 15, she left school and later that year found a job ironing at the Frazee Laundry in Washington. She worked intermittently, listing “maid” and “laundress” as her employment on the census until she found a temporary position as a custodian at the State Department in 1919. The following year, she doubled up, working as a caretaker in a white family’s home and cleaning another federal agency building. She managed to secure steady employment at the Post Office Department for most of the 1920s, then moved to the Treasury Department (where the FSA was also located) in 1929; she remained there until 1944. “I came to find out a very significant thing,” Parks later remembered. Watson “had moved into the [office] building at the same time, she said, as the [white] woman who was now a notary public. They came there with the same education, the same mental facilities and equipment, and she was now scrubbing this woman’s room every evening.”