Mrs. Ella Watson

 

“My first photograph of [Watson] was unsubtle. I overdid it and posed her. Grant Wood style, before the American flag, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other, staring straight into the camera… I followed her for nearly a month- into her home, her church, and wherever she went.”

“She began to spill out her life’s story. It was a pitiful one. She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob. She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before their daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen, she had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child’s birth. What’s more, the first child had been stricken with paralysis a year before its mother died.”

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Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, leaves for work at 4:30 p.m. 1942.  Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Government charwoman cleaning up after regular working hours. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Corner store which is patronized by Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman and her adopted daughter. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Adopted daughter of Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, receiving anointment from Reverend Clara Smith during the “flower bowl demonstration,” a service held once a year at the St. Martin’s Spiritual Church. Reverend Vondell Gassaway is the pastor. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington D.C. Religious objects and an improved altar in the bedroom of Mrs. Watson, a government charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Contributions are made by all who receive the blessing and anointment of Rev. Clara Smith, during the Flower bowl demonstration, a service held once a year in St. Martin’s Spiritual church. 1942. Library of Congress.

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Washington, D.C. Reverend Vondell Gassaway, pastor of the St. Martin’s Spiritual Church, preaching the Sunday sermon. 1942. Library of Congress.

I think these photographs really speak for themselves, so I don’t want to add anything else.

To learn more about these photographs and their subject, Mrs. Ella Watson, the Library of Congress has more information here. Gordon Parks, the photographer, discussed Watson and his encounters with her in his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons.” The historian Lawrence Levine also describes and analyzes these photographs and others from the Depression era in his essay “The Historian and the Icon: Photography and the History of the American People in the 1930s and 1940s,” which was published in the book “Documenting America, 1935-1943.”

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