In recent decades, many of Gordon Parks’s photographs have been acknowledged as groundbreaking and pivotal representations of the civil rights movement. Among the best-known of these is a series of color images titled Segregation Storytaken for Life magazine in 1956, just as the movement was gaining momentum. The lasting impact of one particular image from the series, At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile, Alabama, was made palpable more than a half century later, when one of its subjects—Ms. Cora Taylor—was identified and honored.
At Segregated Drinking Fountain was taken outside an ice cream parlor in Prichard, a small city in Mobile County. The photograph depicts a man, four children, and two elegantly dressed young women surrounding segregated drinking fountains, each appearing to wait their turn to use the water fountain marked “colored only.” In 2022 we learned that the woman in sunglasses at right is Ms. Cora Taylor, who was 18 years old at the time. While visiting the ice cream parlorwith her friend from Mississippi they encountered “a man with a camera and a New York license plate,” who asked to take their picture. Parks said almost nothing, but asked them to pose in front of the water fountains. Unknown to them at the time, the man at left was Samuel F. Yette, Parks’s local assistant and guide. It is a rare instance to be able to identify the many individuals Gordon Parks captured over the years. This discovery allows us to forever celebrate Ms. Taylor and Mr. Yette as emblematic figures in the fight for justice and civil rights.
In the summer of 1956, Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to Alabama to document the daily realities of Black Americans living under Jim Crow laws in the rural South. A selection of twenty-six images he took first appeared in the September 24, 1956, issue of Life magazine as part of a photo essay titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” Although some of these were exhibited during his lifetime, the bulk of Parks’s assignment was thought to be lost until 2014. With its vivid color pictures, the series offers a fresh perspective on a most controversial period in American history, which looms large in the collective memory almost exclusively through black-and-white imagery. Parks’s empathetic approach eschewed the journalism that focused on the leaders and momentous events of the struggle for civil rights, and instead portrayed the common humanity of his fellow Americans going about daily life in unjust circumstances. Pursued at grave danger to the photographer himself, the project was an important chapter in Parks’s career.
In May 2022, Ms. Taylor recalled the fateful summer day Segregated Drinking Fountains was shot:
“We got off the bus there to get some ice cream—that place had the best ice cream. Across the street from them, there was a Krispy Kreme. We would get ice cream and then go across the street and get Krispy Kreme. That’s what happened that day. Then this man came up and asked to take our picture. There was another man with these little girls, and he held them up to drink some water. Emmett Till had just been killed, and we didn’t know what to expect. But I was there for a reason, and I was at the right place at the right time. when I saw that man taking a picture, I didn’t know why he was taking it—he didn’t say anything to us, but I remembered he had a New York license plate. I wondered what was going on, because you didn’t know who to trust and who not to trust. I let my mother know about the photograph, in case anything went wrong. A few weeks later I saw the picture in Life magazine, and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Cora Lee Rucker Taylor was born in Vinegar Bend, Alabama, the eldest of six children. As evidenced in Parks’s photographs, Cora loved fashion and always dressed the part. Ms. Taylor loved to dance so much she “danced a hole in the carpet,” as her father used to proclaim. She graduated from the Josephine Allen Institute in Mobile, Alabama at the age of 19 and later married David Taylor. Together they had five children. After completing her education, Ms. Taylor worked a series of mostly domestic jobs, although taking care of her family and ensuring a better life for them was of upmost importance. She worked extra jobs to make ends meet, and at age 29 she and her family left Mobile and relocated to Los Angeles, California to in search of better opportunities. After years working as a restaurant server and sales clerk, Ms. Taylor was eventually appointed a program clerk for the federal government, a position she held for 15 years until her retirement in 2006 due to a battle with cancer. She currently lives cancer-free in Los Angeles, California, and her family has expanded to include 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In early 2022, after seeing Segregated Drinking Fountains in an exhibition at the Mobile Museum of Art, Celia Sims-Sutton recognized her cousin in the photograph and reached out to The Gordon Parks Foundation. Ms. Taylor was then honored at the Gordon Parks Foundation’s May 2022 Awards Dinner.
As with other images in the series, Segregated Drinking Fountains is striking for its painterly palette and attention to ordinary details—the signage, the fashions, the humanity of his subjects—that stand in stark contrast to the unjustness and brutality of segregation. Ms. Taylor’s presence in that photograph and her story is no exception. Like many of Parks’s photographs, the photograph empowered and gave a voice to his subjects, reminding us the possibilities of using the camera as a weapon for social change.
Life Magazine, September 24, 1956, pp: 98-99.
Life Magazine, September 24, 1956, pp: 100-101.
Life Magazine, September 24, 1956, pp: 102-103.
Life Magazine, September 24, 1956, pp: 104-105.
Life Magazine, September 24, 1956, pp: 106-107..
Life Magazine, September 24, 1956, pp: 108-109.