"Using my camera effectively against intolerance was not so easy as I had assumed it would be. One evening, when Stryker and I were in the office alone, I confessed this to him. “Then at least you have learned the most important lesson,” he said. He thought for a moment, got up and looked down the corridor, then called me to his side. There was a Negro charwoman mopping the floor. “Go have a talk with her before you go home this evening. See what she has to say about life and things. You might find her interesting.” 
—Gordon Parks, A Choice of Weapons, 1966

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Working at the United States government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the early days of World War II, with support from a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, Gordon Parks sought to document the experiences of Black workers in Washington, D.C. Encouraged by FSA Historical Section director Roy Stryker, Parks met Ella Watson, a cleaning woman on the night shift at the Department of Agriculture. Parks learned about Watson’s difficult life: her parents died young and her husband and two of her children were gone; she was passed over for a promotion because she was Black; and she supported her adopted daughter Lauretta, along with Loretta’s niece and two nephews, on her government salary of one thousand eighty dollars a year.

One of Parks’s photographs of Watson at work, Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman, shot in July 1942 (which he later named American Gothic, a title borrowed from Grant Wood's 1930 painting), is among his most famous, in part because it points to the vivid complexity of his maturing style. In this photograph Parks connects us intimately with one person’s life and with critical and timely questions about the interconnected meaning of labor, race, and equality during a time when African Americans were asked to fight and die for their country in a segregated military. “I took [Watson] into this woman’s office and there was the American flag, and I stood her up with her mop hanging down, with the American flag hanging down, Grant Wood style, and did this marvelous portrait,” Parks later recalled. “Stryker thought this was just about the end. He said, ‘My God, this can’t be published, but it’s a start.’” Because of its direct and transparent message, Parks’s classic portrait of Ella Watson is now considered one of the most important photographs in the history of twentieth-century photography.

Parks photographed Ella Watson at work, at home with her family, in her Northwest Washington neighborhood, and at Verbrycke Spiritual Church, creating over 90 photographs of her. Those photographs reveal that at the center of Ms. Watson life was her community and caring for her family—her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Today, her family carries on her legacy as an empowered woman who cared for others and her community. On May 22, 2018, The Gordon Parks Foundation honored three of her surviving family members at the annual Awards Dinner and Gala: Sharon Stanley, the daughter of  Watson's adopted daughter Mary Loretta Burgess - Watson's granddaughter; Audrey Johnson, the daughter of Ella Watson's son Eugene - Watson's granddaughter; Rosslyn Samuels, the daughter of Sharon Stanley - Watson's great granddaughter.

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Top, left to right: Sharon Stanley, Audrey Johnson, and Rosslyn Samuels, 2018.
Bottom: Photographer unknown, Ella Watson, Sharon Stanley, and Rosslyn Samuels, c. 1968. Courtesy of Sharon Stanley, granddaughter of Ella Watson.

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Top: Gordon Parks, Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (American Gothic), 1942.
Bottom: Photographer unknown, Rosslyn Samuels and Ella Watson, c. 1970. Courtesy of Sharon Stanley, granddaughter of Ella Watson. 

Earlier that year, scholar, and author Deborah Willis interviewed Ella Watson’s great-granddaughter Rosslyn Samuels. Rosslyn was a girl when her great-grandmother came to live in her family’s home in Washington, D.C. Rosslyn’s mother, granddaughter to Ella Watson, and her father had asked Mrs. Watson to stay with them after Ella’s younger daughter had moved away from the family home. In an article published on May 14, 2018 in the New York Times Lens Blog, Willis described Watson's personal life through the memories of her great-granddaughter—giving an even greater significance to the photographs Parks made of her beyond American Gothic: 

"Rosslyn offered another way of seeing Mrs. Watson; she explained that her great-grandmother often talked about the delight she took in caring for the children in the family. She loved cooking, and Rosslyn recounted that once, to avoid having black-eyed peas for dinner, she poked a hole in the bag. When the peas fell across the floor, Rosslyn felt certain she would not have to eat peas that night. But her great-grandmother thought otherwise: 'Oh, this is a great opportunity,' she said. 'We can pick these up, wash them, and cook them for dinner.'

I wondered about her Saturday nights and her Sunday mornings, and asked Rosslyn about her great-grandmother’s clothing—her sense of style. Rosslyn described her as neat and meticulous—a modest and humble woman who wore house dresses at home during the week and her best clothes on Sunday. She never wore pants, and she would stay in her bedclothes as she prepared for services on Sunday. She wore monochrome dresses and kitten-heeled shoes that she polished weekly, and she never allowed her great-granddaughter to style her hair for church. 

Ella Watson had her style for Sunday! In my quest to confirm my perception of the personality I had imagined for this stoic Black woman from the famous photograph, I asked Rosslyn a final question: How would you describe your great-grandmother to someone today? Rosslyn responded immediately that she was a 'Proverbs 31 woman!'"

Rosslyn Samuels, Sharon Stanley, and Audrey Johnson have not only made Ella Watson's personal life real and tangible—throught storytelling and their family archive, they've enriching our understanding of Parks's photographs of Watson and the significance of their groundbreaking collaboration as an enduring symbol of labor, inequity, and patriotism. As Willis quotes in her essay, Proverbs 31 encapsulates the legacy Ella Watson's family carries on: “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. . . . Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” 


Ella Watson's descendants; Rosslyn Samuels, Sharon Stanley and Audrey Johnson at The Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner and Auction, May 22, 2018. © 2018 Getty Images

Ella Watson's descendants; Rosslyn Samuels, Sharon Stanley and Audrey Johnson with presented artworks at The Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner and Auction, May 22, 2018. © 2018 Getty Images

Journalist Jane Levere with Ella Watson's descendants, Rosslyn Samuels, Sharon Stanley, and Audrey Johnson at The Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner and Auction, May 22, 2018. © 2018 Getty Images