In the Arts: American Gothic’s Ella Watson
American Gothic is Gordon Parks’s most recognizable portrait. It was photographed in Washington, D.C. in 1942 during the photographer’s fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Instructed to go out and get acquainted with the city, Parks was dismayed by “the amount of bigotry and discrimination he encountered on his very first day.” He shared, “White restaurants made me enter through the back door, white theaters wouldn’t even let me in the door, and as the day went on things just went from bad to worse.” His supervisor told Parks to go talk with some older black people who had lived their entire lives in D.C. and see how they had coped. That’s how he met Ella Watson, a black cleaning woman in the FSA building.
What most people don’t know is that Ella was a grandmother helping her adopted daughter raise her three children. Parks recalled his first conversation with Ella Watson:
“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.”