Gordon Parks Photography: Life in a WW2 Housing Project

Updated on December 31, 2017
RonElFran profile image

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks | Source

Gordon Parks was a man of many firsts. As the New York Times noted in its obituary when he died in 2006, Parks was the first black photographer ever hired to the staff of LIFE magazine, the first to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, and the first to work for the government agency that produced some of the most impactful photographic documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s.

Long acknowledged as the dean of African American photographers, Gordon Parks is now hailed as one of the greatest photo-journalists of the 20th century. But in 1942 he was just beginning his career. He was selected for a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that brought him to Washington to work as a photographer in the Farm Security Administration. Parks had been inspired by the work of FSA luminaries such as Dorothea Lange and Jack Delano.

That brief stint in the FSA (which disbanded in 1943) produced several memorable photographic collections. One of these was the series he took, dated July 1942, in a housing project in the nation’s capital. The “Frederick Douglass housing project for Negroes” in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC was originally built as temporary housing for black war workers. "Temporary" turned out to be a long time - it was finally deemed uninhabitable and vacated in 1998.

Knowing just that about the Frederick Douglass housing project, I would expect it to be a pretty cheerless place. But the sense I get from Gordon Parks’ photo essay is more of joy than of despair. I guess that’s why I really love these photos, and wanted to share them here.

Titles in quotes are from Parks. Those without quotes are my own.

"A dance group"

A dance group
A dance group | Source

This is probably the most well known of the Douglass project photos. The joy of these young dancers, intent on doing it just right, is contagious.

"Mother and her daughter"

Mother and her daughter
Mother and her daughter | Source

This is my personal favorite because I recognize that bathroom! I grew up public housing in Tennessee, and apparently the same plan for the buildings was used in a number of different locations. Everything about this bathroom is exactly the way I remember it being in the place I still think of as "home."

Mom preparing dinner

Mom preparing dinner
Mom preparing dinner | Source

This is obviously the same mom as in the above photo (note the dress). She is apparently watching her children through the kitchen window as she prepares the evening meal.

Best friends

Children
Children | Source

Parks' original caption for this photo was simply "Children." But they look to me like best friends!

"Three youngsters"

Three youngsters
Three youngsters | Source

Actually it looks like all three may be best friends.

"Playing in the community sprayer"

Playing in the community sprayer
Playing in the community sprayer | Source

Having grown up in a housing project in the South that was totally innocent of any air conditioning (it was actually forbidden), I know just how much joy this young man is feeling being in the spray on a hot summer's day.

"Cooling off under the community sprayer"

Cooling off under the community sprayer
Cooling off under the community sprayer | Source

I don't think this is the same young man as in the photo above. But the joy of the cool water is certainly the same!

"Boys playing leap frog near the project"

Boys playing leap frog near the project
Boys playing leap frog near the project | Source

It's a hot summer day in wartime near a housing project in one of the poorest sections of town. But that's no reason not to have fun!

"Metal ashcans"

Metal ashcans
Metal ashcans | Source

With the boys all off having fun, somebody has to do the chores.

"Boys overlooking the project"

Boys overlooking the project
Boys overlooking the project | Source

The Frederick Douglass housing project may have been segregated, "temporary" housing in a poor part of the city, but to these youngsters it was home. Having grown up in similar circumstances, I feel a kinship with them. I hope their memories of that time are good ones.

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Ronald E Franklin

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, trusouldj!

      • trusouldj profile image

        LaZeric Freeman 

        4 years ago from Hammond

        Love the mom preparing dinner. Amazing photos.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, Maggie. I think Parks' photos bring out the fact that outward circumstances don't have to define a person's life. These folks, like the ones I grew up among, didn't let their surroundings limit their joy, and through the work of Gordon Parks, they left us an inspirational legacy.

      • Maggie Crooks profile image

        Maggie Crooks 

        5 years ago

        I lived near Barry Farm in Anacostia, actually so close that you could almost call our houses on Wade Road part of the project. The dwellings were renovated while I lived there, and many of the people I knew were displaced and couldn't come back for one reason or another, but I knew many families who were really happy there and a lot of the kids who had fun just like these kids in the pictures.

        Thanks so much for writing this article. It was very enjoyable.

      • RonElFran profile imageAUTHOR

        Ronald E Franklin 

        5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, Patrice. These photos really draw you in, and I'm very glad you enjoyed them, too.

      • profile image

        PWalker281 

        5 years ago

        Great photo essay, Ron. Having lived the first five years of my life in SE DC (i.e., Anacostia) in the early fifties, those photos bring back nice memories, especially the one of the little ballerinas. Parks' photos convey the sense of close-knit community and belonging that I remember from that time. Voted up and shared.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)