Gordon Parks Photography: Life in a WW2 Housing Project

Updated on December 31, 2017
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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 | 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


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      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        Thanks, trusouldj!

      • trusouldj profile image

        trusouldj 4 years ago from Indiana

        Love the mom preparing dinner. Amazing photos.

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 4 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 4 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 image

        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.