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Two boys playing leapfrog in Anacostia
Anacostia, D.C. Frederick Douglass housing project. Boys playing leap frog near the project

Gordon Parks and the New Deal: Life Documented in Photographs

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This post is by Caneisha Mills, the 2022-2023 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

In the March/April 2023 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, the “Sources and Strategies” article features photographs by Gordon Parks, taken during his time working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), illustrating daily life in Washington, D.C., during the New Deal.

The FSA included a photographic unit tasked with documenting daily life of Americans most affected by the Great Depression. Its director, Roy Stryker, employed some of the most talented documentary photographers in the country. In the late 1930s, magazines presented the work of documentary photographers including Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano and others to a wider audience.”

The article also presents Parks’s own words about the impact of racism on the social context of Washington as well as the power of intuition when documenting or witnessing events. Last, the article presents strategies for teachers to help students explore and discuss the motivations of a photographer in documenting the lives of others.

Godron Parks in an office reading a magazine
Gordon Parks. 1943

The article suggests introducing students to the New Deal by showing students photographs taken by Parks upon his arrival to Washington, such as “Anacostia, D.C. Frederick Douglass housing project. Boys playing leap frog near the project.

Before providing any contextual information about the photographs, invite students to observe and reflect on the images.

Next, ask students to give the photographs a title and share their suggestions with the class. Then provide them with information about Gordon Parks and his thoughts on photography.

Then, share with students Parks’ iconic photograph of Ella Watson and an excerpt from Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography where he opined that Washington, DC “bulged with racism.” Ask students to observe the image carefully, using the Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool to record their observations, reflections, and questions.

Woman holding a broom and a mop standing in front of an American Flag
Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. Also known as American Gothic. Gordon Parks, 1942

As the article suggests, share the bibliographic information for the Ella Watson photograph and engage students in a discussion comparing the photographs. Ask students whether they would alter their original titles, knowing the Frederick Douglass housing project photographs were taken prior to the one of Ella Watson, once Parks became more acquainted with the city.

Last, the articles suggests that teachers provide students with the opportunity to generate a list of possible research topics.  Such a list might include:

  • Life in the District of Columbia during WWII
  • Gordon Parks, Ella Watson, Roy Stryker
  • Other documentary photographers, including: Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano
  • Other FSA photographs taken in Washington, DC
  • FSA photographs taken in other communities
  • Howard University professor and architect Hilyard R. Robinson

Let us know what your students find or what strategies you use in your classroom!

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