Walking with Ella Watson
Gordon Parks made a series of photographs for the Farm Security Administration in 1942. Parks intended to document the impact of racial bigotry on Black communities in Washington D.C., and found a resilient subject in Ella Watson, a Black woman who cleaned federal offices. This moment produced the iconic "American Gothic" portrait Parks made of Watson in the building that evening. But Watson also brought Parks to other critical spaces in her life, including her home altar and her worship community at the St. Martin's Spiritual Center. This essay meditates on the images of Watson's religious life. Walking with Watson into the sanctuary and documenting spiritualists' dynamic forms of worship helped Parks to focus his lens on the fullness of Black living beyond the burdens of systemic racism. The photographs help us to visualize how sacred liberatory spirit emerges in solitude and in collectivity, moving both within and beyond the walls of the sanctuary.