One of the things I like is collecting photographs that have some element of historical or artistic interest for me personally. From time to time, I’ll post some of these photos here.
“Mother and her daughter” by Gordon Parks, 1942
This photo was taken in the Frederick Douglass Housing Project in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC. It has very special meaning for me because this is my bathroom! Not literally, of course, but the bathroom of the house I grew up in was exactly like this. Everything about it, from the tub to the washbasin to the medicine cabinet, is just as I remember it.
I was raised in a public housing project in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I remember being told as a child that those houses had been built in the 40’s. Apparently there was a standard design that was used for public housing in several sections of the country. So, I feel that I know the house this mom and her daughters lived in from top to bottom.
Our house (we called it a house and not an apartment) had two bedrooms, one larger and one smaller, with one bathroom plus a hall linen closet on the second floor. On the first floor was a living room, the kitchen, and another hall closet. There were front and back doors, and since our unit was on the upper level, there were steps leading down from the first floor hall to the front door. We shared a front porch with the neighbors who lived in the ground level unit under us. The back door opened onto a small landing at the top of the stairs. On the opposite side of the landing was the back door of the next upper level unit. The back stairs were shared between the units, and led to a ground level door that opened onto the back porch.
When I was very young, our house was heated by a coal stove in the living room, as I’m sure the house in the photo was as well. There was a two-sided coal bin on the back porch, the upper and lower units each having their assigned side of the bin. I can dimly remember helping to bring in little buckets of coal to feed the stove. Later in my childhood, the coal stove was replaced by an electric heater. I don’t remember the upstairs having its own heating unit, but I also don’t remember ever being especially cold in the house.
The back yard was postage stamp size, with two sets of clothes lines that were shared between the units. There was little natural vegetation, but I had fun planting dried pinto beans and popcorn, and was greatly gratified when bean plants and corn stalks actually grew. I also planted the cut-off tops of carrots, which resulted in tassels growing, but, alas, the carrot top would never grow a new body.
The photo below shows the same mom in the kitchen of her house. I have much less of a sense of recognition regarding this scene, probably because the main features visible in the view, the kitchen table and the curtains on the window, are not familiar to me. Also, it seems that the left-right orientation may be the opposite of what it was in my house. If that is the case, the cabinets at the extreme right of the photo are above the sink, and there is an open pantry area out of the view to the left.
Gordon Parks’ original caption says the young mother was watching her children through the window while preparing the evening meal.
I guess it’s obvious that these photos bring back a lot of memories for me. They are good memories. And I must admit that there is a place deep down in the recesses of my mind where the word “home” still means the little house in Chattanooga that was (and still is) so much like the one this mother and her daughters lived in.
You can see more of Gordon Parks’ photos of life in the Douglass Homes in my article: