This photo was taken in 1942 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.
What the rest of the house was like
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.
A tiny back yard
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.
I guess it’s obvious this photo brings 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 here:
Photos by Gordon Parks of Life In A Washington, DC Housing Project in WW2
African American Gothic — LIFE Magazine Photographer Gordon Parks’ Classic Portrait of Ella Watson