Help To Solve A Gordon Parks Southern Mystery

Photography provides a glimpse, a mirror into ourselves and our history. Here is an opportunity to play detective, and to crowdsource information to take away question marks, and replace them with facts about what might have been happening in a photograph taken once upon a time in Georgia by the award winning photographer Gordon Parks.

If you aren’t familiar with Gordon Parks or his work, you are in for an education and a treat, according to KMUW. A showing of some of Parks’ work, much of it from his hometown of Ft. Scott, Kansas, provides a glimpse of civil rights struggles. The exhibit will be curated by Karen Haas.

“I welcome this celebration of Parks’ life and work, but the focus on important African Americans from Kansas is too narrow. Thankfully, The Kansas African-American Museum recently published an incredible photo essay book called African Americans of Wichita. This survey of local history broadens the spotlight to recognize many important people worthy of celebration.”

The New York Times shared the original photographs, taken in the Atlanta airport in 1956, featuring a white woman, traveling with a woman of color, presumably holding the first woman’s baby. Unraveling this mystery will appeal to fans of photography, history buffs, and the “just plain nosy.” James Estrin put the call out to anyone who might be able to contribute to the puzzle.

“So we are turning to you, dear readers, to help unravel this mystery. We particularly ask those of you who like history and research, as well as those who are just plain nosy, to help us crowd-source the stories of the people in this photo. Let’s use the comments section of this post to share what we find out and help each other in our joint search. You can also e-mail us at”

Gordon Parks shared his own notes, which might help solve the mystery.

“These shots were all taken candidly in the Airlines Terminal in Atlanta.” This image, he said, “shows the continuous matter of servitude which extends into the terminal around 2 a.m. Here, a white baby is held by a Negro maid while the baby’s mother checks on reservations, etc. Although the Negro woman serves as nurse-maid for the white woman’s baby, the two would not be allowed to sit and eat a meal together in any Atlanta restaurant.”

Deb Willis, a professor, author, and friend of Gordon Parks shared thoughts about the photos and the mystery.

“When I first encountered the photo I saw intimacy and the love and respect of the nanny holding the child in a protective manner, and then the distance that the mother has from the nanny and child,” said Ms. Willis, who heads the photography department at New York University. “The nanny is being dutiful and loyal. We know there’s an intimacy there, and a sense of trust that is part of their work environment.”

The New York Daily News added some additional information about what was going on at the time Gordon Parks snapped his photos. The first showing two women sitting quietly, employer and employee. The next shows the employer smoking a cigarette while the other woman tends to the child. The second image alone is odd, as it has been some time since anyone was allowed to smoke in an airport waiting area.

The calmness of a woman of color sitting peacefully in the “whites only” section of the airport while life was still chaotic outside this microcosm is stirring at the very least.

“Gordon Parks’s 1956 photograph captures this intimacy. His image depicts a relationship between the races that is neither dramatic nor violent. Indeed, it’s the ordinariness of this moment that contains its power. Quietly, these two women and the baby — sitting together — remind us of the mundaneness and the sometimes near-invisibility of racism and white privilege in everyday life.”

So if you think you might have something to add to this mystery — if the women look familiar, or if you recognize anything else captured in the Parks photograph — share your thoughts below.

What do Gordon Parks’ photographs say to you?

[Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images]