Memorial Day is a time for remembering what we owe to those who are no longer with us. (Yes, it’s also a time for picnics, backyard BBQs, and sleeping late. But it should be more than that.) I’ve been thinking about my father, Lt. Col. John E. Mason, Sr., who served in the United States Army during World War II and the Korean War. He grew up poor, on farm in southside Virginia, put himself through high school and college, and became part of the Army’s first sizeable contingent of African-American officers. He was, that is, one of the men who blazed the trail later followed by the likes of Colin Powell. My father, who had a heck of a life, later became an Episcopal priest at a time when black Episcopal clergymen were few and far between.
I’ve also been thinking about another trailblazer, Gordon Parks, and Ella Watson, another of the men and women whose sacrifices made this country (and the world) a better place. That’s Watson in the photo below; Parks made it in 1942.
Ella Watson, 1942. Photo by Gordon Parks.
Gordon Parks rose from poverty to become one of the most important photojournalists and fashion photographers of the twentieth century. He opened doors through which many African-American photographers later passed. Ella Watson was a cleaning woman in a federal office building, in Washington, DC, whose wages supported a household that included grandchildren and an adopted daughter and helped support the church to which she was so devoted.
We would never have heard of Ella Watson, if Parks hadn’t made that photo. He had come to DC to work as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration [FSA]. Roy Stryker, who headed the photographic section, wasn’t happy about hiring a black photographer, but, after some prodding, did it anyway. To his credit, it was Stryker who suggested that Parks talk to Watson, when he expressed his desire to find a way to explore racial discrimination visually. The result was a series of photographs that looked at Watson’s life, at work and at home. She emerges, in those photos, as someone whose memory I’d like to honor. You can find Parks’s photos of Watson and read more about them on the Library of Congress’s FSA photographs website.
I’d also like to remember my friend Dan Hallabrin. I learned today that he died in Spain last week. Thirty years ago, he was one of my favorite bartenders (we worked together in a Cincinnati restaurant). He later became a middle school and high school teacher in Cincinnati and Spain. Everybody who knew him--colleagues and students alike--will tell you that he was one of the most inspiring teachers that they ever encountered. He’ll be sorely missed.