"American Gothic," considered to be Parks's signature image, was taken in Washington, D.C., in 1942, during the photographer's fellowship with the Farm Security Administration, a government agency set up by President Roosevelt to aid farmers in despair. "It's the first professional image I ever made," Parks says, "created on my first day in Washington." Roy Stryker, who led the FSA's very best documentary photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, etc.—told Parks to go out and get acquainted with the city. Parks was amazed by the amount of bigotry and discrimination he encountered on his very first day. "White restaurants made me enter through the back door, white theaters wouldn't even let me in the door, and as the day went on things just went from bad to worse." Stryker told Parks to go talk with some older black people who had lived their entire lives in Washington and see how they had coped. "That's how I met Ella," Parks explains.

Ella Watson was a black charwoman who mopped floors in the FSA building. Parks asked her about her life, which she divulged as having been full of misery, bigotry and despair. Parks's simple question, "Would you let me photograph you?" and Ella's affirmative response, led to the photographer's most recognizable image of all time. "Two days later Stryker saw the image and told me I'd gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was 'an indictment of America.' I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post ." At the time, Parks couldn't have realized that the image would go on to become the symbol of the pre-civil rights era's treatment of minorities.