Gordon Parks: Back from Fort Scott is a remarkable exhibition of brilliant photographs that document the realities of life under racism and segregation in the 1950’s. Working in a very difficult place and time, Gordon Park‘s portraits are both aesthetically beautiful and give us a real sense of the people in the images. This is journalism and it is the work of a fine artist.
It includes portraits of African-Americans and their families in their everyday lives; images that were invisible at the time and are still too rarely seen. Parks took the photo essay for Life Magazine and it was never published.
These quotes are from Randy Kennedy’s article ‘A Long Hungry Look’: Forgotten Gordon Parks Photos Document Segregation in the New York Times:
In 1950, Gordon Parks was the only African-American photographer working for Life magazine, a rising star who was gaining the power to call his own shots, and he proposed a cover story both highly political and deeply personal: to return to Fort Scott, Kan., the prairie town where he had grown up, to find his 11 classmates in a segregated middle school.
The magazine agreed, and in the spring Parks drove back into his hometown for the first time in 23 years, taking, as he wrote later, “a long hungry look” at the red brick school where he had been educated, a school still segregated in 1950. “None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the white; nor did we bother to ask,” Parks wrote. “The situation existed when we were born. We waded in normal at the tender age of 6 and swam out maladjusted and complexed nine years later.”
For reasons that remain unclear, Life never published those words or the powerful pictures Parks took of nine of his classmates, and their stories have remained in the time capsule of his archives for more than half a century. But an exhibition opening Jan. 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts here will at long last bring the work to light, at a time when racial unrest and de facto segregation in many American cities give it a new kind of relevance.
“The story would have been the only Life cover in those years — other than one about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier — to show African-Americans, and I think it would have had a big impact,” said Karen E. Haas, the show’s curator. “I just really wanted to figure out what had happened to it and see what was there.”
Parks, raised in a poor tenant-farming family, became one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation, not only because of his images, which often held a harsh mirror up to American racism, but also because of his writing — his memoirs and the semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” — and his 1971 action movie, “Shaft,” which helped open new avenues for black actors and directors.
Ms. Haas has pieced together the unpublished Fort Scott article’s history through original prints held at the Gordon Parks Foundation, in Pleasantville, N.Y., and documents in the archive of Parks’s papers at Wichita State University in Kansas. And she ended up going much further than most curators might in search of her subject. In the fall, she and her husband, Greg Heins, a photographer and director of the museum’s photo studio, took to the road through the Midwest — in a kind of reverse Great Migration, from Chicago to Fort Scott — to find children and grandchildren of Parks’s classmates, using decades-old addresses from Parks’s notes. “It was an odd sort of vacation for the two of us, you might say,” Mr. Heins said.
In the end, at each address they visited, not a single home of the classmates Parks photographed was still standing, a sad testament, at least in part, to the fate of African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio, where the graduates had moved to find work and better lives. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, at least I know the house for the address I have in Fort Scott itself will still be there,’ ” Ms. Haas recalled in a recent interview at the museum. “And when I saw that it was gone, too, I literally cried.”
The lives of the classmates — six girls and five boys who graduated from the segregated Plaza School in 1927, in what was then a town of 10,000 people — present a miniature snapshot of African-American aspiration and struggle in the years before Brown v. Board of Education or the civil rights movement.
Parks found Emma Jane Wells in Kansas City, Mo., where she sold clothes door-to-door to supplement her husband’s salary at a paper-bag factory. Peter Thomason lived a few blocks away, working for the post office, one of the best jobs available to black men at the time. But others from the class led much more precarious lives. Parks tracked down Mazel Morgan on the South Side of Chicago, in a transient hotel with her husband, who Parks said robbed him at gunpoint after a photo session. Morgan’s middle-school yearbook description had been ebullient (“Tee hee, tee ho, tee hi, ha hum/Jolly, good-natured, full of fun”), but in 1950 she told Parks, “I’ve felt dead so long that I don’t figure suicide is worthwhile anymore.”
The most promising of the classmates, Donald Beatty, lived in an integrated neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where he had a highly desirable job as a supervisor at a state agency and where Parks’s pictures show him — very much in the vernacular of Life magazine’s Eisenhower-era domestic scenes — happy and secure with his wife and toddler son and a brand-new Buick. But notes made by a Life fact-checker just a year later, when the magazine planned once again to run Parks’s article, recorded a tragedy, blithely and with no explanation: “Aside from the death of their son, nothing much has happened to them.
The Times article says it is ‘unclear’ and the museum’s essay says that it is a ‘mystery’ why they were never published. Since it’s no accident that images of the people in these photographs are rarely seen and never seen at that time – it seems to me that there is no mystery at all.
The museum essay says: “Once completed, Parks’ Fort Scott photo essay never appeared in Life. The reason for that remains a mystery, although the US entry into the Korean War that summer had a major impact on the content of its pages for some time. The magazine’s editors did try to resuscitate the story early in April of 1951 only to have it passed over by the news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.”
Since Life’s only cover with an African American during this entire period was of Jackie Robinson, it would have been a miracle for Life to have published it in those segregated pre-civil rights times. And in the present time of #Black Lives Matter it is still more true than not.
So, I’m grateful to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Gordon Parks Foundation for finally giving us the opportunity to see these photos, and to let us re-remember (or see for the first time) the realities of those times and people.
And there is a book, and I’m buying it.