“I was born to a black childhood of confusion and poverty — the memory of that beginning influences my work today.” Gordon Parks
Everything is about timing, especially the news. With our instantaneous access to information, it’s hard to imagine — or remember — the importance LIFE magazine held during the post-World War II years. The glossy, large-format weekly covered hard news, human interest stories and cultural events, reaching over 20 million predominantly white middleclass readers through visually powerful photographic essays. In 1950, when the United States began to confront the emotionally charged issue of segregated schools, LIFE maintained a pro-integration position and assigned Gordon Parks — its only African American photographer, in his second year with the magazine — to examine how segregated schools affected African American children.
Parks was a native of Kansas, a state where a number of cases against school segregation had already been brought before the courts. The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, a class action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, loomed on the horizon. Parks could personalize the story, given he had attended the all-black Plaza School in Fort Scott through ninth grade. He chose to focus on the lives of his 11 classmates and set out in May 1950 to reconnect with them.
The resulting story, however, became an unfortunate casualty of the news cycle and was never published. Although the exact reasons are unknown, the first likely usurper was the U.S. entry into the Korean War in June 1950. When the story was rescheduled to run in April 1951, President Truman had just fired General Douglas MacArthur. On a two-year assignment with LIFE’s Paris bureau that had begun in the summer of 1950, Parks was no longer in the New York offices to directly lobby editors for its publication.
Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott, a 2015 exhibition of 42 images organized by the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, brought these photographs together for the first time, presenting a unique opportunity to view an almost completely unknown body of work. The accompanying book features all 80 of Parks’s images from the series (published by the Museum, the Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl).
MFA curator Karen E. Haas first became intrigued by a Parks image from the Fort Scott series in the MFA permanent collection: an African American couple standing beneath a movie theater marquee. While conducting research for a book, Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum Fine Arts, Boston, Haas began exploring that photograph’s history — a journey that led her to the Gordon Parks Foundation in New York and to his papers at Wichita State University, Kansas.
In an online video interview, Haas says:
The interesting thing about LIFE magazine, of course, for those of us who grew up with it, was that the stories were most often told through using the American white middle-class family as this sort of standard… and here was an African American photographer, Gordon Parks, instead telling the story through his friends’ lives, using them as the examples and holding them as a new sort of standard for what a black family was. I was very excited to show these pictures that have never been seen before, and to show them in the context of a LIFE magazine story that did not get published, but really tells an amazing story about this particular moment in our history.
When Parks was born in 1912, the youngest of 15 children in a poor tenant farmer family, Fort Scott was a major regional railroad hub and one of the fastest-growing towns in eastern Kansas. It had its own “black Main Street,” as well as many African American businesses, churches, schools and fraternal organizations. When Parks returned in 1950 after an absence of 20 years, Fort Scott had not changed much, although fewer African Americans lived there.
This was the period of the Great Migration, when African Americans relocated to Northern and Midwestern industrial cities Tenement Dwellers, Chicago, Illinois, 1950 in search of greater opportunity. Parks himself left home as a teenager after the death of his mother. He got his start as a freelance fashion photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota and gained prominence after coming to the attention of Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Thereafter, he moved to Chicago and won a photography fellowship from the Farm Security Administration in 1941. His 1948 photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader won Parks a position as a staff photographer for LIFE.
Fast-forward to 1950, when Parks tracked down his classmates for the LIFE story. He found all but two, then photographed around Fort Scott, capturing friends and acquaintances at the pool hall and the railway station. With LIFE’s mostly white, middleclass readers in mind, he also documented the white work force. But it’s when we enter the homes of his former classmates — first Luella Russell’s in Fort Scott, then homes in Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit and Chicago — that Parks’s work takes on a deeper resonance, inviting us into the private worlds of his subjects. These homes range from a south side Chicago dwelling, to a transient hotel, to one of the small kitchenette apartments cobbled from larger apartments to accommodate the city’s swelling numbers of blacks. “Parks had an incredible ability to photograph people to start with,” says Haas. “He was respectful. He had an amazing ability, it seems to me, to disappear, to allow people to forget he was there and be comfortable.”
Parks photographed black families as white families were photographed at the time, purposely highlighting similarities. His family portraits are all composed the same way: the entire family poses in front of their house. He photographed people in parlors, at pianos and dining tables, and on front porches while they recounted their life stories. Parks aimed to show what had happened to a generation of black students, educated separately from their white peers, who had grown up — students who, even though they had been trained as domestic workers, had achieved better jobs. Some also owned cars and homes.