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'Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott' reveals rare photographs, on view for first time at MFA Boston
Tenement Dwellers, Chicago, Illinois, 1950 Photograph, gelatin silver print. Photograph by Gordon Parks. Courtesy and © The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Gordon Parks (1912-2006), one of the most celebrated African-American photographers of all time, is the subject of a new exhibition of groundbreaking photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott (January 17–September 13, 2015) traces Parks’ return to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas and then to other Midwestern cities, to track down and photograph each of his childhood classmates. On view in the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, the exhibition’s 42 photographs were from a series originally meant to accompany a Life magazine photo essay—but for reasons unknown, the story was never published. The images depict the realities of life under segregation in 1950—presenting a rarely seen view of everyday lives of African-American citizens in the years before the Civil Rights movement began in earnest. One of the most personal and captivating of all Parks’ projects, the images, now owned by The Gordon Parks Foundation, represent a rare and little-known group within Parks’ oeuvre. This exhibition, on view in the Robert and Jane Burke Gallery, is accompanied by a publication by Karen Haas, the MFA’s Lane Curator of Photographs, in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation, which includes an introduction by Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book includes previously unpublished photographs as well as archival materials such as contact sheets and a portion of the 1927 yearbook from the segregated school Parks attended as a child.

“These personal and often touching photos offer a glimpse into the life of Gordon Parks and the prejudice that confronted African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “We’re grateful to The Gordon Parks Foundation for giving us the opportunity to display these moving works.”

Fort Scott, Kansas was an emotional touchstone for Gordon Parks and a place that he was drawn to over and over again as an adult, even though it held haunting memories of racism and discrimination. Parks was born in Fort Scott in 1912 to a poor tenant farmer family and left home as a teenager after his mother died and he found himself—the youngest of 15 children—suddenly having to make his own way in the world. By 1948, Parks was the first African-American photographer hired full time by Life magazine. One of the rare African-American photojournalists in the field, Parks was frequently given magazine assignments involving social issues that his fellow white photographers were not asked to cover. For an assignment on the impact of school segregation, Parks returned to Fort Scott to revisit early memories of his birthplace––many involving racial discrimination––and to reconnect with childhood friends, all of whom went to the same all-black elementary school that Parks had attended. He was able to track down all but two members of the Plaza School Class of 1927, although only one was still living in Fort Scott at the time. As he met with fellow classmates, his story quickly shifted its focus to the Great Migration north by African Americans. Over the course of several days Parks visited with his childhood friends—by this time residing in Kansas City; Saint Louis; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; and Chicago—joining them in their parlors and on their front porches while they recounted their life stories to him. Organized around each of these cities and families, the exhibition features previously unpublished photographs as well as a seven-page draft of Parks’ text for the article.

“With the ‘Back to Fort Scott’ story, Parks showed–– really for the first time––a willingness to mine his own childhood for memories both happy and painful, something he would continue to do in a series of memoirs over the course of his long career” said Haas. “The experience also seems to have inspired him to write The Learning Tree in 1963, his best-selling novel about growing up poor and black in Kansas, that he transformed a few years later into a groundbreaking Hollywood movie—the first by an African American writer-director.”

Parks began his research in Fort Scott, where he found classmate Luella Russell. In addition to photographing Luella with her husband and 16-year-old daughter, Parks took photos of his own family and life around town—finding friends and acquaintances at the local theater, railway station and pool hall. Parks also visited the local baseball field at Othick Park, where he recorded a group of white spectators seated at one end of the bleachers watching a game, while two African-American girls in summer dresses stand at the other end, in an area loosely designated for the town’s black residents. Parks’ image of the girls at the ballpark, where black and white baseball teams sometimes competed against each other, subtly refers to the separation of the races that marked much of everyday life in Fort Scott.

Fort Scott had not changed dramatically since Parks’ youth. Parks attended the all-black Plaza School through the ninth grade in 1927, and as he wrote in his draft for Life magazine: “Twenty-four years before I had walked proudly to the center of the stage and received a diploma. There were twelve of us (six girls and six boys) that night. Our emotions were intermingled with sadness and gaiety. None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the whites, nor did we bother to ask. The situation existed when we were born. We waded in normal at the tender age of six and swam out maladjusted…nine years later.”

After Fort Scott, Parks discovered three of his classmates in Kansas City and St. Louis—cities that were easily reached by rail and were often the first stops made by African Americans leaving smaller towns. Many left towns like Fort Scott in the hope of finding jobs and better futures for their children in these larger, more industrial cities. When Parks tracked down his classmates, he recorded their jobs and wages—the sort of detail that Life typically included in such pieces, allowing its readers to measure their own lives against a story’s subjects. In Kansas City, classmate Peter Thomason was working as a postal transportation clerk (a position, Parks noted, with a minimum salary of $3,700 a year), while in St. Louis, Parks recorded that classmate Norman Earl Collins was doing quite well, making $1.22 an hour at Union Electric of Missouri. Parks’ sympathetic images of Earl and his daughter, Doris Jean, may have been a conscious effort on Parks’ part to offset contemporary stereotypes of black families as less stable and strong than their white counterparts.

By 1950, Chicago was the de facto capital of African-American life in the US, with more black inhabitants than any other city in America—including three of Parks’ classmates. Parks discovered them residing only a mile or two apart from one another on the city’s South Side. Untitled, Chicago, Illinois (1950), depicts Parks’ classmate Fred Wells and his wife Mary in front of their apartment building in the Washington Park neighborhood. A number of the photographs in the exhibition repeat the simple compositional device seen here—featuring a classmate and his or her family, framed by the front door of their home. These images highlighted the families’ similarities to, rather than differences from Life’s readers, who would have found such strong representations of black families at once surprising and reassuring.

In Detroit, Parks traced classmate Pauline Terry to the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood. In Fort Scott, Pauline had married Bert Collins, who had run a restaurant during much of the 1930s. By 1950, they were settled in Detroit and had five children. Unlike Parks’ other classmates who had migrated north in search of opportunity, Pauline (yearbook ambition: “To be young forever; to be a Mrs.”) now had a large family and no longer worked outside the home. In the course of her conversation with Parks, she emphasized the importance of religion in their lives. Parks’ powerful portrait of the couple walking to Sunday services at the Macedonia Baptist Church, Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan (1950) reinforces the seriousness of their faith. The cigar-smoking Bert wears a sharp suit and straw boater and carries a well-worn Bible.

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. In the end, all that survives, as far as written documentation of the Fort Scott assignment, are Parks’ project notes from his individual visits with his classmates in May and June of 1950; several telegrams sent by Life staffers regarding his friends’ whereabouts before his arrival; fact-checking when the piece was again slated to run in April 1951; and an annotated seven-page draft. Because the photos were never published, and most have never before been on view, the exhibition presents a unique opportunity to explore a body of work that is almost completely unknown to the public.

The MFA and The Gordon Parks Foundation

The MFA has five works by Gordon Parks in its collection, including Untitled (Outside the Liberty Theater) (1950) from the Fort Scott series, which will be on view in Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. When researching this photo for the MFA’s upcoming book on art by African Americans, Common Wealth, Haas contacted The Gordon Parks Foundation for more information on the date and location of the work. This connection led to the MFA exhibition, which is one of a series of exhibitions organized in partnership with The Gordon Parks Foundation, including Gordon Parks: Segregation Story (November 15, 2014-June 7, 2015, High Museum of Art, Atlanta), Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument (September 12, 2013–January 19, 2014, New Orleans Museum of Art) and Gordon Parks: A Harlem Family 1967 (November 11, 2012–June 30, 2013, Studio Museum in Harlem).

“The Gordon Parks Foundation is pleased to collaborate with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on this exhibition and publication highlighting a series of very personal, early works by the artist” said Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., the Foundation’s executive director. “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott allows us a focused look at a single Life magazine story and reveals a fascinating tale of Gordon Parks’ segregated beginnings in rural Kansas and the migration stories of his classmates, many of whom, like him, left in search of better lives for themselves and their families.”

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