In the late spring of 1950, Gordon Parks (1912–2006), Life magazine’s first African American staff photographer, was approached by his editors to do a feature on segregated schools. The topic was a subject of national debate, especially in Parks’ home state of Kansas—the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling would begin with a suit filed in Topeka just one year later.
For his Life assignment, Parks chose to tackle the controversial issue as seen through the lens of his own childhood in Fort Scott, in the rural southeastern corner of the state. The youngest of fifteen children, Parks had left Fort Scott in 1928, moving north following the death of his mother to live with a sister in Minnesota. And so, more than twenty years after first leaving, Parks set out to reconnect with eleven of his elementary school classmates—the entire class of 1927—from the all-black Plaza School that they had attended in Fort Scott.
This exhibition brings together more than forty of the images Parks made for his Life story. In its heyday Life reported each week on major political and cultural events to an estimated 20 million readers. The majority of the magazine’s subscribers were white middle-class families and their everyday domestic lives became the paradigm by which most of Life’s features were told. That Parks could gather the personal stories of his fellow schoolmates and recount them from the standpoint of a shared childhood would have been attractive to his editors. But in the end, photo essay did not appear in Life as planned. The reason remains a mystery, although the United States’ entry into the Korean conflict would have a major impact on the magazine’s content for some time. Life’s editors did try to resuscitate the story in April of 1951, only to have it passed over once again by the breaking news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.
This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with The Gordon Parks Foundation. All images courtesy and copyright of The Gordon Parks Foundation.