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 lesson looks at the technical and artistic elements of Parks' photographic essay, using a collection of Park's photos from the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. Discussion questions challenge the students to dissect the themes and style of Parks' breathtaking photos of his childhood hometown.