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Gordon Parks Goes “Back to Fort Scott” to Create a Portrait of an Era

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Richmond, presents 1950s America through the eyes of native son Gordon Parks.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Untitled, St. Louis, Missouri, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in.

The U.S. Army established Fort Scott in 1842, as they began crossing expanding the nation’s boundaries by expanding onto Native American territory. It was officially laid out as a town in 1857, during a period of violent unrest infamously known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Prior to the Kansas’s admission as a free state to the Union in 1861, abolitionist and pro-slavery factions violently fought for control. Throughout the Civil War, the conflict blazed, but the war settled things and Fort Scott became one of the premier cities on the American frontier in the years leading up to the turn of the twentieth century.

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Although Kansas was always a free state, it was among 35 states in the nation to put Jim Crow laws on the books following the Civil War. Once again Kansas found itself at the center of national conflict, as its segregation laws focused on education, requiring separate schools for black students. It was not until 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) that the policy of “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Untitled, Columbus, Ohio, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Untitled,
Columbus, Ohio, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.

Photographer Gordon Parks (1912–2006) is Fort Scott’s native son. Born to farmers who lived on the land, Parks attended a segregated elementary school. The town was too poor to afford to construct segregated high schools, so it brought division to extracurricular activities. Black students were barred from playing spots or attending social events, and discouraged from pursuing higher education. Parks was told not to waste his money on college.

Fortunately, Parks’ talents did not require academia. At the age of 25, he purchased a camera and began producing work. His talents lead him to rise to the very top, becoming the first black photographer to work full time for Life magazine, bringing stories of African American life to the mainstream media in ways that it had never before been seen.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gift of The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning,
Detroit, Michigan, 1950. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston; Gift of The Gordon Parks Foundation

But not all of Parks’s stories came to be published. Some got bumped. One such story that never ran was Back to Fort Scott, a project he undertook in 1950, more than twenty years after he left home. Fortunately, the work has ben resurrected, find its way into the world through a book published by Steidl and a touring exhibition currently on view in Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, now through October 30, 2016. The exhibition features 42 photographs from the series, as well as a seven-page draft of Parks’s text for the article.

Ever prescient of history as it was unfolding before his eyes, Parks took on the subject of school segregation in the years right before the landmark Supreme Court case. He reached out to 11 of his former classmates who attended the all-black Plaza School in Fort Scott to discover what had become of their lives during the intervening years only to discover all but one had in common was that they had left Fort Scott behind, following the Second Great Migration (1940–1970) north.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Mrs. Jefferson, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1950. Gelatin silver print. 14 x 11 in.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006). Mrs. Jefferson, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1950. Gelatin silver print. 14 x 11 in.

For the assignment, Parks traveled to Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbus, Ohio. He met his former classmates their new homes and their places of work to discuss the issue of segregated schools and the decision to move north. The story, which was bumped not once but twice, has come full circle in the new millennium. As a museum exhibition and art book it has become an integral document of the nation’s history as seen by a man determined to bear witness and speak truth to power.

All photos: © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.