In 1950, Gordon Parks was the only African-American photographer working for Life magazine, a rising star who was gaining the power to call his own shots, and he proposed a cover story both highly political and deeply personal: to return to Fort Scott, Kan., the prairie town where he had grown up, to find his 11 classmates in a segregated middle school.
The magazine agreed, and in the spring Parks drove back into his hometown for the first time in 23 years, taking, as he wrote later, “a long hungry look” at the red brick school where he had been educated, a school still segregated in 1950. “None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the white; nor did we bother to ask,” Parks wrote. “The situation existed when we were born. We waded in normal at the tender age of 6 and swam out maladjusted and complexed nine years later.”
For reasons that remain unclear, Life never published those words or the powerful pictures Parks took of nine of his classmates, and their stories have remained in the time capsule of his archives for more than half a century. But an exhibition opening Jan. 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts here will at long last bring the work to light, at a time when racial unrest and de facto segregation in many American cities give it a new kind of relevance.
“The story would have been the only Life cover in those years — other than one about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier — to show African-Americans, and I think it would have had a big impact,” said Karen E. Haas, the show’s curator. “I just really wanted to figure out what had happened to it and see what was there.”
Parks, raised in a poor tenant-farming family, became one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation, not only because of his images, which often held a harsh mirror up to American racism, but also because of his writing — his memoirs and the semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” — and his 1971 action movie, “Shaft,” which helped open new avenues for black actors and directors.