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.
Ms. Haas has pieced together the unpublished Fort Scott article’s history through original prints held at the Gordon Parks Foundation, in Pleasantville, N.Y., and documents in the archive of Parks’s papers at Wichita State University in Kansas. And she ended up going much further than most curators might in search of her subject. In the fall, she and her husband, Greg Heins, a photographer and director of the museum’s photo studio, took to the road through the Midwest — in a kind of reverse Great Migration, from Chicago to Fort Scott — to find children and grandchildren of Parks’s classmates, using decades-old addresses from Parks’s notes. “It was an odd sort of vacation for the two of us, you might say,” Mr. Heins said.
In the end, at each address they visited, not a single home of the classmates Parks photographed was still standing, a sad testament, at least in part, to the fate of African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio, where the graduates had moved to find work and better lives. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, at least I know the house for the address I have in Fort Scott itself will still be there,’ ” Ms. Haas recalled in a recent interview at the museum. “And when I saw that it was gone, too, I literally cried.”
The lives of the classmates — six girls and five boys who graduated from the segregated Plaza School in 1927, in what was then a town of 10,000 people — present a miniature snapshot of African-American aspiration and struggle in the years before Brown v. Board of Education or the civil rights movement.
Parks found Emma Jane Wells in Kansas City, Mo., where she sold clothes door-to-door to supplement her husband’s salary at a paper-bag factory. Peter Thomason lived a few blocks away, working for the post office, one of the best jobs available to black men at the time. But others from the class led much more precarious lives. Parks tracked down Mazel Morgan on the South Side of Chicago, in a transient hotel with her husband, who Parks said robbed him at gunpoint after a photo session. Morgan’s middle-school yearbook description had been ebullient (“Tee hee, tee ho, tee hi, ha hum/Jolly, good-natured, full of fun”), but in 1950 she told Parks, “I’ve felt dead so long that I don’t figure suicide is worthwhile anymore.”
The most promising of the classmates, Donald Beatty, lived in an integrated neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where he had a highly desirable job as a supervisor at a state agency and where Parks’s pictures show him — very much in the vernacular of Life magazine’s Eisenhower-era domestic scenes — happy and secure with his wife and toddler son and a brand-new Buick. But notes made by a Life fact-checker just a year later, when the magazine planned once again to run Parks’s article, recorded a tragedy, blithely and with no explanation: “Aside from the death of their son, nothing much has happened to them.”
Lorraine Madway, curator of Wichita State University’s special collections, said of the Fort Scott story: “There are those moments in an archive when you know you’ve found the gold, and this is one of them. It’s a wonderful example of micro-history. It’s not only that there is so much material written at a specific time in people’s lives, but then there are Parks’s reflections on it later.”
Since its formation in 2007, a year after Parks’s death at 93, the Gordon Parks Foundation has collaborated with three museums — the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the High Museum in Atlanta — to organize small, highly focused exhibitions that delve into single bodies of Life magazine work, much of it not seen in years. (All but a few of the 42 photographs in “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,” the show at the Museum of Fine Arts, have never been published or exhibited before.)
Ms. Haas approached Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., the foundation’s executive director, after following the historical thread of a Parks picture in the Museum of Fine Arts collection showing a young black couple on a date, standing outside a segregated movie theater. Ms. Haas had never known when or where the picture was taken — Parks used it later in his career without identifying it as part of an unpublished Life article. After discovering that the picture showed the Liberty Theater in his hometown, Ms. Haas became intrigued, and with help from the Gordon Parks Museum at Fort Scott Community College, began to dig deeper in the archives, a journey that eventually led her back to Fort Scott, now a town of 8,000.
“Gordon was very disappointed that the story never ran,” said Mr. Kunhardt, whose grandfather, Philip B. Kunhardt was an editor and close friend of Parks’s at Life. “He was really going back to a place that meant everything to him, and he wanted to use it to say something important.”
Besides fact-checking notes, Parks’s own notes and a typewritten draft for what might have been his introduction to the photo spread, there is almost no other documentation surrounding the project, for which Parks shot about 30 rolls of 35-millimeter and medium-format film. And so the question of why it was not published might never be answered. In an essay for the show’s catalog, Ms. Haas speculates that it might have been doomed by its very newsworthiness, as national challenges to school segregation began gathering speed and Life waited — in the end too long — for just the right moment.
Even with the help of a genealogist, Ms. Haas has reached only dead ends over several months in trying to track down descendants of the classmates, a search that she says “really has become a kind of obsession.” She did find the young man — James Lewis, the son of a doctor in Fort Scott — standing outside the Liberty Theater. But when she reached Mr. Lewis, now in his 80s, by phone in California and told him the subject of her research, he hung up on her. His family told her that his memories of growing up in Fort Scott remained too painful.
Parks carried his own psychic wounds from those years, which profoundly shaped his writing and approach to photography. But his feelings were always bittersweet. Though he lived for many years in New York City, he chose to be buried in his hometown, whose African-American population has declined even more markedly than its overall population. In a 1968 poem about his childhood, he wrote that he would miss “this Kansas land that I was leaving,” one of “wide prairies filled with green and cornstalk,” of the “winding sound of crickets rubbing dampness from wings” and “silver September rain.”
Then he added: “Yes, all this I would miss — /along with the fear, hatred and violence/We blacks had suffered upon this beautiful land.”