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Photographer Gordon Parks’ hunt for childhood friends reveals 1940s black life under segregation

April 11, 2015 at 1:19 PM EDT
One of the most celebrated African-American artists of his time, Gordon Parks, is the subject of a photography exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that focuses on the realities of life under segregation during the 1940s. WGBH's Jared Bowen reports.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: It’s always just been called “Young African-American Couple in Front of Segregated Movie Theater.” Didn’t have a firm date, we didn’t know anything about it.

JARED BOWEN: This was the picture that launched the Museum of Fine Arts’ Karen Haas on a curatorial quest: To learn what brought photographer Gordon Parks Back to Fort Scott, Kansas, his hometown, in 1950. What she uncovered was a trove—a comprehensive look at black life under segregation.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: He had the power to go back and tell the stories of African American families. Friends of his, people who trusted him, who looked right into his camera. And who really believed that he would do right by them. That he had this opportunity to sort of counter all the stereotypes of African Americans.”

JARED BOWEN: This exhibition comprises the photographs Parks took on assignment for Life Magazine. He had pitched the story—to return home to Kansas for an extremely personal take on segregation.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: He decides to go back and seek out his classmates from elementary school and it turns out it was the entire class of 1927 that he was looking for, all the 11 classmates. And to look at where their lives had gone and what their experiences had been in the 20-plus years since he had seen them.

JARED BOWEN: It wasn’t easy for Parks to return home. Kansas and Fort Scott had been rife with racism throughout his hardscrabble childhood.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: He was the youngest of 15 children. His father was a tenant farmer, his mother was a maid. He described his life as having been very tough later on, having been discriminated against and really felt the need to get away.

JARED BOWEN: As he tracked down his classmates some 20 years after he’d last seen them, he found that nearly all had moved away—some to Chicago’s South Side.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: He found one friend Masel, who was in very dire straights, and he described her as the class tragedy. She was living with an abusive husband, who actually held up Gordon Parks with a gun, and took all his money.

JARED BOWEN: She was the exception. By and large Parks found his classmates, like himself, had improved their lives.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: There was another classmate who had found a very big job at Campbell Soup which apparently was a factory that hired a lot of African American workers.

So some people were living very middle class lives, but nearly all of the families that he met with were living in mostly African American neighborhoods. And the sad part for me was that recently in revisiting those neighborhoods and trying to find those homes and to go back to the place to get a sense for myself of what they looked like.

They’re very changed today.

JARED BOWEN: Haas re-traced Parks’ trip last year—like Parks, her intent was personal too. And tinged with sadness for the homes no longer standing.

What compelled you to go there?

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: I am not sure, except to say that I’ve really have become obsessed with this story. I feel as though these are people I’ve come to know through reading Gordon Parks’ notes, reading his notebooks, going through his correspondence, looking through the contact sheets, studying the images.

I’m really fascinated by these people’s lives. I’m realizing in the process of this research, how little I know of this moment in history.

JARED BOWEN: And were it not for Haas, we wouldn’t have seen this history. Life magazine never published the Parks story. Haas speculates it was bumped for breaking news and by the time it could be published, the subjects’ lives had already changed dramatically. So here, 65 years later, Parks’ perspective finally sees the light of day.

KAREN HAAS, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: One very exciting thing is that we’ve recently reproduced one of the images from the exhibition, a little girl playing the piano with her mother sitting next to her.

And just out of the blue have been contacted by this little girl who turns out to be now in her late 60s living in Arizona, a fascinating story.

Had a wonderful conversation with her about her mother about growing up in Chicago, and I’m thrilled to see that in many ways, her life was exactly what her mother had hoped for her. And she went on to do many of the things her mother was not able to do in her own life.”

JARED BOWEN: Progress through the lens of Gordon Parks.