I went to Boston two weeks ago to see the “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. I had the pleasure of visiting with the curator of the exhibition, Karen Haas, when she was in Wichita doing her preliminary research. While there I met with Haas, who showed me the exhibition and talked about her work and research.
In my view, she has done an excellent job of capturing and displaying an important segment of Parks’ work, using a limited number of photographs from the Gordon Parks Foundation. (Some of the photographs are also in the collection of the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University.)
Parks was the first African-American photographer to be hired by the iconic Life magazine. He was frequently given magazine assignments involving social issues that the white photographers were not asked to cover. In 1950, Parks returned to Kansas to make a series of photographs that were to accompany a story called “Back to Fort Scott.”
As described on the museum’s website, Parks “used this assignment to revisit early memories of his birthplace, many involving serious racial discrimination, and to reconnect with childhood friends, all of whom had attended the same all-black grade school as Parks. One of the most visually rich and captivating of all his projects, Parks’ photographs ... were slated to appear in April 1951, but the photo essay was never published. This exhibition represents a rarely seen view of everyday lives of African-American citizens, years before the civil rights movement began in earnest.”
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Haas has done a masterful job with this exhibition and the accompanying book. And I can proudly and happily say that much of Haas’ research was accomplished reviewing the collected papers of Parks housed in the special collections and university archives at WSU’s Ablah Library.
If you see the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 13, I can pretty much promise you will be informed, touched and moved. You will also be proud of Parks, Kansas and WSU.
Ted D. Ayres is vice president and general counsel at Wichita State University.