Curator Karen Haas says Parks felt it important to convey to Life’s readers the full range of African-American progress. Here, Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950. (Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950 by Gordon Parks / Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation)
One of his former classmates was living in a tenement in Chicago, as shown in this untitled photograph from 1950. “He really paved the way,” Peter Kunhardt, Jr., a family friend and executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, says of Parks. (Tenement Dwellers, Chicago, Illinois, 1950 by Gordon Parks / Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation)
Parks took this untitled photograph in Chicago, where he located three of his former classmates. During the years of the Great Migration, “Chicago is like the center of the universe for the African American,” says Karen Haas, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1950 by Gordon Parks / Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation)
On assignment for Life magazine, Gordon Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1950. He set out to tell the story of school segregation through his former elementary school classmates, but found that many of them had left in the Great Migration. Here, an untitled image from that series. (Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1950 by Gordon Parks / Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation)
His Fort Scott series also brought Parks to St. Louis, Missouri, the setting of this untitled photograph from 1950. Parks was the first African- American staff photographer at Life magazine. (Untitled, St. Louis, Missouri, 1950 by Gordon Parks / Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation)
(Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1950 by Gordon Parks / Courtesy of and © The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Unpublished Photos by Gordon Parks Bring a Nuanced View of 1950s Black America

An exhibit in Boston highlights unpublished photos from the acclaimed Life magazine photographer

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When Gordon Parks set out to photograph school segregation for Life magazine in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, the self-taught artist and first black staff photographer at the magazine returned to Fort Scott, Kansas. He’d grown up there amid Jim Crow racism and decided to tell the story through his former classmates. But many had left in the Great Migration, and so it was in Chicago that he tracked down Margaret Wilkerson and her daughter, Barbara. Life never ran this photograph of the Wilkersons, published here for the first time, or any others from the assignment, but they’ll be on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in January. Parks wanted to present a balanced view of black families, says Karen Haas, curator of the new exhibit. “This family seems like a very hopeful example,” she says. “There was much to be optimistic about.”

About Max Kutner
Max Kutner

Max Kutner was the editorial intern for Smithsonian. He is now a staff writer at Newsweek and has contributed to Boston magazine and other publications.

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