Unpublished Photos by Gordon Parks Bring a Nuanced View of 1950s Black America

An exhibit in Boston highlights unpublished photos from the acclaimed Life magazine photographer

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

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.”

Gordon Parks: A Harlem Family

"A Harlem Family 1967" honors the legacy and the work of late iconic artist and photojournalist Gordon Parks, who would have turned 100 on November 30, 2012. The exhibition catalogue is co-published by The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Gordon Parks Foundation and features approximately 80 black-and-white photographs of the Fontenelle family, whose lives Gordon Parks documented as part of a 1968 Life magazine photo essay. A searing portrait of poverty in the United States, the Fontenelle photographs provide a view of Harlem through the narrative of a specific family at a particular moment in time.