Visiting Gordon Parks’ “Back to Fort Scott” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is like taking a step back in time. His exhibit showcases love of African American families, the normalcy of their lives, and segregation in the 1950s. I found the exhibit to be extremely expressive and moving.
Gordon Parks was the first African American photographer for Life magazine. He was asked to do a feature on segregated schools, and he decided to revisit the town of his birth, Fort Scott, Kansas in 1950. He visited eleven of his classmates from his all-black elementary school to narrate their lives 20 years after elementary school. The exhibit shows more than 40 black and white photographs that Parks created for Life, even though the magazine never printed his story. Parks’ observations are on display at the beginning of the exhibit. In his observations, he mentions the difficulties that he and his friends experienced due to segregation and discrimination.
In many of the photographs, Parks depicts classmates with their families, standing side-by-side in front of their homes. Parks is trying to illustrate to the readers of Life in the early 1950s that African Americans are normal, strong people who love their family. Whether it is a young girl playing the piano or a husband and wife walking to church together, Parks portrays African Americans as no different than any other Americans. In 1950, before Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement gained prominence, Parks’s portrayal of blacks would have been surprising to whites. “These everyday images are very important, considering that most people didn’t get to see positive images of African Americans at the time,” said Sarah Eckhardt, the associate curator of modern and contemporary art for the VMFA.“This was a time when, as a black person, you wouldn’t necessarily look directly into the eyes of a white walking down the street,” said Karen E. Haas, the curator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who created the exhibit. “To look into eyes in a sense of 20 million Life magazine readers, that was quite brave and it was quite a powerful statement.”
The exhibit also shows some of his unsuccessful classmates, who were not doing well. Some of his classmates had to leave Fort Scott, in the words of one, “because there wasn’t much doing there for negroes.” One photograph that really stood out was of classmate Mazel Morgan and her husband, Willie Hubbard, living in a rundown hotel in an all-black Chicago neighborhood. Mazel almost looks depressed as she looks through the window, while Hubbard lies on his bed smoking a cigarette, looking lifeless. They had moved from Kansas City to Detroit, and finally to Chicago, where Hubbard lost his job and the couple had fallen into tough times. As Parks was about to depart, according to his commentary, Hubbard pulled a loaded gun on him and demanded all of Parks’ money, which he quickly handed over. The picture shows the true hardship that African Americans were actually going through.
There are several photographs from the Fort Scott exhibit that show the separation of blacks and whites. One in particular takes place at a baseball game, where the black fans were seated in a section separated from whites. Parks later wrote in one of his essays, “None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the whites nor did we bother to ask.”
If anyone has a chance to see the exhibit, I highly encourage you to look through it. There is also space devoted to articles that Parks wrote later, like, “How It Feels to be Black” and his novel The Learning Tree, which also became his first film. While going through the exhibit, I felt like it was very relevant to the similar issues we have today. In 2016, African Americans are still fighting for equality. Parks is conveying a very powerful message to the world, and it is disappointing to know that we still battle with many of these same issues today.
All photos courtesy of the VMFA.