Gordon Parks was only a teenager when he left his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. The youngest of 15, Parks chose to make a living for himself after his mother passed away, and wound up becoming the first African American photographer for Life Magazine.
Only two years after his first Life assignment, Parks returned home for a photo essay on segregated education. Journeying to Fort Scott and other Midwestern cities nearby, Parks photographed his childhood classmates, capturing their faces, families and homes while recording details about their occupations and incomes. The photo essay, for reasons that remain unknown, was never published, and most of the images went unseen.
And then Karen Haas, curator at MFA Boston, stumbled upon an image of Parks’ that changed everything.
“The museum decided to do a rather major publication on our African American collections across all our departments,” Haas explained in a phone conversation with The Huffington Post. “I was asked to write the entries on the African American photographers because it was a particular interest of mine. One of the photographs by Gordon Parks was sort of a mystery — it’s simply titled ‘Outside the Liberty Theater’ and depicts a young couple outside a segregated movie theater. I contacted the Gordon Parks Foundation and together we sorted out the fact that this was a photograph taken in Fort Scott, Kansas and related to a larger story that’s widely unknown because it was never published in Life Magazine. That’s really where it all began.”
“They’ve never been exhibited together before, many of them have never been shown at all. They’re completely unknown; the foundation didn’t know the picture, no one knew what it really was. It’s not that surprising that for a magazine photographer. Without that anchor to a story there’s no reason for them to see the light of day again. There was this trail, this little thread I was following to figure out the story from this picture.
See more photos at HuffPost Black Voices.