It began with a single photograph in the Museum of Fine Arts’ (MFA) collection.
Photography curator Karen Haas knew very little about it, aside from the fact that Gordon Parks had made it in 1950: a black-and-white photograph of a couple outside under the segregated Liberty Theater’s marquee, in Fort Scott, Kan.
Gordon Parks, the first African American staff photographer on Life magazine’s staff, is regarded as one of the most celebrated African-American photographers. Parks, who died in 2006, also gained fame as the director of such movies as “Shaft” (1971).
Haas was doing research into African American photographers in Massachusetts when she decided to dig deeper into this relatively unknown image. She called up the Gordon Parks Foundation, an archive of his work based in New York State, for more information.
What she learned blew her mind: that image was part of a photo essay created by Parks in 1950. Parks’s assignment began as a study of life lived in segregation and grew into a document of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the Midwest following World War II.
But in 1951, the U.S. entered the Korean War, and the photo essay never ran. The photos lay in storage until the Gordon Parks Foundation acquired them.
The Foundation asked Haas if she’d like to curate an exhibit of the never-before-seen images for the MFA.
“I still feel such excitement,” Hass told the Gazette during a phone interview this week. “We normally don’t get to work on such narrow but deep subjects.”
“It really was wonderful to work on,” she said. “This project has been really unlike anything I’ve ever worked on.”
Haas told the Gazette that Parks had been given this assignment not long after being hired by Life in 1948. At the time, Life was targeted primarily to white readers—some 20 million of them in the early 1950s, Haas said.
Some court cases challenging segregation had started showing up around that time. Life sent Parks to show its white readership what segregation actually looked like.
“It seemed like the perfect time. Here was someone who was born and raised in Kansas. It gave him a chance to tailor his story,” Haas said.
Parks decided to track down the 11 classmates he had at his all-black primary school. But he found only one still living in Fort Scott.
Parks’s story grew—most of his subjects had moved away from Fort Scott and into growing communities of color further north, like Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit, looking for better opportunities.
“So he had to cobble together what the story might have been,” Haas said.
“It would’ve been a real leap of faith for these families to share their life stories with Life magazine, which was so middle-class and so white,” Haas said.
She explained that for many of the photographs’ subjects, in 1950, it was dangerous to look a white person in the eye on the street.
So for Life’s white readership, this may well have been the first time they had seen a person of color’s face properly.
“[The photographed subjects] are looking through the lens of their friend into the faces of 20 million white readers,” Haas said.
During a Gazette visit to the exhibit on April 25, one one of almost 40 people visiting the gallery were obviously people of color.
Haas said that was unusual for the exhibit.
“That gallery is usually so much more diverse than any other part of the museum,” she said. “I’m very proud that this small show is bringing in new audiences.”
“This is an incredibly topical show. But I’m sad that it’s 65 years later and it’s still incredibly timely and topical show,” she added.
And Haas is also glad for the history lesson that is not usually included in textbooks.
“Usually, when we talk about this period of American history, we focus on white families. As a white person in my 50s, I missed this moment in time,” she said, explaining that with this show, a small window into a more comprehensive look at our history is available.
Another exhibit of Parks’ Life photos of the segregation era is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Work on curating that exhibit started independently in 2010, despite the similarities to the MFA’s exhibit, according to the High Museum.
“Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott” is on view through Sept. 13 in the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing. For more information, see mfa.org.