- Documenting Art and HistoryThe “Back to Fort Scott” Materials in the Gordon Parks Papers
African Americans, Kansas, memoir, photography, segregation
The materials dealing with Gordon Parks’s unpublished article for Life magazine, “Back to Fort Scott,” in the Gordon Parks Papers at Wichita State University Libraries are one of the most compelling and illuminating parts of this manuscript collection. These items document a critical point in Parks’s development as an artist and provide an incisive account of the practice and effects of racial segregation in the Midwest from the 1920s through the 1940s. This essay looks at the artistic, historical, and archival significance of the content of these materials. A close reading reveals the excitement and the challenges of documenting the creativity of an artist whose activities blurred the boundaries between the personal and the professional and between the private and public parts of his life.
The “Back to Fort Scott” materials, although mostly textual, project the visuality of a camera, sometimes in close-up and other times in rapid flash, as they zoom in on three subjects: an overview of Parks’s early life growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas, during the 1920s; his schooling at the segregated Plaza School, particularly the close ties he and his eleven ninth-grade classmates formed as a group and with each other; and his trip to Fort Scott and several other midwestern cities in 1950 to reconnect with members of the Class of 1927. Parks’s aim, according to one of Life’s staff, was “to find out what has happened to eleven classmates since [graduation], what they are doing now, what troubles or success they have had since.”1 He also used the trip to Fort Scott to visit several elderly black acquaintances and look up a few white classmates from his brief time at Fort Scott High School. The drafts, correspondence, a few images, and project [End Page 81] notes that he and other Life staff compiled weave together twelve coming-of-age stories set against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation prior to and during the Depression and World War II. They also reflect on the opportunities and frustrations he and his classmates faced in postwar America. Parks’s drafts provide early evidence of his multifaceted talents as a photographer, memoirist, and journalist and, above all, his unique abilities to interact with others as both participant and observer. In these writings Parks found his own voice at the same time that he captured the voices of others.
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The “Back to Fort Scott” drafts are the first known effort of Parks to document his bittersweet memories of growing up in the midwestern borderland of southeast Kansas, “a beautiful land” of “wide prairie filled with green and cornstalk” that was also permeated “with the fear, hatred and violence / We blacks had suffered.”2 By the time the editors at Life approached Parks in the spring of 1950 with the assignment for a feature story on segregated schools, he was an established and respected news and fashion photographer who had also written two books on photography and several photo essays, including one in Ebony on the corrosive impact of segregation on children and another in Life on black gangs in Harlem.3 As the first African American staff photographer at Life, he was sometimes selected for assignments focusing on explosive social issues, so this project was not anything out of the ordinary. Parks decided to approach the article through his own childhood experiences and go back to Fort Scott, the locus of so many memories, both pleasant and painful, [End Page 82] and a place he had deliberately avoided for twenty-three years. The choice to return to Fort Scott meant that this article was not just another project for Parks but a journey back to his past, a challenge for which he was now ready. Since he had accepted a two-year...