As you enter the outskirts of the small Kansas town of Fort Scott, driving south along the four-lane Highway 69, a green roadside sign greets you with the message “Boyhood Home of Gordon Parks.” This four-lane highway speeds traffic to and from Kansas City, 93 miles to the north. I rarely traveled this route when I flew to Kansas City to visit my family in southeast Kansas, opting for a more direct, but smaller highway to the west. But on my last visits there, Fort Scott became the rendezvous point for friends and family who were kind enough to taxi me to and from my destination.
Sometimes we would hand off in the parking lot of one of the fast-food places that line the highway after you come over the overpass, move my suitcase from one trunk to the other and then be on my way. On occasion, when time wasn’t a factor, we would stop at the locally owned and popular Mexican food restaurant located in Fort Scott’s historic downtown and eat before driving on. It was on those occasions that I was reminded what a charming little place this town was, if for no other reason than because it’s storefront Main Street remains largely intact to remind people what small town America Main Street once looked like. Even though the town lost several of its two- and three-story red brick buildings, some of them more than 100 years old, in a 2005 fire, Fort Scott was fortunate in that many survived and that the military fort from the 1840s, now a National Historic Park, was undamaged.
Growing up in my hometown about 63 miles to the south and west, I made trips to Fort Scott for church and school activities, music events or football and basketball games. Once, during high school, I recall the time a group of my girlfriends and I drove up together for a school-related event. The trip home was nerve-wracking as we could see tornado clouds–“hanging like cow-udders in the sky”–as one of the more articulate of our bunch described them, gathering along our route home. We arrived home safely without incident but you can see what an impression that outing made on my high school mind.
What I didn’t know, until possibly 1969 when the movie, “The Learning Tree” appeared on screens, was that Fort Scott was the birthplace and home of Gordon Parks, one of the most prominent photographers and photojournalists of the latter half of the 20th century and until his death in 2006. I was recently reminded of this on one of those last trips when I spotted that roadside sign and again by a New York Times article on December 24 about an upcoming exhibit of Parks photographs. The exhibit, to open at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on January 17, two days before Martin Luther King Day, will present 42 of Parks photographs, the majority of which were never published and which remained archived for nearly 50 years.
The photographs were made as the result of an assignment that Parks had proposed to LIFE magazine in 1950, for whom he worked at the time. It was to have been a cover story for the magazine in which Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott to find the 11 classmates of the segregated middle school that he had attended. According to the Times article, the show’s curator Karen E. Haas says that Parks was successful in tracking down his classmates and photographing them but for some unknown reason, LIFE never ran Parks’ story. Haas’ own curiosity about what happened was sparked when she started to research the history of one of Parks’ photographs in the Boston museum’s collection. Her investigation unravelled a story that has culminated in the upcoming exhibit.
The Boston exhibit comes at a time when racial tension in this country is again in the national news. The Fort Scott that Parks grew up in was, like most if not all towns in the United States at the time, a segregated one. Even when he returned in 1950 to commence work on his project, Parks found the school still segregated. That, of course, is no longer the case but questions about the way African-Americans are treated by law enforcement authorities has brought the issue into sharp focus again. Perhaps it was providence that Parks’ photos essay remained unseen for all those years until now, when current events, make them even more powerful and a strong reminder of a social history that we must not forget.
From a photographic standpoint, the black and white photographs in the exhibit as seen in the previews, are beautiful portraits, evocative of an era not that long passed. The candid of the couple in their Sunday best caught on their way to church, the gorgeously lit portrait of Lucy Jefferson, the oldest resident of Fort Scott at the time, and the simple shot of two little girls watching a local baseball from the top of the bleachers.
If you’re not able to see the Boston show, then perhaps you can pay a visit to the Gordon Parks Museum/Center for Cultural Diversity in Fort Scott where 30 of his photographs are on permanent display. The museum, founded in 2004 and located at Fort Scott Community College, also houses many of Parks’ personal effects and memorabilia. I only recently learned about this little gem and have it on my list of ‘places to see’ when I make my next visit to the area. I only wish that I had known of it sooner.
Like so many places in mid-America today, you must venture off the main thoroughfare or bypass to uncover what’s really in a place. So if you find yourself in the vicinity of Fort Scott, set aside some time to stop, to turn off into downtown, to take in a tour of the old fort, to eat in one of the local restaurants, to browse a shop or two and by all means, visit the Gordon Parks Museum. To view photographs from our past, especially ones as great as those by Parks, is to see history through the eyes, or camera, of those who lived it. It reminds us, that those towns and cities along the way, may have more to offer than just a roadside sign at edge of town.