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Few magazines disseminated the American Dream as widely as Life did in the years following the Second World War. Within its pages, gleaming cars and coca-cola bottles sat abreast the rags-to-riches tales of everyone from Jackson Pollock to Jackie Robinson.
But to some black readers living at the height of segregation, that dream might have seemed intended for whites alone. Though Robinson was given the cover treatment in 1950 (the only black person to receive it in those years), he was a sports celebrity that Americans were already used to seeing on their television screens. It wasn’t exactly going to shake up the status quo to put him there.
But as a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston reveals, that same year, photojournalist Gordon Parks — then the only black staff photographer at Life — proposed a story to his editors that might have actually done so had it ever been published. Parks wanted to represent ordinary African Americans within the magazine’s pages through a cover story about school segregation. The 38-year-old journalist would travel to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, to find and photograph his 11 former classmates from the all-black school he once attended.
Life gave him the OK, and Parks set out for the heartland. He was heading home for the first time in 23 years — a strange journey in itself, though undoubtedly stranger once Parks discovered that most of his classmates had vanished. They’d been swept up and scattered in the Great Migration, a mass effort to escape the prejudices blacks faced in rural towns. Only a woman named Luella Russell remained in Fort Scott, and Parks photographed her with her family before tracking down the others.
In Kansas City, he found his old friend Peter Thomason living well off a job at the post office; in St. Louis, Normal Earl Collins was making a then-impressive $1.22 an hour at Union Electric — a detail that would have shown blacks prospering in the middle class. He went on to photograph all but two of his classmates in Columbus, Detroit, and Chicago. The tender, black-and-white portraits he took captured his classmates lounging on their porches, cooling in the parlor, and walking to church. They were chasing the American Dream like anyone else.
It’s not clear why, but Life never published Parks’s photo essay. Supposedly, more timely news came along — the Korean War, President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur. The fight for equality and civil rights would languish for another decade, while Parks’s images were buried away in his foundation’s archives.
The photographs might have been forgotten entirely had MFA Boston curator Karen Haas not stumbled on them while researching a photograph for an upcoming book on art by African Americans. Thanks to her efforts, 42 of Parks’s unpublished images are finally on view for the American public in Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. The show comes just eight years after Life was shuttered in 2007, and sadly — for black Americans who had to live through the 20th century’s appalling segregation — more than six decades late.