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Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks directing The Learning Tree, 1968

African American photographer, author. Born November 30, 1912, Fort Scott, Kansas. Died: March 7, 2006, New York City, New York.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, to Andrew Jackson and Sarah (Ross) Parks.  He was the youngest of 15 children. His father was a tenant farmer and the family struggled as a result of poverty. After his mother died when he was 15, Parks left Kansas and moved north to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with an older sister. The living arrangement lasted briefly.

Parks attended Central High and Mechanical Arts High School in St. Paul but was forced to quit before graduation. He supported himself through a variety of jobs, first relying on his musical abilities to play piano and sing. Married and divorced three times, Parks first married Sally Alvis in 1933. They had three children. While working as a railroad porter in 1937, he saw a magazine spread of the photography that sparked his interest. Parks purchased a twin lens reflex camera from a pawn shop and within a month presented his first exhibit at an Eastman Kodak store. He soon became a successful fashion and portrait photographer. He shot a photo essay of Chicago’s South Side ghetto and received a fellowship from the Farm Security Administration. He shot one of his best known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., of Ella Watson, on the cleaning crew at FSA, standing in front of an American flag with brooms in hand.

Parks’ next venue was Harlem, where he worked as a freelance photographer for Vogue. He received a contract for the Standard Oil Photography Project in New Jersey. A photo essay of a Harlem gang leader earned Parks a staff position as writer and photographer with Life. During the next two decades, he recorded images of post-war America, depicting black America emerging from the Civil Rights Movement. He married Elizabeth Campbell in 1962.

In 1963 Parks published an autobiographical novel of his youth, The Learning Tree, which he adapted to the movie screen in 1969. He continued making movies with the highly successful Shaft, its sequel Shaft's Big Score, and Super Cops. Parks married Genevieve Young in 1973. His ballet, Martin, based on Martin Luther King, Jr., premiered in 1969 and was screened on national television the following year. He was named the Native Sons and Daughters' Kansan of the Year in 1985. Parks died in March 7, 2006, in New York. He is buried in the Fort Scott cemetery.

View primary sources related to Gordon Parks in Kansas Memory.

Selected as one of the top 25 Notable Kansans in 2011.

Entry: Parks, Gordon

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: August 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.