Gordon Parks: St Paul claims – and celebrates — a local hero


When I first read Gordon Parks’ A Choice of Weapons I was working at the District of Columbia Teachers College, 13th and Harvard Northwest in Washington, DC, the epi-center of the DC riots of the late 60’s. His experience as a teen in St. Paul’s Rondo area was so near and yet so far. I had graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy, a five minute walk to Rondo (I know because we had to trek to the old Hallie Q. Brown for phy ed…) Though I knew where Rondo was, I didn’t know Rondo. I had no sense of what it meant to grow up there.

At the time I learned of and read Gordon Parks I had been working 2-3 years in an all Black environment. It was also post the DC riots that had laid bare the unbearable raw evil of racism so palpable in the community in which I spent my days as a librarian who loved working an all-Black faculty committed to equality and excellence. The reality of the college I loved under siege seemed unlike the Rondo neighborhood that was so near and yet so far from my high school days.

I began to wonder for the first time about the people who lived in the neighborhood around SJA, the kids we walked past every day en route to and from the bus. I wondered about their parents – where did they work? where did they go to church? where did they shop or eat out or buy shoes or get a haircut?

Gordon Parks helped me face, and to some extent understand, Rondo – and to see the differences between the lives of African Americans in Rondo and the lives of those who lived near 13th and Harvard.

Referring to his earlier life in Kansas, Parks wrote:

Neither were these new friends as militant as we back there had been. The lack of racial conflict here made the difference. Minnesota Negroes were given more, so they had less to fight for….There were exceptions, but Minnesota Negroes seemed apathetic about the lynching, burning and murdering of black people in the South. The tragedy taking place down there might just as well have been on another planet. And they didn’t press vigorously for right in their own communities.

And, I realized, the white community in his St. Paul neighborhood were more accepting of the Rondo residents because the African Americans in St. Paul were so very few. Scratch the surface, I thought.,,,

Throughout 2012 we celebrate the life and work of Gordon Parks who was born November 20, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of fifteen children. When his mother died Gordon, now fourteen, was shipped off to live with an aunt in St. Paul. Soon left to his own devices he was at times homeless, at times finding jobs that ranged from piano player in a bordello to a job with the CCC and eventually a steady job as porter, then waiter, on the railroad – experiences that show up in his later life as a renowned filmmaker, writer, musician, and photographer.

Kansans and Minnesotans are both celebrating the centenary of their hometown artist this month. In June, hundreds followers visited the exhibition of Parks’ photographs at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis. The exhibit was mounted at the same time as a similar exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The guide to the exhibit describes Parks’ pioneer work in photography:

Parks was one of the most prolific and diverse American artists of the 20th Century. His photographs span from the social commentary of the photographic icon of American Gothic, to Paris fashion for Vogue. Parks’ photos chronicled the Civil rights movement in Life Magazine for two decades, and his portraits of celebrities like Ingrid Bergman brought him additional levels of fame and distinction.

As a filmmaker he was the first African American man to direct a major Hollywood production with the poignant memoir of his youth, The Learning Tree, and he broke new ground with a hip and provocative African American hero in Shaft, a movie that continues to be a pop culture classic.

This month brings a host of Parks celebrations, held in conjunction with the date of his birth, November 30, Some of the highlights of this month’s tributes are these:

  • November 23-29 – Gordon Parks Centennial Celebration at the St. Anthony Main Theatre, a Parks film festival featuring:
    The Learning Tree – Saturday, November 24, 7:00 p.m.
    Leadbelly – Sunday, November 25, 7:00 p.m. and Wednesday November 28, 7:00 p.m.
    Shaft – Thursday, November 29, 7:00 p.m. Special guest Richard Roundtree
  • November 27, John Wright, Professor of English and African American and African Studies, University of Minnesota, will discuss and sign copies of the book Gordon Parks Centennial: His Legacy at Wichita State University. UMN Coffman Union Bookstore, 4:00 p.m.
  • Friday, November 30, at the Minnesota History Center. Vocalist Jackson Hurst, The Sounds of Blackness, and Richard Roundtree. 7:00 p.m.

Though the films, photographs, lectures and music are great, St Paul’s true lasting tribute to Gordon Parks is the alternative high school that bears and honors his name. Like the Green Line on which it is located, Gordon Parks High School, 1212 University West in St. Paul’s Midway district, is a great work in progress.