Gordon Park's Biography & Timeline
Photographer, Filmmaker, Writer and Musician
Gordon Parks (b. 1912) wrote about his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, in his autobiographical novel and subsequent film, The Learning Tree, which was among the 25 films placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1989. He went on to direct other films, to author several books, and to write original musical compositions, film scores, and a ballet.
He established his reputation as a world-renowned photojournalist for Life Magazine, chronicling the Civil Rights movement for two decades. His work for Vogue magazine established him as a master of fashion photography. A major retrospective exhibit of Parks’s work, Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 1998 and toured the United States. HBO produced a documentary on Parks, also titled Half Past Autumn.
As a filmmaker, he was the first African-American to direct a major Hollywood production with the poignant memoir of his youth The Learning Tree, filmed on location in Fort Scott. He also broke new ground with a hip black hero on the silver screen named Shaft.
Parks received the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and has received over fifty honorary doctorates. His fifth autobiography and a new book of poetry were published in November of 2005. Mr. Parks died on March 7, 2006 and was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas on March 16, 2006.
The population of Bourbon County in 1910 was 24,007. Fort Scott’s population in 1910 was 10,463 with 1047 (20%) African-Americans.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, youngest of 15 children, is born to Sarah & Andrew Jackson Parks on Nov. 30 in Fort Scott, KS. Born dead, he is revived by Dr. Gordon.
Andrew Jackson Parks family residences:
404 S. Barbee St., 1888.
404 S. Margrave., 1889.
406 S. Margrave, 1893.
605 S. Clark, 1896-1897.
102 S. Holbrook, the residence of A.J. Parks, & now wife Sarah in 1898.
721 W. Seventh St., 1902-1922. (Gordon Parks born here in 1912)
623 Burke St., 1923-1928.
510 Couch St., 1928.
Attends elementary school at the 1st Plaza School (later named Hawkins School in honor of principal E.J. Hawkins).
The family attends services at the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.
Learns to play piano. (self-taught)
In the early 1920’s, all of the African-American schools in Fort Scott were closed because of their deteriorated condition & a temporary school was opened in Convention Hall which was located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Scott Avenue & 3rd Street.
The 2nd Plaza School opened as a consolidated school for African-American students in Fort Scott for grades 1-9. It closed in 1956 when the public schools of Fort Scott were integrated.
Sarah Parks dies on May 9, 1928, and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Gordon is sent to live in St. Paul, Minnesota with his sister, Maggie Lee.
Attends Mechanics Arts High School, St. Paul.
Forced from home by brother-in-law, Gordon works menial jobs and continues his education.
Father Andrew, brother Jack, and three older sisters, Lillian, Gladys and Cora, move to St. Paul. Gordon lives at a rooming house and takes a job at the Minnesota Club as a bellboy.
Gordon meets future wife, Sally Alvis.
Gordon enrolls at Central High School to complete his education. When the market crashes that fall he loses his job and has to quit school.
Hops a freight train to Chicago to find work.
Back in St. Paul, Gordon lives with his sister, Cora, and goes back to high school.
First composition, “No Love.”
Collapses while playing basketball and ends up in bed for several months. Quits high school for good.
A busboy at the Hotel Lowery, Gordon’s “No Love” is played by the orchestra and broadcast on the radio.
Goes to New York with a band but when he arrives the band has dissolved. Joined the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Married Sally Alvis. (divorced 1961)
Returned to Minnesota and worked as a dining car waiter and porter on the North Coast Limited Railway’s Chicago to Seattle run.
Son, Gordon Parks, Jr. born.
Buys his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for $12.50 at a pawnshop. Of that purchase, he once said, “I bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism.”
Plays for the House of David basketball team.
Hired at Frank Murphy’s women’s clothing store in St. Paul to do fashion photography.
Daughter, Toni Parks, was born.
He began to chronicle Chicago’s South Side black ghetto and an exhibition of those photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for Photography. He chose to work with the FSA in Washington D.C.
Farm Security Administration photographer, Washington, D.C.
Correspondent for the Office of War Information. Covered the 332nd Fighter Group of all-black pilots.
Son, David Parks, born.
Moved to Harlem. Worked for Vogue doing freelance fashion.
Hired by Standard Oil of New Jersey for the “Standard Oil Photography Project,” taking pictures of small towns and industrial centers.
First book, Flash Photography.
Book: Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture.
Hired by Life, Gordon was the first black photojournalist to work for the magazine. He was on staff until 1968, and a contributor until 1972.
Completes two years in Paris bureau of Life magazine.
Worked as a consultant on various Hollywood productions & later directed a series of documentaries commissioned by National Educational Television on black ghetto life.
Composed his first “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.”
Piano Concerto performed in Venice.
Gordon & wife Sally decide to divorce.
Tours with Duke Ellington’s band.
Photographer of the Year Award from The American Society of Magazine Photos.
Married Elizabeth Campbell Rollins (divorced 1973)
The Learning Tree published.
Film: Flavio (documentary).
Book: A Choice of Weapons (autobiography).
Received “Notable Book Award” from the American Library Association.
Composed “Tree Symphony”
Daughter, Leslie Parks, born.
The Learning Tree movie written, directed and composed by Parks. Filmed in Fort Scott. Gordon was the first black to direct and produce a film for a major Hollywood studio.
Film: Diary of a Harlem Family (documentary). Received Emmy Award.
Film: The World of Pirie Thomas (documentary).
Book: Gordon Parks, A Poet and His Camera.
Film: The Learning Tree, opens in New York.
Essence magazine editorial director
Books: Whispers of Intimate Things, Born Black, In Love.
Awarded the Spingarn Award from the NAACP.
Married Genevieve Young (divorced 1979).
Film: The Super Cops.
Book: Moments Without Proper Names.
Book: To Smile in Autumn (autobiography)
Film: Shaft ’s Big Score
Gordon Parks Jr., dies in plane crash in Kenya
Inducted into NAACP Hall of Fame;
Film: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.
Kansan of the Year.
First major retrospective exhibition of his photographs at the New York Public Library and the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University.
Film: Gordon Parks: Visions.
Film: Moments Without Proper Names (PBS).
National Medal of the Arts presented by President Ronald Reagan.
The Learning Tree is place on the Library of Congress National Film Registry Classics of the top twenty five important films.
Book: Voices in the Mirror (autobiography).
Ballet: Martin, premieres on Dr. King’s birthday.
Book: Arias In Silence.
Donates his archives of films, photographs and writings to the Library of Congress.
Book: Glimpses Toward Infinity.
Book: Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective.
Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective Exhibition organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Sept. 10, 1997-Jan. 11, 1998, and nine other museums, Feb. 14, 1998-Dec. 2001.
Documentary film, Half Past Autumn, produced by HBO.
Book: A Star for Noon.
Inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City and received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Book: Sun Stalker.
Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity founded at Fort Scott Community College.
First “Gordon Parks Celebration” held October 6-9 in Fort Scott. Parks attends the event.
Book: A Hungry Heart: A Memoir (autobiography).
Book: Eyes With Winged Thoughts.
William Allen White Award for journalistic merit given by the University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. Gordon cannot accept the award in person so a film crew comes to him.
Conducted by CBS’s Byron Pitts, it's his last interview.
Death New York City, March 7
Burial Fort Scott Evergreen Cemetery, March 16