Gordon Parks: A Legend who Helped Paved the Way for Black Artists

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, U.S. He was an American photographer, film director, musician, and writer.

Who Was Gordon Parks?

Gordon Parks was the first African American to ever produce films and direct motion pictures capturing the struggles of black American slaves.

He is popularly known for the major photos he took of poor Americans in the past. Other times Parks also was a great poet, author, and composer.

Parks is one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century. He was also a  humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice.

His Early Life

Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. He is the youngest of fifteen children for Andrew Jackson Parks and Sarah Ross.
His father was a farmer who grew potatoes, turnips, corn, tomatoes, greens, and beets. They also reared a few chickens, hogs, and ducks.
He attended a segregated elementary school for both white and black people, but the black students were not allowed to participate in social activities. Instead, they were always discouraged from developing aspirations for higher education.

At eleven years old, he was thrown into the Marmaton River by white boys who believed he couldn’t swim. When he turned fourteen, his mother died, and he spent the night sleeping beside his mother’s coffin. He was later sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with his sister and her husband, where he managed to get a job at 15.

His Photography Life

At the age of 25, Parks was amazed by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine and devised to buy his first camera. He purchased a Voigtländer Brilliant at a pawn shop in Washington and taught himself how to take photos.

The photographs were so unique that they caught the attention of Marva Louis, wife of Joe Louis, a heavyweight boxing champion. In 1950, she encouraged Parks and his wife, Sally Alvis, to migrate to Chicago. There, he began a portrait business and specialized in taking photographs of society women.

In 1941, an exhibition of his photographs won Parks a photography fellowship with Farm Security Administration (FSA). A few years later, he created one of the most famous photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C.


American Gothic, Washington, D.C. – a well-known photograph by Parks

His Filming Life

Gordon Parks worked as a consultant on several Hollywood productions. Below are his film works.

  • Parks directed a lot of documentaries on black ghetto life
  • In 1971, he directed the film, Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as John Shaft
  • He also directed the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, in 1972
  • Parks later had a cameo appearance in the Shaft sequel that starred Samuel L. Jackson.
Poster from the film Shaft. Directed By Gordon Parks.
Gordon Parks, director of Shaft

His Personal Life

Parks was married and divorced three times. 

  • In 1933, he married Sally Alvis in Minneapolis, and they divorced in 1961.
  • In 1962, he married Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of cartoonist E. Simms Campbell, who divorced in 1973.
  • In 1973, he got married to Chinese-American editor Genevieve Young, and they divorced in 1979.
  • Parks had four children, namely Gordon, Jr., David, Leslie, and Toni Parks. 
  • His oldest son Gordon Parks, Jr., was killed in a plane crash in 1979 in Kenya. 
  • Parks has five grandchildren: Alain, Gordon III, Sarah, Campbell, and Satchel. 

Other Achievements

Gordon Parks

In 1969, Parks became the first African American to write The Learning Tree, based on his bestselling semi-autobiographical novel. He published many books, including poetry, novels, memoirs, and volumes on the photographic method. 

In 1989 he composed, directed, and produced the music, Martin, dedicated to the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks spent his last years changing his style, and he continued like that until his death on March 7, 2006. He died at age 93.

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