Gordon Parks

Doctor of Humane Letters

Known to the world as a prolific writer, photographer, filmmaker, and composer, Gordon Parks was born into poverty in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, the youngest of 15 children of loving, hard-working parents. Left to fend for himself at age 16, he soon found a way to make a living with his camera. His 1942 photo of Ella Watson—a black charwoman with a broom and mop, posed against the U.S. flag—became a poignant icon of racial inequality.

Parks was first in many places: the first African-American photographer to work at Life and Vogue magazines; the first to work for the Office of War Information and the Farm Security Administration. Despite the racist attitudes of the day, Parks was hired by Vogue as a fashion photographer, a field he found both interesting and rewarding. Working for Life, he did stories on a Harlem gang leader and on segregation in the South. Next, as Life’s European correspondent, he went to Paris, where he made notable portraits of celebrities.

In 1963, Parks published an autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree; and six years later, he made the book into an award-winning film, one of the first Hollywood movies directed by an African American. This film success was followed by movies in a completely different key: the action thrillers Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score and Super Cops.

Parks has written in all a dozen books, several pieces of orchestral music and film scores, as well as a ballet, Martin, based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In one of his three autobiographical books, A Choice of Weapons, he wrote, “I have come to understand that hunger, hatred and love are the same wherever you find them, and it is that understanding that now helps me escape the past that once imprisoned me.”

<< Back | Next >>