Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks at the FSA

Gordon Parks working at the Farm Security Administration. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Gordon Parks was a gifted photographer, author, composer and film director, achieving remarkable success in each field. He is best remembered, however, as one of America's great photographers. As a young man, Parks was inspired by Dorothea Lange photographs that he spotted in a magazine while working as a train porter. He immediately bought a camera at a pawn shop and began taking pictures. He soon found that his camera was a potent weapon for exposing racism and poverty.

While fashion photography and celebrity journalism often paid the bills, he eventually established himself as a world-renowned photo-journalist. His platform in Life magazine permitted him to affect the world he covered—gang life in Harlem to poverty in Brazil. Parks' coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s provided Life readers with a unique and important perspective on the struggle against racism.

Parks' relationship to Westchester began in the 1940s when he purchased a house at 15 Adams Place in the Parkway Gardens section of Greenburgh. While Parks traveled a great deal, he considered 15 Adams Place his home until the mid-1970s. Even after he moved to Manhattan, he still was a presence in Westchester. He was a frequent guest in Pound Ridge, where he would come with his third wife to enjoy brunch with friends and a game of tennis before returning to the city.

Early Life

Parks was the 15th child of a tenant farmer, Andrew Jackson Parks, and his second wife, Sarah, who worked as a maid as well as caring for their 15 children. Sarah and her husband deeply loved their family, and family strength may have been what gave Gordon the ability to obtain for himself more than what society offered him.

All the Parks children attended a segregated grade school in Fort Scott, but since there was only one high school, black and white students attended it together. However, the black students were banned from sports and discouraged from taking college prep courses. In A Hungry Heart: A Memoir, Parks writes of one teacher advising black students against setting their sights on college. They were, after all, destined to become railroad porters and maids.

During his high school years, many of Parks' friends died violent deaths, which greatly worried the Parks family. Gordon's mother died when he was 15, but before she died she left her husband specific instructions: Gordon was to go live with his married sister in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before sending him north, Gordon's father told him: "It won't be easy for you up there. It's a strange cold country and you're bound to meet some hard times. But you're not to worry, son. Your heart will tell your feet which roads to take. …Don't forget what I'm telling you. Right now to your young ears what I'm saying probably don't amount to much. But later on it could amount to an awful lot."

Gordon needed that advice, as his brother-in-law soon kicked him out of the house, and Gordon was left to make his own way in the world. He never had a chance to finish high school, but his strong upbringing stayed with him: "My mother taught me what was right and what was wrong. She would not tolerate any sort of prejudice.... I can feel her looking at me when I do something wrong—even today."

Making His Own Way

A self-taught piano player, Parks' first job was playing piano at a brothel, while also working as a hotel busboy. Soon he joined a band, which enjoyed initial success—getting several out-of-town gigs. The band broke up, however, while they were playing in Harlem, and Parks returned to St. Paul. In 1934 he married an early love, Sally Alvis. To support his new wife, Parks took a job as a porter and waiter with the railroad, working on the North Coast Limited.

The job brought about a life-changing moment: a passenger had left behind a magazine that contained photos taken by several of the U.S. Farm Security Administration photographers, Dorothea Lange's among them. Parks was very moved by the honest stories told by the Depression-era photographs, and he purchased his first camera, a Voigtlander Brilliant, at a Seattle pawn shop for $12.50.

In St. Paul, Parks approached the owners of a small boutique, volunteering to take some fashion photographs. To his chagrin, he double-exposed most of the photographs he took on that assignment. He didn't have many to choose from, but he presented his best. The proprietors agreed that Parks had captured something special, and they booked him for future assignments. These photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, wife of champion boxer Joe Louis, and she encouraged him to move to Chicago where she could help him get work.

Parks moved to Chicago without his family and continued with fashion photography, but spent his spare time photographing the slums of Chicago. This work brought him to the attention of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which was dedicated to funding education for African Americans. The fund awarded him a fellowship that paid $200 per month. With that backing, he moved to Washington to apply for a job with the Farm Security Administration.

Getting Hired by the FSA

Roy Stryker was head of the unit in 1942, and his first instinct was that a black photographer would be incapable of maneuvering around Washington, D.C, a city with a very southern mentality. To test the waters, on Parks' first day Stryker sent him off without his camera to make a purchase at a department store, go to a movie, and eat at a coffee shop. Parks quickly saw what he was up against, and he came back to the office boiling mad. As he and Stryker were discussing the day, Stryker pointed to Emma Watson, the black cleaning lady taking care of the building. "Spend time with her. See what she has to say about life."

American Gothic

American Gothic, one of Gordon Parks' most famous photographs. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Parks did so, and the first photo he took of Watson was what we now know as Gordon Parks' "American Gothic," with Watson posed with a broom and a mop in front of the American flag. While that has since become an iconic photograph, Stryker sent him back to take more pictures for a more nuanced story. With that introduction to the FSA, Parks went on to be one of the best of the best.

When the Farm Security Administration disbanded, Parks moved with Stryker to the Office of War Information, where he hoped to cover the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American fliers to enter the war. Despite all indications that Parks would have this assignment, his paperwork was pulled at the last minute. Speculation was that the government didn't want coverage of black troops. Parks was furious, quit the OWI and moved to Harlem.

Looking for work in New York City, he was sent to Harper's Bazaar because of his fashion experience, but was told that he would not be hired at Hearst because of his skin color. Friend and fellow photographer Edward Steichen sent Parks on to Alexander Liberman at Condé Nast, who quickly hired him for freelance assignments for Glamour and Vogue.

In the meantime, Roy Stryker had been hired by Standard Oil to build a picture file of rural America. Standard Oil was under fire for bias, and Stryker knew Parks was just the staffer he needed. Parks accepted the full-time position and immediately encountered hostility from one of the executives who refused to have his photograph taken by "some black photographer." When the substitute photographer's picture wasn't up to par with Parks' photos of the other executives, Parks was summoned again to the office of the difficult executive.

Parks was also sent into the field to locations including Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, where Standard Oil was investing in mines. Parks was there through a desolate and frigid winter where he learned that discrimination against non-whites existed even in such remote areas as Yellowknife.

Home in Westchester

Parks finally brought his family east during these years. At first the family lived in an apartment in Harlem, but he wrote: "The children, having lived in the vicinity of Minnesota's green lawns and parks, were unhappy with the hardness of Harlem's busy streets. A home in the suburbs seemed the only answer." Roy Stryker helped him locate a house in a neighborhood where Parks felt his family would fit in. The house was 15 Adams Place in the Parkway Gardens section of Greenburgh, just east of Tarrytown, and south of Mount Pleasant, between White Plains and Scarsdale. The Parks home was a modest Tudor-style cottage; Parks eventually bought the neighboring lot so he could build a pool for the family.

David Parks (1944- ), third child and youngest son of Gordon Parks, now an Austin-based photographer, film director and author in his own right, reminisced about the neighborhood in a phone interview in 2013: "Several other black families had already chosen [Parkway Gardens] as home: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and his wife Hazel Scott, bandleader Cy Oliver, and Cab Calloway were already living in the vicinity. The rest of the community was made up of Italians, Poles and Wasps; we didn't feel out of place and were friendly with all of them."

Parks traveled for work a great deal, but David Parks recalls that his father relished having people at the house—that the children's friends were always welcome. Because the neighborhood was filled with musicians, it was not uncommon for them to gather at someone's house, often the Parks, and play together. David also has fond memories of comedienne Moms Mabley, who loved having David walk to her house: "And could she cook!" David remembers. Like Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Parkway Gardens was an enclave for upper- and middle-class blacks at a time when other parts of the county were not as accessible to them.

Life Magazine

Parks knew his time at Standard Oil was coming to an end, and he had his sights set on working for Life magazine. One day he stopped by the office with his portfolio and talked his way in to see photo editor Wilson Hicks. Hicks was annoyed at first, but then saw the pictures. Hicks asked Parks what he would like to try; Parks suggested a story on the gangs in Harlem.

Hicks agreed this was a good test. Parks' skin color gave him access to the gang, and his easy-going personality helped him get the story. He soon was put on staff as a full-time photographer. Parks was Life's first black photographer, covering subjects as wide-ranging as fashion in New York and poverty in Brazil.

Parks' coverage of the civil rights movement gave Life access to important stories of the era. From the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the speeches of Malcolm X, Parks gave Life readers a front-row seat. "Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality," wrote Malcolm X of Parks in his own autobiography.

Many of the people Parks wrote about were eventually guests in Greenburgh, including the Harlem gang members. Parks brought them up for a barbecue with the family to show them the possibility of another life. Malcolm X dropped in one day when he was upset about something and wanted to talk with Parks, but his son David's strongest memory was of Alfred Hitchcock. "That man who directed The Birds. He came, and I remember feeling so afraid of him!"

In the late 1940s, Life sent Gordon Parks and his family to Paris on assignment. The family thrived. Mrs. Parks apprenticed to be a hat designer, and the children loved being in schools where skin color wasn't an issue. Parks photographed fashion and news and enjoyed connecting with all who passed through Paris. One of those passing through was Richard Wright (1908-1960), author of Native Son, who was an idol of Parks. Wright coached Parks: "You have to write cold and hard about Black life in America—and not allow Whites to face the words with the consolation of a few tears." Wright even went on to counsel Parks not to return to the U.S., but Wright himself explained in his book, Twelve Million Black Voices, what Parks then told him: "Black people are on the move back there, and I want to be moving with them."

When Life summoned Parks back he went, but many things had changed. Sally was fed up with the marriage, explaining to the children that they would return to Westchester with their father but without her.

While Gordon, Jr., and Toni had both attended local public schools in Westchester, David found that he faced some difficulties. Though he spent one year in Greenburgh Junior High School, he says it did not go well—mainly because of the teachers: "My father was becoming better and better known. The white teachers were not as accepting of his success; they also didn't like that I had spent several years in a school where I could sit in the front of the class and raise my hand first….They weren't used to that type of behavior from a black student." So David attended The Hackley School for one year, and then transferred to The Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, where he thrived.

Parks on the set of The Learning Tree

Gordon Parks during production of The Learning Tree.


In 1968 Parks had an opportunity to try film-making, directing his own memoir of his youth, The Learning Tree. (This film was chosen to be one of the 25 films placed on the American Film Institute's list of films for 1989.) This was another first for Parks—he was the first African American to direct a major Hollywood production. In 1971 he directed "Shaft," one of the first hip black action films. He was particularly proud of the film, "Lead Belly," which did not do well commercially, but which Parks felt was an honest depiction of a talented black folk and blues singer.

In addition to all these credits, he directed other films, authored several other books about his life, (his last was A Hungry Heart, A Memoir, published in 2006). He also wrote original musical compositions, film scores, and a ballet about Martin Luther King. Though Parks never received a high school diploma, he was presented with over 50 honorary degrees, and in 1988 he received the National Medal of Arts.

Personal Life

Parks was married and divorced three times. Gordon, Jr., Toni, and David were all his children with Sally. Later he married Elizabeth Campbell, a young woman near Toni's age. She lived with him in Greenburgh, and they had a daughter together who is now a master chef in a New York restaurant. When his marriage to Elizabeth broke up, it brought to a close his years at 15 Adams Place. His third marriage was to his book editor, Genevieve Young, but they had no children together.

Throughout all this time Parks had an ongoing relationship with Gloria Vanderbilt. He first met her in 1954, when he photographed her for Life. The two eventually went on record about their relationship, sitting for an interview with The New York Times in 2000. Marriage for the two of them may have been unthinkable initially because of Gordon's skin color, but it also seemed that the class difference was perhaps the bigger hurdle.

In 2012 Anderson Cooper, Vanderbilt's son, spoke at a fundraiser for the Gordon Parks Foundation and attested to Parks' presence in his life. Cooper noted that his choice of career was influenced by Parks. "He was the first journalist I knew….He gave voice to those whose voices had been silenced by poverty and injustice."

The Children

Toni Parks-Parsons attended the Boston Conservatory of Music after graduating from White Plains High School. Though Toni writes that the long absences of her father while she was growing up were hard, she also benefited from time with him. She remembers going with him to his darkroom where Parks would often talk about values—how you treat people. These were important lessons from her father. She now lives in London, and is sometimes involved in putting together shows of her father's work. One recent one, "Bridging the Gap," (2010-2011) showed photos from both father and daughter's work over 50 years. The show traveled to various venues, among them the Castle Gallery at the College of New Rochelle, a place where Toni once worked.

Gordon, Jr., worked with his father on a few of his films and directed several of his own, including the very successful "Super Fly," the story of an addict pusher who attempts to go straight. Gordon was killed in a plane crash on April 3, 1979, at the age of 44. His plane was taking off from an airport in Nairobi, Kenya. He and three others were killed.

David Parks went into the military and wrote his first book based on his experience in Vietnam, G.I. Diary. He also worked with his father on some of his films and did location-scouting in Texas for "Lead Belly." He loved the state so much, he essentially never left. He now specializes in film-making about Texas history.

In the End

When it was clear that Gordon was dying, he told David, "I want to go home to be buried." David said, "Westchester?" Gordon replied: "No, I want to be buried in Kansas." He was buried in Fort Scott, the place where his amazing life began.