Gordon Parks warms to changes made in hometown Fort Scott

? The lifelong bitterness he has felt toward his boyhood home of Fort Scott is waning.

He says he has seen changes in the southeast Kansas border town in the past few years, changes that indicate the racism that once thrived there is no longer embraced, changes that might — after decades of hesitancy — allow him to find his final resting place there among his mother, father and other relatives.

“About three times a month, I hear from people (there),” said Gordon Parks during a recent phone interview from his New York City apartment. “They follow my work now.”

Parks, a world-renowned photographer, author, filmmaker and composer, for years has criticized his hometown because his parents remain buried in a segregated section of Evergreen Cemetery on the city’s southwestern edge.

Visiting their graves brought back painful memories of an earlier time when black students at Fort Scott High School were told not to waste their parents’ money by going to college and black athletes couldn’t participate on the school’s teams.

But those memories are beginning to be replaced by better ones, Parks said, and he credits the city’s mayor, Ken Lunt, for helping him realize that what happened in the past may not be true today.

“We talk about how they have beautified the graveyard where the black people are buried,” Parks said. “That shows their attitude has changed.”

Lunt, who has been mayor of Fort Scott for six years, said he met Parks about seven years ago when the artist-photographer’s retrospective exhibit “Half-Past Autumn” made a stop at Wichita State University during its international tour.

“I teased around with him and said I was into photography. I said I had a Brownie 120, and he laughed,” Lunt said. “He said he had had some bad experiences in Fort Scott, and I asked him to recall some.”

Parks told Lunt about his parents being laid to rest in the segregated cemetery and how it was a “very bleak and windy place” in which to stand and watch your mother get buried.

“I went to the cemetery, and it was true. It was barren. There were no trees there,” Lunt said. “He had commented that because of all the years he worked toward overcoming bigotry he could not come back and be buried with his parents in the cemetery.”

Lunt decided to change that.

Over the years, 27 trees and 32 bushes have been planted in that part of the cemetery. About 30 tombstones have been straightened. Money was raised for the project, and volunteers from the community provided the labor.

“I told him that we would have to import squirrels because we have so many trees there,” Lunt said.

Parks and Lunt now call each other regularly. Last fall, a permanent exhibit of Parks’ photographs and poetry was mounted in the city’s new Mercy Health Center. The collection contains 27 photographs.

“I know it’s not a gallery or museum (like he’s used to), but it’s accessible to all,” Lunt said.

Parks intended to attend the dedication of the exhibit, but his doctor grounded him because of high blood pressure. Instead, the artist sent a 14-minute videotape, which was played for the 500 or so people who attended.

Lunt said there has been talk of establishing a Gordon Parks museum in Fort Scott.

“He’s very cooperative and wants to do something,” the mayor said of Parks. “We need to raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and it will be difficult to do that.”

Lunt said billboards on the outskirts of Fort Scott tout its status as “the boyhood home of Gordon Parks.” He believes it will be his final home now, too.

“I think he’ll be buried here,” he said. “He seems confident (that things have changed) and seems to have closure on how things were.”