Fellow Kansans honor Gordon Parks in Harlem

? Last Saturday night, Kansas came to Harlem — and it wasn’t for the first time.

A celebration at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture honored the contributions of four black artists with deep Kansas roots.

Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center, said the evening was an effort “to raise up — both in the consciousness of the people of Kansas and the people of the United States — the presence and significance of several African-Americans (from Kansas).”

Of the four, two are deceased. Topeka, Kan.-born painter Aaron Douglas and Lawrence, Kan.-bred poet and novelist Langston Hughes shaped their respective arts in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s.

Two contemporary artists, filmmaker Kevin Willmott, of Lawrence, whose “CSA: The Confederate States of America” will be released in February, and former Kansan-turned-New Yorker, photographer, poet, novelist, musician and composer Gordon Parks, were on hand for the occasion.

Scott Richardson, of Lawrence, organizer of the event, said the evening was intended to honor these artists who had “laid the foundation so that people like Kevin Willmott would be able to do what he is doing now.”

About 75 others, including Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, gathered in the Schomburg Center’s library beneath Douglas’ four murals, “Aspects of Negro Life,” painted in 1934.

Genesis of the evening

Douglas’ murals stood as reminders of the genesis for the event which had taken place in April in Topeka, where the Central Topeka TurnAround Team staged a fund-raiser for the recreation of one of the four “Aspects” murals.

Richardson, who also organized the Topeka fund-raiser, said the Schomburg’s Dodson had been the keynote speaker there “for a community mural project to honor Aaron Douglas” and “started the process of also doing an event here in Harlem.”

The mural project will be overseen by Lawrence artist Stan Herd, who was present at the Schomburg. A documentary on Douglas by Willmott also will be produced.

Gordon Parks, left, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius gather for a celebration at Harlem's Schomburg Center to honor four black artists with ties to the state.

The mural will be located in Topeka’s Tennessee Town at 12th and Lane and is part of a broader effort to revitalize the community.

Even with the much-deserved attention to Douglas, the evening’s chief honoree was Parks.

Parks, perhaps best known for his autobiography and film “The Learning Tree” and for directing the original “Shaft,” left the comfort of his loving mother and father and 14 brothers and sisters and the racial barriers found in Fort Scott, Kan., at age 15 to go on and achieve acclaim in the arts nationally and internationally.

Parks has influenced several generations of young artists, including Willmott.

Fellow honoree Willmott said Parks, Hughes and Douglas were “the people that I looked to as a kid to try to emulate, especially Gordon Parks.

“I knew that he (Parks) was from a small town in Kansas,” Willmott said. “The fact that he made ‘Shaft’ and ‘The Learning Tree’ made filmmaking not an impossibility.”

Kansas seeks reconciliation

“Gordon Parks was born into a Kansas that wasn’t welcoming and wasn’t very kind,” Sebelius said. “The Kansas of the early days of Gordon Parks was very racially bitter and very racially divided.”

Calling Parks a “soldier … against poverty and against racism who used his camera as his weapon,” Sebelius presented Parks with a commemorative Kansas coin, a flag flown atop the state capitol and a proclamation declaring June 12 as “Gordon Parks Day” in Kansas.

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Looking younger than his 93 years, slowed but still with the trademark thundercloud of white hair and billowy mustache, Parks removed the brown pipe draped like a musical note from his lip, stood in his tan suit with cream-and-blue tie and received the ceremonial gifts.

“Kansas was a marvelous place for me and a terrible place for me at times,” Parks said.

As an example of the latter, he cited a teacher who told her black students, “Don’t waste your family’s money going to college. Try and finish high school if you can, and let that be that.”

He said, “I did not finish high school, but last year when Princeton gave me my 56th doctorate, I wish (his teacher) was there to see it.”

Parks wrote a poem for the evening’s occasion which will appear in a new book. The poem, “A Sign by the Road,” is set in Fort Scott and speaks of the sign commemorating the city as his birthplace:

My doctor stretches
My remaining years to 10
My bones hope he’s right
But doctor’s will make mistakes
I came into this world pronounced dead
Thankfully God condemned that declaration;
I survived.
The end predicted for me
Fell into a hole and died.
So now I don’t sit around
Waiting for it
Day by day
Death to call my name again.