Gordon Parks

Gordon ParksGordon Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was a prolific, world-renowned photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker known for his work on projects like Shaft and The Learning Tree.

Born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, Gordon Parks was a self-taught artist who became the first African-American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines. He also pursued movie directing and screenwriting, working at the helm of the films The Learning Tree, based on a novel he wrote, and Shaft. Parks has published several memoirs and retrospectives as well, including A Choice of Weapons.

His father, Jackson Parks, was a vegetable farmer, and the family lived modestly. Parks faced aggressive discrimination as a child. He attended a segregated elementary school and was not allowed to participate in activities at his high school because of his race. The teachers actively discouraged African-American students from seeking higher education. After the death of his mother, Sarah, when he was 14, Parks left home. He lived with relatives for a short time before setting off on his own, taking whatever odd jobs he could find.

Parks purchased his first camera at the age of 25 after viewing photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. His early fashion photographs caught the attention of Marva Louis, wife of the boxing champion Joe Louis, who encouraged Parks to move to a larger city. Parks and his wife, Sally, relocated to Chicago in 1940.

In 1969, Parks became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie, the film adaptation of The Learning Tree. He wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the film.

Parks’s next film, Shaft, was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1971. Starring Richard Roundtree as detective John Shaft, the movie inspired a genre of films known as blaxploitation. The 93-year-old Gordon Parks died of cancer on March 7, 2006, in New York City. He is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. Today, Parks is remembered for his pioneering work in the field of photography, which has been an inspiration to many.

Quote:  “There’s another horizon out there, one more horizon that you have to make for yourself and let other people discover it, and someone else will take it further on, you know.”

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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale HurstonBorn in Alabama on January 7, 1891,in Notasulga, Alabama, Zora Neale Hurston spent her early adulthood studying at various universities and collecting folklore from the South, the Caribbean and Latin America. Hurston was a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, rubbing shoulders with many of its famous writers. Hurston created several acclaimed works of fiction, including her 1937 masterwork of fiction, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was also an outstanding folklorist and anthropologist who worked to record the stories and tales of many cultures, including her own African-American heritage.

Hurston was the daughter of two former slaves. Her father, John Hurston, was a pastor, and he moved the family to Florida when Hurston was very young. Following the death of her mother, Lucy Ann (Potts) Hurston, in 1904, and her father’s subsequent remarriage, Hurston lived with an assortment of family members for the next few years.

To support herself and finance her efforts to get an education, Hurston worked a variety of jobs, including as a maid for an actress in a touring Gilbert and Sullivan group. In 1920, Hurston earned an associate degree from Howard University. She published one of her earliest works in the university’s newspaper. A few years later, she moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where she became a fixture in the area’s thriving art scene. Living in Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston experienced a few early literary successes, including placing in short-story and playwriting contests in Opportunity magazine.

Hurston also had serious academic interests. She landed a scholarship to Barnard College, where she pursued the subject of anthropology and studied with Franz Boas. Hurston released her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. Two years later, she received a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to work on what would become her most famous work: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In 1942, Hurston published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. This personal work was well-received by critics. Despite all of her accomplishments, Hurston struggled financially and personally during her final decade. She kept writing, but she had difficulty getting her work published. Additionally, she experienced some backlash for her criticism of the 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the end of school segregation.

A few years later, Hurston had suffered several strokes and was living in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. The once-famous writer and folklorist died poor and alone on January 28, 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.