Gordon Parks’s Color Photographs Show Intimate Views of Life in Segregated Alabama

by Jacqui Palumbo for Artsy
Department Store, Mobile, Alabama

Gordon Parks “Department Store”, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

When the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, there was hope that equality for black Americans was finally within reach. “But it was a quiet hope, locked behind closed doors and spoken about in whispers,” wrote journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault in an essay for  Gordon Parks’s Segregation Story (2014). “For nothing tangible in the Deep South had changed for blacks.”

Two years after the ruling, Life magazine editors sent Parks—the first African American photographer to join the magazine’s staff—to the town of Shady Grove, Alabama. His assignment was to photograph a community still in stasis, where “separate but equal” still reigned. Parks arrived in Alabama as Montgomery residents refused to give up their bus seats, organized by a rising leader named Martin Luther King Jr.; and as the Ku Klux Klan organized violent attacks to uphold the structures of racial violence and division.

Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama

Gordon Parks “Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama”, 1956

Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama

Gordon Parks “Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama”, 1956

Parks returned with a rare view from a dangerous climate: a nuanced, lush series of an extended black family living an ordinary life in vivid color. The editorial, “Restraints: Open and Hidden,” told a story many white Americans had never seen. The distance of black-and-white photographs had been erased, and Parks dispelled the stereotypes common in stories about black Americans, including past coverage in Life. Here was the Thornton and Causey family—2 grandparents, 9 children, and 19 grandchildren—exuding tenderness, dignity, and play in a town that still dared to make them feel lesser. To this day, it remains one of the most important photographic series on black life.
“It was a very conscious decision to shoot the photographs in color because most of the images for Civil Rights reports had been done in black and white, and they were always very dramatic, and he wanted to get away from the drama of black and white,” said Fabienne Stephan, director of Salon 94, which showed the work in 2015.

A lost record, recovered

Untitled, Harlem, New York

Gordon Parks “Untitled, Harlem, New York”, 1963

After 26 images ran in Life, the full set of Parks’s photographs was lost. In 2011, five years after the photographer’s death, staff at the Gordon Parks Foundation discovered more than 200 color transparencies of Shady Grove in a wrapped and taped box, marked “Segregation Series.” The first presentations of the work took place at the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans in the summer of 2014, and then at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta later that year, coinciding with Steidl’s book. Parks was a self-taught photographer who, like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, had documented rural America as it recovered from the devastation of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. At Life, which he joined in 1948, Parks covered a range of topics, including politics, fashion, and portraits of famous figures. His series on Shady Grove wasn’t like anything he’d photographed before.

Muhammad Ali in Training, Miami, Florida

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali in Training, Miami, Florida”, 1966

Cocoon Cape, New York, New York (30.003)

Gordon Parks, “Cocoon Cape, New York, New York (30.003)”, 1956

Parks’s documentary series was laced with the gentle lull of the Deep South, as elders rocked on their front porches and young girls in collared dresses waded barefoot into the water. A dreaminess permeates his scenes, now magnified by the nostalgic luster of film: A boy in a cornstalk field stands in the shadow of viridian leaves; a woman in a lavender dress, holding her child, gazes over her shoulder directly at the camera; two young boys in matching overalls stand at the edge of a pond, under the crook of Spanish moss.
There are overt references to the discrimination the family still faced, such as clearly demarcated drinking fountains and a looming neon sign flashing “Colored Entrance.” There are also subtler, more unsettling allusions: A teenager holds a gun in his lap at the entrance to his home, as two young boys and a girl sit in the background. Young Emmett Till had been abducted from his home and lynched one year prior, an act that instilled fear in the homes of black families.

Parks faced danger, too, as a black man documenting Shady Grove’s inequality. “With a small camera tucked in my pocket, I was there, for so long…[to document] Alabama, the motherland of racism,” Parks wrote. Life found a local fixer named Sam Yette to guide him, and both men were harassed regularly. In his writings, Parks described his immense fear that Klansman were just a few miles away, bombing black churches.

Untitled, Alabama (37.042)

Gordan Parks, “Untitled, Alabama (37.042)”, 1956

After the Life story came out, members of the family Parks photographed were threatened, but they remained steadfast in their decision to participate. In particular, local white residents were incensed with the quoted comments of one woman, Allie Lee. When her husband’s car was seized, Life editors flew down to help and were greeted by men with shotguns. Lee was eventually fired from her job for appearing in the article, and the couple relocated from Alabama with the help of $25,000 from Life.

Images of affirmation

At Segregated Drinking Fountain

Gordon Parks, “At Segregated Drinking Fountain”, 1956

Despite the fallout, what Parks revealed in Shady Grove had a lasting effect. It was more than the story of a still-segregated community. Black and white residents were not living siloed among themselves. In his images, a white mailman reads letters to the Thorntons’ elderly patriarch and matriarch, and a white boy plays with two black boys behind a barbed fence. (This image has endured in pop culture, and was referenced by rapper Kendrick Lamar in the music video for his song “ELEMENT.”—a visual homage to Parks.) The intimacy of these moments is heightened by the knowledge that these interactions were still fraught with danger.

The family Parks photographed was living with pride and love—they were any American family, doing their best to live their lives. “Images like this affirm the power of photography to neutralize stereotypes that offered nothing more than a partial, fragmentary, or distorted view of black life,” wrote art critic Maurice Berger in the 2014 book on the series. Eventually, he added, creating positive images was something more black Americans could do for themselves. With the proliferation of accessible cameras, and as more black photographers have entered the field, the collective portrait of black life has never been more nuanced.