A groundbreaking photographer who inspired generations of Kansas City students will be honored Friday night as part of celebrations of what would have been his 100th birthday. The festivities will be at the school that bears his name.
Gordon Parks, who died in 2006, was a famous African-American writer, photographer, composer, poet, painter and filmmaker. His lens captured the good, bad and ugly of the Civil Rights Movement from Jim Crow to voting rights. He grew up during racial segregation and overcame obstacles that continue to influence the students at the school that was named after him.
Gordon Parks Elementary, located at 37th and Wyoming streets, focuses on improving the lives of students who have overcome many obstacles to get an education.
"Ninety-five percent of our children are on free and reduced lunch, which indicates the poverty levels that they come from, but what is amazing is how far they come to get here," Executive Director Wayne Crull said.
The students come from all over Kansas City to learn the basics and experience so much more, including how to perform an excerpt of Parks' story. His daughter, Toni Parks, and well-known composers and choreographers created an original musical entitled Gordon's Story.
Leading up to Friday, fifth graders at Gordon Parks Elementary learned ballet for the first time so that they could perform the prologue to the musical at a tribute fundraiser for the charter elementary school. Their performance represents the life of Parks.
"They know about Mr. Parks' life, the vision of what a marvelous man he was. That will encourage them to go on and do bigger and greater things," Crull said.
The film The Learning Tree was also based on his life. The executive director of Gordon Parks Elementary remembers one line from the documentary well.
"The teacher is telling him that he couldn't go to college because he was ‘colored' is the phrase she used. When you see the work that he did, the photography, the music, the poetry, the honorary doctorates, he just showed is a true renaissance man and a lifelong learner," Crull said.
The founders of Gordon Parks Elementary asked to name the school after him because of his vision and dedication to learning. He is known for his ability to overcome the obstacles of racial segregation and continue his quest to learn.
The fundraising tribute, The Faces of Gordon Parks: A Centennial Celebration, is Friday night at the Gem Theater. Sponsorships include a pre-event dinner and begin at $500. Tickets to the fundraiser start at $50.
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