What do you say or do to honor a great legend that hasn’t already been said or done? After 10 years of planning, community engagement and discussions, Forecast Public Art and SoulTouch Productions, in partnership with the City of St. Paul and the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, marked the official launch of the Gordon Parks National Memorial on June 3 in downtown St. Paul.
This is in honor of the late Gordon Parks, a legendary photographer, movie director, writer, producer, visual artist, poet, musician, composer and ultra-Renaissance man. The theme for this legacy movement is “In the Footsteps of Gordon Parks.”
Parks became the first Black photographer to work at both Life magazine and Vogue. That was during the 1940s and later in the ‘60s. He also became the first Black movie director for a major studio with the movie Shaft.
Parks worked for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder newspaper (then the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder) before Life and Vogue magazines, first selling subscriptions and later taking photos. This included a segment called “Beauty of the Week” that featured beautiful Black women from the Twin Cities area.
The first part of the launch event was held outside at Landmark Plaza, located on 5th Avenue (soon to be renamed Gordon Parks Place) between Market and St. Peter Street. The rest of the event was held inside the St. Paul Hotel, known as the place where a young Parks worked his first job in Minnesota as a waiter and busboy and began taking photos in his spare time.
The hotel is located across the street from the memorial site. Parks left his footprints across a lot of Twin Cities geography.
The evening began at 6 pm with a walk around the Parks Memorial for a ritual of prayer to bless the site and to view the Gordon Parks High School scholar’s exhibit. This exhibit of work is titled “We’re holding this Place Down for Mr. Parks.”
The Ordway Center for Performing Arts has graciously embraced the historic event as a part of the 2016 Flint Hills International Children’s’ Festival between May 31 and June 5 in downtown St. Paul.
“There are wonderful things happening all over this country” to honor Parks’ legacy, said Robin Hickman, who is the visionary for the National Parks Memorial and great-niece to Parks. “But we have this national memorial right here in St. Paul, Minnesota. Uncle Gordon worked here during a time when he couldn’t come through the front door.”
Hickman was the hostess for the reception and introduced Parks’ family members in attendance, along with memorial vision partners. The partners include lead artist Seitu Jones, Parks Legacy youth participants, and Kokayi Ampah, a St. Paul native and graduate of St. Paul Central High School with 35 years of experience in the Hollywood film business as a producer and location manager. Ampah was a protégé of Parks and is thankful to Parks for creating access to and opportunity in the film business.
“What I remember the most about Gordon was that he did so many different things and did them all very well,” said Ampah.
Hickman spoke with the MSR about her vision for the Parks memorial. “First of all, I’m blessed because… people believed in the vision. Yeah, it began 10 years ago, and we said it then that this was going to be a national memorial. Now it’s happening right here in the place where Uncle Gordon first chose his weapon.”
Hickman was referring to the famous first autobiography written by Parks entitled A Choice of Weapons. In his book, Parks tells the story of obstacles he faced as a youngster and how he resisted taking up knives, guns and other weapons. Instead, he chose to shoot pictures of people with a camera and captured their joys and pain across America.
Parks discovered photography while working as a Pullman porter on the train. “A passenger left a photography magazine behind, and he picked it up and was inspired. In fact, he took some of his first fashion photos right across the street.
“All of this property is going to be Gordon Parks Plaza,” said Hickman, referring to the memorial site. “We are going to work with Black artists from all over the country.”
During the reception, Hickman shared a quote from former St. Paul City Council member Debbie Montgomery during a celebration for Gordon Parks 10 years ago when she said, referring to honoring Charles Schultz, who created the Peanuts gang, “If we can have Snoopy on parade, we can definitely have a national memorial for Gordon Parks.”
James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James L. Stroud, Jr. is a contributing writer and photographer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.