New display signs inform about and celebrate the Fort Scott locations where the famous artist filmed his masterpiece
In 1969, Kansas native Gordon Parks became the first Black American to release a major Hollywood studio feature film. The Learning Tree, released by Warner Brothers, was filmed mostly in Fort Scott and was based on Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Although it was Parks’ first feature film, the multitalented photographer also adapted the screenplay, composed the score, and produced the motion picture about the life of a Black teenage boy facing poverty and segregation in the 1920s. Now, Fort Scott is celebrating Parks’ legacy by placing informational signs at locations where important scenes were filmed.
The Learning Tree Film Scene Sign Trail consists of 13 sites in and around Fort Scott and includes the courthouse in nearby Mound City. Each sign features photographs and a short narrative of the scene that took place at that location. A QR code on the sign allows those with smart phones to access a virtual tour providing further information about the scene and the film itself.
“We wanted to really expand the legacy of Gordon Parks and help make that legacy even more lasting by having these signs as a tribute to him,” says Kirk Sharp, director of the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott. The signage marks the movie’s historical importance to the community and beyond; in 1989, the Library of Congress chose The Learning Tree as one of the first 25 movies placed on the newly established National Film Registry, which preserves films that are culturally, historically and aesthetically significant. Other movies included that first year were Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars.
“It was a barrier-breaking movie all the way around,” Sharp says. “It’s a story that was important then and is still important now as it is part of the same issues we’re dealing with, and Gordon did such a wonderful job of illustrating that through the film.”
A sign near the high school, which Parks attended his freshman year before leaving the state, explains scenes involving the main character, Newt Winger, who confronts a teacher about her racist views in a classroom and later shares his concerns with the principal in his office.
Few structural changes have been made to the three-story house that was known in the film as the home of Judge Cavanaugh, for whom Newt’s mother, Sarah Winger, worked as a maid. In one key scene of the film, Newt and his parents talked to the judge about the murder he witnessed at Jake Kiner’s barn.
Another of the stops is the first Black church in Fort Scott, the African American Methodist Episcopal Church built in 1866. Members of the church choir appeared in the movie’s church scene. The Parks family attended this church before membership declined. It later was torn down; however, one of the church’s stained glass windows and two of the pews are on exhibit at the Gordon Parks Museum.
Parks eventually created 11 documentaries and iconic films, including Shaft, Leadbelly and Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. Gordonparkscenter.org 620.223.2700 ext. 5850
Gordon Parks Celebration
The annual Gordon Parks Celebration honoring the world-renowned photographer, writer, musician and filmmaker takes traditionally takes place in October on the Fort Scott Community College campus, with additional activities throughout the city. Honoring the life, achievements and contributions of Parks, the celebration includes speakers, artists, and programs for all ages.
Other activities include film showings, an exhibit of Parks’ photographs, a book club presentation on his book A Choice of Weapons, and an annual photo contest with the theme “I Am Driven By…” at the Ellis Fine Arts Center, which houses the Gordon Parks Museum.
Elsewhere in Fort Scott, the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes includes a history display on Parks, and the hometown filmmaker is the topic of a mural at Riverfront Park. There also will be guided tours of The Learning Tree Film Scene Sign Trail.
Gordon Parks Museum
Beyond filmmaking, Gordon Parks was the first Black photographer at Life magazine and was a master of fashion photography for Vogue magazine. He also authored 20 books and wrote original musical compositions, film scores, poetry and a ballet. The Gordon Parks Museum honors the award-winning artist through exhibits describing his life and works and through educational programs about the arts, cultural awareness, and the role of diversity in society.
“Gordon Parks excelled so much in many fields,” says museum director Kirk Sharp. “Not many people achieve that type of success in one field. He was a renaissance man.”
Although Parks didn’t have the chance to finish high school or attend college, he received more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees during his lifetime, according to Sharp.
Parks gifted 30 of his photographs to the museum after attending the first Gordon Parks Celebration in 2004; among the group was the iconic Tuskegee Airmen, which he took while working for the Office of War Information in the 1940s, and American Gothic, which featured a Black government office cleaning woman holding a broom and mop in front of an American flag.
Per his wishes, many of his personal belongings were donated to the museum upon his death. Family members later contributed two of Park’s cameras and one of his tripods.
Gordonparkscenter.org | 620.223.2700 ext. 5850