Gordon Parks at 100: his legacy lives on in young students

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Gordon Parks, a groundbreaking African-American photographer, filmmaker, writer and musician who spent his teen years in St. Paul.

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Student Peter Rodriguez (left) performs during a celebration of the life of Gordon Parks on Nov. 30, 2012, at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, Minn. The piano, painted by Twin Cities artist Jesse Golfis and the school’s students, showcases images of the late Gordon Parks, who once lived in St. Paul.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Recently MPR’s Nikki Tundel visited Gordon Parks High School, an alternative learning center that provides a fresh start for those who struggled at other schools.

According to Principal Micheal Thompson students at Gordon Parks, the school, have a lot in common with Gordon Parks, the teenager.

“Gordon Parks started out when he was 15 years old on the streets of St. Paul with no place to live, no job and no prospects. And then he became this international Renaissance man,” Thompson said.

Thompson highlights Parks’ tenacity in hopes of motivating students to find their own paths to success.

On this morning, a group of students paints a mural to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Parks’ birth. Their canvas: a grand piano.

As some students paint the instrument, others play its keys.

“It’s like a tune which would set the tone for the painters and set their mind free and they would paint what they feel, which correlates to Gordon Parks because he loves music himself,” student Tony Vang said.

“I’m just making designs for the piano. I think they represent me,” student Pheng Lor said, continuing to paint.

Rodriguez agrees, “That’s like putting our soul pretty much into the piano.”

You can read more about the students at Gordon Parks High School – how the photographer continues to inspire them – here.

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