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Gordon Parks' 'The Learning Tree' Still Resonates After 50 Years

Gordon Parks Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas.
Gordon Parks with the film crew on the set of "The Learning Tree" in Fort Scott, Kansas.

The landmark motion picture "The Learning Tree" turns 50 years old this year. Noted photographer Gordon Parks directed the movie, based off his 1963 semi-autobiography. The film is set in Parks’ hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. Parks became the first African-American to produce and direct a major motion picture for a Hollywood studio.

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
David Parks stands by a photo that he took of his father, the celebrated photographer Gordon Parks, inside the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott, KS.

The 1969 drama is a coming-of-age story that illustrates growing up and facing racial discrimination in rural parts of Kansas in the late 1920s.

"It’s one of the top films made in the twentieth century designated by the Library of Congress," said David Parks, the son of the famed photographer.

"The Learning Tree" was among the first 25 films placed on the national Film Registry of the Library of Congress, something David Parks is very proud of.

"It’s a reminder of [Gordon Parks'] legacy," David says. "The book got it started and then the film and then the overwhelming support from the studios."

And Parks remembers being there in the '60s at Warner Brothers Studios in L.A. when his dad and actor-producer William Conrad were working a deal. Conrad complimented Gordon Parks on "The Learning Tree" script. Parks had also created the music, which he sent his son David to get for Conrad to hear.

"And [Conrad] says, 'Wow, this is really good stuff,'" David recalled. "He says, 'Well, we got the script, we got the music, you're going to direct the film,' so the old man was in the slot. He had control of his destiny."

Credit Gordon Parks Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas.
S. Pearl Sharp, formerly Saundra Sharp, sits in her acting chair on set in Fort Scott, Kanas, in 1968. She played the role of 16-year-old Prissy in "The Learning Tree."

Actress S. Pearl Sharp, who at the time went by Saundra Sharp, played the role of 16-year-old Prissy in the film, the sister to the lead character Newt Winger, played by Kyle Johnson. It was Sharp's first on-camera speaking role.

"I absolutely fell in love with working with Gordon because his demeanor was very calm and cool," Sharp said. "He knew what he wanted, he knew how to get it."

Sharp remembers what it was like filming in Parks' hometown. 

"The whole film company was here because they had been shooting for about three weeks before I came in," Sharp says. "All of the hotels were taken up. Everything in town was about the film because it was the biggest thing that had happened here."

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
S. Pearl Sharp, admires the life size image of Gordon Parks inside the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott, Kansas.

Sharp says Parks also broke the color line in a number of unions. He helped blacks — including wardrobe people, hairdressers, assistant cameramen and gaffers — by demanding the unions open up to them.

"Because there were unions where they would let black people work up until just before the minimum number of days and then let them go," Sharp said, "and then hire them in another film. Same thing would happen five, ten, fifteen, twenty years.

"This is what would happened to these people and so there were about four or five unions recording negotiations that they had to break the color line and let these people join the union and work on this film, and so that was a career shift for a number of people."

A career shift that Gordon was even pursuing for himself back in high school, as reflected in this scene in the counselor's office:

COUNSELOR: “Very few Negro students go to college. They just aren’t college material. And the few who do go wind up as cooks and porters, in any case. Now, I just think that's an awful waste of money and time.”
NEWT: “That's not gonna happen to me whether I go to college or not.” COUNSELOR: “Now Newton, don't get upset! I'm here to advise you. And I advise you to take a general course. It'll be much easier for you, and wiser for you.”

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
Actress Karole Graham, who played the role of Big Mabel, stands beside one of the cameras that was used in the filming of the 1969 film "The Learning Tree" at the Gordon Parks Museum.

Kirk Sharp, executive director of the Gordon Parks Museum, says Parks never forgot that real life experience.

“He dedicated that 30th honorary doctorate degree that he received to the teacher and counselor who told him don't go to college," Sharp says. “Gordon has received over 50 honorary doctorate degrees."  

Actress Karole Graham played the role of  Big Mabel in "The Learning Tree." Graham says there is one scene between Sheriff Kirky, played by Dana Elcar,  and lead character Newt Winger, played by Kyle Johnson, that always moves her.

Credit Gordon Parks Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas.
Actor Dana Elcar, who plays Sheriff Kirky, talking to director Gordon Parks on the set of "The Learning Tree," which takes place in the fictional town of Cherokee Flats, Kansas.

"I love the way it ended and it was due to the brilliant direction of Gordon [Parks] and the brilliant talent of Kyle," Graham said. "The way when Kirky, after he shoots and kills Marcus and basically it saves Kyle's life.

That was so, oh, that was so powerful."

Sharp, who played Prissy, also points to the scene as one of her favorites in the film.

“So powerful. So I think that was one of my favorite points of the film. Some of the same things are happening, there is still racism," Sharp says. "There’s still the family values, the mother teaching him in a very quiet way about the decisions that he had to make as a young boy."

There's a scene in the film where Sarah Winger, talking to her son, Newt, tells him: "No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats until the day you die. Let it be a learning tree."

"That family value," Sharp says, “the legal situations, the court room, black men being killed. Yeah, a lot of it, unfortunately it still resonates today."

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
Gordon Parks' orange acting chair with a clapboard used during the filming of "The Learning Tree," on display at the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott.

And what also still resonates with Sharp is seeing the man who directed her in "The Learning Tree" at the 1969 debut.

“The opening night of the premiere,  I’ll never forget this. There’s some images you don't forget," she said. "[I] rolled into the parking lot at Warner Brothers, Gordon steps out, we happen to arrive at the same time. He’s driving a chocolate-colored Rolls-Royce and he's got on a chocolate silk tuxedo, obviously custom made, with his yellow shirt on.

"And that was the image walking into the premiere."

Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.