Students honor St. Paul school's namesake, trailblazing Black artist Gordon Parks

Gordon parks High School
Gordon Parks' great-niece Robin Hickman-Winfield speaks during a tree dedication event at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul on Monday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

St. Paul’s Gordon Parks High School on University Avenue is named after the trailblazing artist who attended Central High School and began his photography career in the city. But the school’s embrace of Parks’ legacy goes well beyond just its name.

“I want every student to know him,” said Robin Hickman-Winfield, Parks’ great-niece, who is heavily involved at the school. All students take her class on the history of her great-uncle’s life as a Black creative during the civil rights era. She helps students to see themselves in Parks’ life and be inspired by his artistry and resilience.

On Monday morning, students and staff engaged with Parks’ work firsthand, as actor Kyle Johnson visited the school to share his experience of being the star of Parks’ 1969 film “The Learning Tree,” adapted by Parks from his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

Gordon parks High School
Kyle Johnson, the lead actor in Gordon Parks’ semi-autobiographical film "The Learning Tree," tells students about acting in the movie at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul on Monday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Parks wrote, directed, produced and composed music for the film, which was the first major Hollywood movie with a Black director. He died in 2006 at age 93.

In “The Learning Tree,” Johnson plays Newt Winger, a character based off Parks’ time as a teenager in 1920s Kansas before his mother died and he was sent to St. Paul to live with his sister. Winger navigates injustice in his community while learning what it means to be a Black man.

Addressing the school’s population of predominantly students of color, Johnson told of his time working with Parks on the movie and the groundbreaking nature of making a Hollywood film featuring a largely Black cast and with Parks in the director’s seat.

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Johnson encouraged students to “keep that wave of progress going” and remembered Parks as a “light-handed” director who trusted and believed in the cast members he chose.

Gordon Parks senior Isis Dickerson said she’s grateful for opportunities like Monday’s event to connect with members of Parks’ family and people who impacted his career.

Gordon parks High School
Gordon Parks High School student Isis Dickerson outside the school in St. Paul on Monday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

“We’re going to his school, so I feel like it’s very important for us to learn about him, try to take it in and do something with it,” she said.

Three Gordon Parks students including Dickerson were selected by Hickman-Winfield to participate in the relaunch of Twin Cities Public Television’s “Don’t Believe the HYPE” program, where youth of color gain media production skills and produce an original project of their own. For her video, Dickerson is interviewing a Karen family and a Somali family about immigrating to Minnesota.

Dickerson joined Hickman-Winfield, Johnson and other students on Monday to dedicate a new tree to Parks and “The Learning Tree.” Gathered in a circle around the tree, many with arms around one another, Hickman-Winfield spoke about its symbolic nature.

“This is what it looks like when Black lives matter,” she said.

The tree will soon be planted outside the school.

Gordon parks High School
Student Rosena Doh shares about her experience in "Don't Believe the HYPE" with peers during a Gordon Parks tree dedication ceremony on Monday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Gordon Parks student Rosena Doh is also stepping into her creative talent through “Don’t Believe the HYPE.” Standing in front of the commemorative tree, Doh said that while school is “not her thing,” she likes it at Gordon Parks.

“Ever since I was young I wanted to produce something,” she said to those in the circle. “Auntie Robin made my dreams come true.”