In the spring of 1950 Gordon Parks was asked by his editors at Life to do a feature story on the topic of segregated schools, a corrosive issue that had become the subject of national debate, especially in his home state of Kansas. With this assignment he tackled the issue as seen through the lens of his own childhood and set out to track down the entire class of 1927 from the all-black Plaza School in Fort Scott. Having been away for more than two decades, Parks returned to the small town in the southeastern corner of the state to discover that only one of his school friends remained living there. So what had begun as a story on the lasting effects of segregated education shifted its focus to the Great Migration, as Parks took to the road to reconnect with his fellow students in the northern industrial cities to which they had gone.
Three of Parks’ classmates ended up on the South Side of Chicago, which, by 1950, was the de facto capital of African American life in the U.S. There he found Margaret Tyson married to Thomas Wilkerson, a postal worker, and their six-year-old daughter Barbara, living in an apartment on Cottage Grove Avenue. Parks described Margaret as “too gentle to be bitter” and with fonder memories of growing up in Fort Scott than her friends, even though she had never been able to finally realize her early dreams of becoming a teacher.
Gordon’s photograph shows Margaret seated next to Barbara who is playing an upright piano, which would have been understood as a symbol of success by Life ’s readers. Happily, the powerful aspirations that the Wilkersons had for their young daughter did come to pass and she went on to earn advanced degrees in her mother’s chosen field of education and enjoy a long career as a teacher, principal, administrator, and author. Barbara Wilkerson Bailey is married to her own high school classmate, a career army officer, and with him has traveled the world and raised two sons. (Karen Haas Lane Curator of Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)