It has been more than 65 years since Gordon Parks came to Mobile to shoot photos for a Life Magazine article on segregation, but his work continues to reverberate. Just last week, the Gordon Parks Foundation honored a woman featured in one of those photos.
Cora Taylor, whose image was capture almost accidentally by Parks, was a special guest at the foundation’s annual gala -- a night when honorees included filmmaker Spike Lee and his wife, producer and author Tonya Lewis Lee; billionaire businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs; artist Mark Bradford; and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.
The story spans decades, but the latest chapter began last year, when an exhibition of Parks’ iconic “Segregation Story” photos finally came to Mobile, courtesy of the Mobile Museum of Art. Among those who visited was Celia Sims-Sutton. She happened to know that Cora Taylor, her cousin, was featured in the photos.
For the project, Parks had focused on members of an extended family living in Mobile and the Grove Hill area. But as he observed their private and public lives, sometimes other people came into the frame.
That had been the case with Taylor.
“As the story goes with Cora, she remembers this man taking her picture,” said Sims-Sutton. “He didn’t ask or anything like that. … the one thing she remembers is that he got in a car and it had New York license plates. So she’s all kind of flustered, because I think at that time there was a lot of civil unrest and other problems going on in Mobile. They were kind of like leery. She went home and told her mother.”
Taylor affirmed that.
“I got on the bus and I went by the ice cream parlor and stopped and got some ice cream,” Taylor said. “And this car came up and this man, and then another man with some kids came up. I was standing there waiting and the man took my picture. Didn’t say anything to me, just took me and my friends’ picture.
“That was during the time after Emmett Till got killed,” Taylor said. “So we were kind of nervous.”
As with many of Parks’ “Segregation Story” photos, the resulting color image is both subtle and stark. It’s a slice of life, in front of a storefront papered with advertisements for frozen treats. At left, a man holds a girl up to a water fountain. At right, two young women stand in skirts and sleeveless tops. Part of the word “colored” is visible on the water fountain.
One of the young women wears shades and appears to be in the middle of saying something. That is young Cora Rucker, who later took the married name Cora Taylor.
Sims-Sutton said the location was in Prichard, not Mobile, near the intersection of St. Stephens Road and Wilson Avenue.
Taylor said she remembers seeing herself in the pages of Life Magazine. Some of the people in the photos suffered backlash after speaking for the Life article, but she wasn’t quoted and didn’t experience any of that.
“I had no idea about that until later,” she said. “Nobody said anything to me.”
In the late ‘60s, Taylor moved to California, where she still resides. Sims-Sutton said many members of the extended family documented by Parks migrated west. The photos themselves fell into sort of a half-life. They weren’t unknown, and in fact some of them became iconic -- particularly one of educator Joanne Thornton Wilson standing under a sign marking the colored entrance to the Mobile Saenger Theatre. But they also weren’t available for viewing or purchase.
That began to change around 2012, when the foundation unearthed dozens of Parks’ original color transparencies from the project. By 2015 it has begun presenting exhibitions such as the one that came to the Mobile Museum of Art in 2021. (The Mobile exhibition had something none of the others did: The very neon sign under which Wilson had been photographed stood in the center of the room.)
The latest chapter of the story began at the end of 2021, when Sims-Sutton made it to the museum on the very last day the exhibition was being shown. She did a Facetime call with Taylor, showing her that the photo was being displayed.
Afterward, she got a call from Taylor’s brother. She was about to turn 84, and the family wanted to do something special. They wondered if a print of the photo was available. Sims-Sutton couldn’t find any information on print sales, so she sent off an email to the Gordon Parks Foundation, thinking she might hear something back in a week or two.
“Within a half hour of me sending the email to this blanket address, I get a phone call and it was Peter Kunhardt Jr.” she said. He is the executive director of the foundation. “He was just overjoyed an excited and wanted to talk to her, he wanted to know what happened, did she talk to him [Parks].”
Sims-Sutton set up a three-way call. She asked about getting a print.
“He said, ‘I can get the print, but I’m not going to give it to you,’” she said. “Then he said, ‘I’ll do one better. How about an all-expense paid trip to New York for the gala and I’ll present the photo to her?’ My mouth dropped on the floor.”
The Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner and Auction, an event “celebrating the arts and social justice,” was held May 19 in New York. Vogue noted that in addition to the honorees, notable guests included Leonardo Caprio, Anderson Cooper, Questlove, Gayle King and Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. The affair reportedly raised more than $2 million -- and a significant chunk of that came from a print of “At Segregated Drinking Fountain,” the image featuring Taylor, which went for $170,000, according to Vogue.com.
Taylor, who has spent her life with the knowledge that she was in one of Parks’ photos, but without proof to dispel any doubts that may have existed or a copy to call her own, can be seen in the gallery of photos published by Vogue. And yes, she finally got her very own framed print of the photo.
Speaking to AL.com before the ceremony, Taylor acknowledged that there was a somber side to the situation. The photos serve as full-color proof that Jim Crow segregation was in force less than a lifetime ago. It’s not ancient history.
“From what I can understand we haven’t learned too much more, because some of the same stuff is going on today,” she said. “And they should be over it by now, but it looks like they’re opening it back up again.”
Yet the sense of affirmation after so many years meant there was a lesson greater than that fear, she said. The fact that Parks’ legacy lives on, and that the photos are being celebrated rather than being buried is reason for hope.
“It’s nice to be recognized with something positive,” she said. “I’m thankful for that. I hope that’s opened up a lot of people’s minds so they can do better in life instead of being mean and hateful.”
Culturedmag.com reported that at the gala, Taylor “shared a charming speech reminding all the women not to give up: Y’all got it.’”
Sims-Sutton said it was “a full-circle moment” for her cousin.
“It was overwhelming and euphoric at the same time to know that something she had thought about and wondered all these years had come to volition,” she said. “I was proud that I could do something for her to uplift her spirits and give closure, the only bittersweet part was that her mother and father was not there to see such honor and to know that she is a living legend, being in the right time at the right place.
“Forever etched in the annals of history, to have her photograph by the iconic Gordon Parks,” Sims-Sutton said. “Whew!”
Not a bad little birthday present, however long it took to arrive.