Acclaimed photographer Gordon Parks' assignment for Life Magazine to depict the realities of life under segregation had the making of a searing series. But the story was never published, and the pictures never saw the light of day, until Museum of Fine Arts Curator Karen Haas unraveled some of the mystery. 

It was an undated, untitled picture of a young African-American couple standing under a segregated movie theater that launched Haas on a curatorial quest to learn what brought Parks back to Fort Scott, Kansas, his hometown, in 1950. What she uncovered was a trove.

"He had the power to go back and tell the stories of African American families," she said. "Friends of his, people who trusted him, who looked right into his camera and who really believed that he would do right by them. That he had this opportunity to sort of counter all the stereotypes of African Americans."

The exhibition, "Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,"comprises the photographs Parks took on assignment for Life Magazine. He had pitched the story to return home to Kansas for an extremely personal take on segregation.

"He decides to go back and seek out his classmates from elementary school, and it turns out it was the entire class of 1927 that he was looking for, all the 11 classmates," Haas said. "And to look at where their lives had gone and what their experiences had been in the 20 plus years since he had seen them."

It wasn’t easy for Parks to return home. Kansas and Fort Scott had been rife with racism throughout his hardscrabble childhood, being the son of a tenant farmer and a maid, and the youngest of 15.

"He described his life as having been very tough later on, having been discriminated against and really felt the need to get away," said Haas.

As he tracked down his classmates some 20 years after he’d last seen them, he found that  nearly all had moved away, some to Chicago’s South Side. 

"He found one friend, Masel, who was in very dire straights, and he described her as the class tragedy," she said. "She was living with an abusive husband, who actually held up Gordon Parks with a gun and took all his money."

She was the exception. By and large Parks found his classmates, like himself, had improved their lives.  

"There was another classmate who had found a very big job at Campbell Soup, which apparently was a factory that hired a lot of African American workers," Haas said. "So some people were living very middle class lives, but nearly all of the families that he met with were living in mostly African-American neighborhoods. And the sad part for me was that recently in revisiting those neighborhoods and trying to find those homes and to go back to the place to get a sense for myself of what they looked like. They’re very changed today."

Haas retraced Parks’ trip last year. Like Parks, her intent was personal and tinged with sadness for the homes no longer standing. 

"I’ve really have become obsessed with this story," she said. "I feel as though these are people I’ve come to know through reading Gordon Parks’ notes, reading his notebooks, going through his correspondence, looking through the contact sheets, studying the images. I’m really fascinated by these people’s lives. I’m realizing in the process of this research, how little I know of this moment in history."

And were it not for Haas, we wouldn’t have seen this history. Life magazine never published the Parks story. Haas speculates it was bumped for breaking news, and by the time it could be published, the subjects’ lives had already changed dramatically. So here, 65 years later, Parks’ perspective finally sees the light of day.  

"One very exciting thing is that we’ve recently reproduced one of the images from the exhibition, a little girl playing the piano with her mother sitting next to her and just out of the blue have been contacted by this little girl who turns out to be now in her late 60s living in Arizona, a fascinating story," said Haas. "Had a wonderful conversation with her about her mother about growing up in Chicago, and I’m thrilled to see that in many ways, her life was exactly what her mother had hoped for her. And she went on to do many of the things her mother was not able to do in her own life."

Hear more about the exhibit on Greater Boston: