Gordon Parks High School welcomes The Learning Tree star

  • Famous filmmaker Gordon Parks’ legacy lives on at the Saint Paul Public School adorned with his name. His great niece Robin Hickman-Winfield teaches a class on Parks’ legacy. This week, Gordon Parks High School assured that his heritage could be remembered for another 1,000 years.

    A thousand years? Gordon Parks High School welcomed Kyle Johnson, the man who portrayed a young Parks in the 1969 film The Learning Tree. And after a heartfelt assembly including Hickman-Winfield and Johnson, a dozen students joined outside as the school dedicated its very own Learning Tree. It’s a ginkgo tree that lives for up to 1,000 years. It will be planted in the coming weeks. Many students shared their own stories of how Gordon Parks High School has changed their lives.

    The Learning Tree was originally a book written by Parks, a Central High School grad. It was the first film ever directed by an African-American for a major American film studio (Warner Bros.) It depicted the life of Newt, portrayed by Johnson, as a teenager growing up in Kansas in the 1920s.

    It was one of the most important films of the 1960’s - a coming-of-age movie in the Civil Rights movement. “It was a different place after we left,” Johnson explained to dozens of students in the school’s gym. “There was no going back. Part of that progress is right here in this room. Keep it moving.”

    Hickman-Winfield briefly turned to the student body, while Johnson was talking about an off-the-set photo that included the five teenagers in the film, plus Parks. “You can be the director of your own life story,” she urged.