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Brown University won’t display house linked to Rosa Parks, after dispute

In 2017, Rhea McCauley, a niece of the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks, posed in front of a house associated with Parks that was rebuilt in Berlin. Brown University announced Thursday it had canceled plans to display the house. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

This was the place, Rhea McCauley says, where her aunt Rosa Parks fled after death threats chased her out of Alabama, taking refuge at her brother’s home in Detroit to continue her civil rights activism. This was the place, this tiny house, where McCauley’s 12 brothers and sisters joined “Auntie Rosa” at the dinner table to say grace before Sunday dinner, eating corn and tomatoes and strawberries that McCauley’s father grew in their garden.

The McCauley family eventually lost the home to foreclosure, she said, and she would drive by over the years, watching it fall further and further into neglect, in a neighborhood where the air was no longer clean and children didn’t play baseball outside anymore the way she and her siblings had. When the house was about to be demolished, McCauley bought it for $500. An artist paid to restore it, shipping it to Berlin, where he lives.

And this spring it was to return to the United States, part of an exhibit on the civil rights era, an exploration of Parks’s activism in the years after she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. That moment of defiance sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and made Parks an icon of the civil rights movement.

On Thursday, officials at Brown University, which was hosting the exhibit, abruptly announced they were canceling the display. The university had learned, they said, that the house was at the center of a dispute.

“It is out of deep respect for the legacy of Rosa Parks and what it represents for America that the university feels it cannot responsibly move forward with the exhibit of the house,” Brown officials said, adding that the university doesn’t speak on behalf of Parks, the organization she co-founded or the artist who owns the house.

Messages left with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an organization the civil rights legend co-founded, were not immediately returned Friday.

But the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper, reported last month that there was a dispute over whether Parks actually lived in the house:

Steven Cohen, attorney at the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, is less sure of the house’s authenticity.
“The truth is, she didn’t stay there,” he said. “It’s a house which Rosa Parks’ brother and his family used to live in. It’s no more Rosa Parks’ house than it is my house.”
Parks’ “actual house” is still standing at its original location, 9336 Wildemere St. in Detroit, Cohen wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. “Mrs. Parks and her Institute kept the house in good repair all these years, something the brother’s family apparently didn’t manage to do,” he wrote.

“If Brown’s intention was to betray the legacy of Rosa Parks they have succeeded perfectly,” said James Nash, a board member of the Nash Foundation, which he said gave $45,000 to Brown for the effort to display the house. “Rosa Parks stood up against an unjust law at great risk to herself and her family, showing great courage. Brown at the slightest whiff of a potential legal problem has shut down this exhibit, this house and is now demanding that the house be sent back to Germany so that no one can see it. . . . They should be ashamed of themselves.”

McCauley said her aunt “was trying to find a place to live and trying to find a job,” when she came to Detroit and stayed with the McCauley family.

McCauley remembered her aunt in that house, where they used to wax and polish the thin tongue-and-groove planks of the wooden floors, preserve the fruits and vegetables from the garden, and squeeze all those people around the dinner table. In later years, she remembers visiting Parks in her home, a place full of articles and awards and famous people coming to visit, she said. Parks was an activist for many decades, fighting for equal opportunity and racial justice in Detroit and beyond.

The McCauley family’s house has been on display in Berlin since 2016, where an American artist, Ryan Mendoza, had it shipped and restored.

Mendoza said he had hoped to spotlight the “delicate, uncomfortable moment in time when Rosa Parks sought refuge with her brother in Detroit after the tumultuous bus boycott.” In another decade, he said, almost all of the people who can speak to that era in American history will be gone. Along with Parks, many others in the 1940s and 1950s migrated from Alabama to Detroit seeking “the promised land that wasn’t,” as she described it. 

After years of seeing the house crumbling from neglect, McCauley said, to see it rebuilt and lit up in Germany “felt just like coming home for Thanksgiving dinner. . . . It was tiny, but it was full of love.”

She welcomed its return to the United States and its display at a place of scholarship.

Brown has for years been engaged in a powerful reckoning with its own complicated history with slavery. In 2006, the university released a landmark report documenting how some of its earliest leaders profited from the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade. The university took steps to ensure that history would not be forgotten, including creating a center for scholarship in the field, the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery.

Universities look anew at slavery in their own histories

That center worked with a nonprofit arts organization, WaterFire Providence, to bring the house to the Rhode Island city and to open it to the American public, planning an exhibit that was slated to include a speaker series and a conference on race, monuments and commemoration.

“The intensity of our current national discourse around issues of race demonstrates the urgency of addressing the issues Rosa Parks confronted,” Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, said in February. “The opportunity to host the Rosa Parks house will build on a tradition of dialogue at Brown on race, racism and the legacies of slavery.”

On Friday, university spokesman Brian Clark said, “Brown is not a party in the dispute and therefore we are not in a position to speak about the nature of the dispute. . . . Out of our respect for the legacy of Rosa Parks, Brown is stepping aside to ensure that no action we take negatively affects the situation.”

The rest of the planned exhibition, “The Civil Rights Movement: Unfinished Business,” will continue — but without the house.

“If we allow for Brown University to dismantle the Rosa Parks house and send it back to Berlin, we effectively turn our backs on Rosa Parks’ family, silencing their voices,” Mendoza said Sunday. “It is ultimately up to the American people to decide the significance of this house.”

“With the cancellation of the showing of the Rosa Parks house, a piece of American history will be sent back to Germany,” he said. “I had hoped to end this circus and give this house a home.

“I sincerely hope Brown reconsiders its stance.”

That is a lost opportunity for Brown, McCauley said. “It’s sad that the United States is in such a shape where they run away from things that are good for people.

“The house does represent a safe haven, for Auntie Rosa’s escape from the South,” she said. “If you can imagine enduring death threats, people calling your house, throwing glass at your window, not being able to work. She fought hard to stay in Alabama. That house represented the safe haven she needed to get out there and fight some more.”