This little, inconspicuous house, painted white, doesn't actually belong here. And yet it is there, in the middle of Berlin's district Wedding. The artist Ryan Mendoza has brought it from Detroit to Berlin. Threatened by demolition, it represents an important part of American history. At the end of the 1950s, the African-American civil rights activist Rosa Parks lived in this house. When the bus driver demanded her place, she remained seated. The action cost Rosa Park's job and home. But it inspired Martin Luther King and touched off a civil right movement. Finally, this movement overcame racial segregation. Parks was not the first woman to protest on the bus — but the first woman who had what it takes to become an icon.
It was warm this afternoon, December 1,1955. Even for Montgomery, Alabama, where temperatures rarely drop below 40 degrees Celsius. Even in the coldest winter months. It was almost half past six in the afternoon. Rosa Parks put aside her sewing work and left her workplace to go home by bus as usual. In her job as assistant tailor, she widened and narrowed clothes all day long. Before Christmas was the most turbulent time of the year for the store workers. That afternoon Rosa Parks was especially tired. Her shoulders hurt from bending over her sewing machine. She had to walk half a block from the Montogomery Fair Department Store to the bus stop.
The Court Square in Montgomery is a historic place. The »cradle of the Confederate States of America«. Slaves were auctioned off here before the civil war. In 1861, Jefferson Davis delivered his inaugural address, President of the Confederates. She let the first bus leave when she saw the standing passengers in it, hoping that the next would be empty. She got on the second bus and paid the fare of 10 cents. Happy and relieved she took the first free seat she saw. In the middle of the bus, right behind the section of the bus reserved for whites. This area was sometimes regarded as the neutral middle.
Until the 1950s, racial segregation was part of daily life in the South. The 13th Amendment banned slavery in 1865. But many white Southerners never considered colored people to be equal. Or even citizens of the United States. Laws and regulations excluded blacks from the rest of society. Segregation replaced slavery. Black children were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children. Blacks were not allowed to stay in the same hotels or to go to the same theaters. They must not use the same waiting rooms, libraries or parks. But nowhere else has segregation became so obvious as in the buses.
The first rows in all the buses in Montgomery were only for whites. Black people were not allowed to use these seats. Even if the bus was only full of black people, which often happened, and even if they had to stand. This was legal, as long as the institutions for black and white people had the same standard. So ruled the Supreme Court in 1896. Each state could to enact its own racial segregation laws. In reality, these standards were never equal. Their creators had only one thing in mind. Racial segregation served only one purpose. Repeating the same message over and over again. Blacks should feel like second-class citizens, and it served that purpose.
The laws of Montgomery differed from those of the state of Alabama. In Montgomery, blacks had to stand up only when there was another seat available in their section. The laws of Alabama gave the bus driver unlimited authority to enforce segregation. Many bus drivers extended these laws according to their general treatment of blacks. Often all the blacks in the row had to get up for a single white man. The segregation laws forbid that whites sat next to a black man.
Although blacks paid as much for the ride as whites, the bus drivers didn't treat them with the same kindness. For example, black people had to use other stations. Some drivers forced them to use the rear doors to get in. They had to pay the fare in the front and leave the bus to get back on it again in the back. Sometimes they had to experience how the bus left before they could get on again.
When the bus passed by the Christmas decorations in town, Rosa Parks thought of all the work she had to do at home. She would prepare the letters she had to mail for the Montgomery branch of the NAAC. This was part of her responsibilities as the volunteer secretary. The NAAC was the nation’s oldest and most prominent civil rights organization. Her husband Raymond (or Ray) was already at home preparing her dinner. He'd be expecting her soon.
At the third stop, the bus pulled over at the Empire Theater. Six whites entered and took their seats in the front rows. One white man remained standing. Although he did not raise any objections and stayed quiet, the driver noticed that he had no seat. Immediately, the driver ordered the four black men in the middle row to leave the area. The white man should sit down without being in the same row as a black man. This instruction went beyond Montgomery's segregation laws.
»All right, you folks, I want those seats, « the bus driver yelled back to Parks and her neighbor.
For a moment, nobody moved. »Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats, « the driver yelled. The man to Parks’s right stood up to move. She shifted her legs to let him pass, and then she moved herself to the seat next to the window.
There was no specific reason why she rebelled on this particular day. She was no stranger to everyday discrimination. The bus driver's attack was a drop in the ocean. »I had had enough, « Parks later said. She was tired of giving in. »I wanted to be treated like a human being. I knew someone had to take the first step, and I made up my mind not to move.« Seeing that Parks was still sitting, the driver got angry. The hefty man walked back and stood over the petite woman. He repeated his order and threatened her he would call the police if she did not move. »You may do that, « she replied. The bus grew very quiet.
Parks was then 42 years old and had reason to be afraid. The police had already beat up many before her for much harmless violations. She remembered well the reports about Isaac Woodward of 1946. During a break on an overland bus tour, he spent too much time in the restrooms. The driver framed him for inadequate behavior and had him arrested. The sheriffs have beaten him with sticks to the point of unconsciousness. He suffered rib fractures. His cornea was so severely damaged that he remained blind for a lifetime. Nevertheless, Parks remained seated and looked out the window. A few minutes later, two policemen took her away.
Parks was not beaten. She was not allowed to call her husband until she was fingerprinted and mug shots were taken. The city prosecutor decided to charge her on the laws of Alabama, to make it a more serious offense.
The news of her arrest spread fast. Someone had called former leader of the Montgomery NAACP Edgar Daniel Nixon. He was the city's most prominent black activist. Parks and Nixon have known each other since she joined the NAAC in 1943.
Her love for God and her dedication to the struggle for the civil rights of the blacks shaped her life. Parks liked to quote from the Bible and also aligned their own actions. She was considered to be a boundless integrity and almost old-fashioned.
In her autobiography she explained: »By the time I was six, I was old enough to realize that we were not actually free. Ku Klux Klan was riding through the black community, burning churches, beating up people, killing people. At the time I didn’t realize why there was so much Klan activity, but later I learned that it was because African-American soldiers were returning from World War I and acting as if they deserved equal rights because they had served their country.«
For twelve years she volunteered as a secretary in the office of Nixon. She organized meetings, consulted with people and informed the members about current events. She also took care of the youth work in the NAACP and documented every case of assaults on blacks. Although she was not a NAACP front-line fighter, she was very effective in the background. The work was demanding, but she thrived on it.
Only a few months before, Rosa Parks had attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School. This school for social change was founded in 1932 by Miles Horton in Tennessee. The courses aimed to prepare for a non-violent fight against racial segregation. The then still unknown M. L. King attended it already in 1951. Rosa Parks silent protest was not coordinated with others. No one could have foreseen that her spontaneous action triggered a nationwide movement. This movement would force the country to confront its legacy of racial inequality.
Nixon called some white friends of his and the Parkses: Clifford and Virginia Durr. They had known them for several years. Clifford Durr was an influential lawyer in Montgomery. The Durrs and Nixon drove to the police station and paid a $100 fee for her release. After two hours in the cell, Parks was glad to see Nixon and the Durrs.
That same night, the civil rights activists decided to boycott the buses of the city. They put the organization of the boycott in the hands of Martin Luther King. From then on the black population walked, shared taxis and formed car pools. The boycott meant considerable hardship for many of the black residents of Montgomery. Some had to rise as early as 3:00 a.m. to walk six miles to work. The response and willingness to take part was as overwhelming as the result. Day after day, the transport companies suffered greater losses. And finally, this bus boycott led to success.
Nixon had long been looking for a chance to test the segregation laws of Montgomery and Alabama in court. Unrest among the black community was growing due to various racist events. A lot of Montgomery's blacks had enough of the humiliations. Something had to change. Buses were the most striking examples of racial discrimination. Within a year, three blacks have been sentenced for protesting against the seat order. Among them a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. Her case moved the black community so much, that it almost sparked a bus boycott. But it was not yet possible to get Montgomery's blacks to express their hurt feelings in protests. Nixon regarded Parks’s arrest as an opportunity.
He explained later why Parks was such a perfect candidate: »She was decent. And she was committed. First off, nobody could point no dirt at her. You had to respect her as a lady. And second, if she said she would be at a certain place at a certain time, that’s when she got there. . . . So when she stood up to talk, people’d shut up and listen. And when she did something, people just figured it was the right thing to do.«
The likelihood of her receiving justice in the Alabama judicial system was slim. Her trial didn't take five minutes. The white judge sentenced her to a fine of ten dollars. Two months later, the lawyer Fred Gray filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court. On June 4,1956, the court ruled that Montgomery's segregation laws were unconstitutional. On 13 November, the United States Supreme Court, confirmed this decision. After 381 days of protest, the court overturned the racial segregation in the city's buses.
Victory was conquered, but for a high price — bombings, property damage, job losses. Parks, King and other figures of the movement were aware that this fight was only the beginning. Rosa Park has not been able to get her feet on the ground since her arrest. She was scorned by many of her co- workers at the Montgomery Fair department store. Her employer fired her only five weeks after her arrest. Shortly afterwards, her husband quit his job at the barbershop at Maxwell Field. His boss had forbidden him to talk about his heroine wife.
Labeled as troublemakers, the couple found no jobs in Alabama, despite all efforts. Everywhere they went, the door was slammed in front of them. They received death threats by telephone or mail. In 1957, they moved to Detroit, where a brother of Rosa Parks lived. They were welcomed in their brother's house, the very house that is now in Berlin. For two years they lived in poor conditions in the small home, together with her brother's family. Three bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room had to be enough. 17 people lived under one roof at times.
Many years later — the house had long been abandoned — it ended up on the demolition list of the shrinking city. It was Rosa Parks' niece, Rhea McCauley, who tried to save the house. She bought the ruin for $500. But Rhea didn't know what to do with the house after she bought it. All attempts to find investors or attract institutions for were unsuccessful. Neither the city of Detroit nor initiatives were willing to support the project. Finally, she asked Ray Mendoza for help. It was a fortunate coincidence that the artist was in the city. Born in New York, he was looking for his roots. The house embodied all that he had been looking for. For him, it was a »strong symbol of American history«. Mendoza has left the USA more than 20 years ago. He perceived the country as too nationalistic.
It took 18 days to dismantle the building. In the end, more than 2000 pieces were shipped to Europe. The artist financed 13,000 dollars of shipping costs himself. In August 2016, a large truck drove up in Wedding, Mendozas chosen home in Berlin. Inside there was Rosa Parks' house. It took Ryan Mendoza four months to put the puzzle together again. At the beginning of April 2017, the location opened for visitors for the first time. Hundreds of people came to see the house. Rhea McCauley was also at the opening.
Ryan Mendoza wishes Rosa Parks' legacy would return to the USA. His idea: Rosa Parks' house should move to Washington. Right next to the White House. The palace, which was also built by slaves and in which today Donald Trump reigns.
But somehow the house also fits to Berlin. The city wants to be open-minded and multicultural. In late 17th century, Brandenburg's Margrave, Friedrich Wilhelm, encouraged foreigners and persecuted people to settle in the area, to boost the population and the economy. In 1671, 50 Jewish families, expelled from Vienna, were allowed the right of residency in Berlin. Fourteen years later, the Edict of Tolerance invited tens of thousands of fleeing Huguenots. »Refugees welcome!«, was the message — 330 years before Angela Merkel's sentence »Wir schaffen das!«. In the 18th century there were other settlers in Berlin. Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great) welcomed 300,000 colonists to Prussia. By the end of his reign, one-sixth of his subjects had been born abroad. The benevolent despot, which the common people call »Old Fritz«, was determined to make Berlin a great city, on a social, economic, intellectual and cultural par with Paris. Today, Wedding is one of the most diverse districts in Berlin. With all the problems and opportunities that arise from it.
Rosa Parks died at her Detroit apartment of natural causes on the evening of October 24, 2005, at the age of 92. She was the first woman to be laid out in the Capitol, an honor given only to presidents — and national heroes.
This text is available under a Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License. Author: Steffen Blaese.
Update January 2018
The house is on its way to Rhode Island, where the building will be exhibited in April. Nobody knows what will happen after the exhibition. Still, no American institution has announced any interest to protect the house.