content warning: racism, police violence
This coming March, Providence will become a home for a memorial to one of the most significant figures in US Civil Rights history. Rosa Parks’ former house in Detroit will be shipped piece by piece from Berlin, where it is currently in the possession of the American painter Ryan Mendoza. Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) agreed to host the house in Providence after Mendoza reached out to CSSJ director Anthony Bogues in August.
Mendoza came into possession of the house in the summer of 2016 after it was loaned to him by Parks’ niece, Rhea McCauley. Earlier that year, McCauley found the house in disrepair and purchased it for $500 to prevent its demolition. Dismayed by Detroit’s disinterest in preserving a significant memorial of her aunt, McCauley decided the home would be best kept outside of the US. She communicated with Mendoza, who had done other art projects in Detroit, and took him up on his offer to host the house in Berlin. The choice to move the house overseas was also a political statement for McCauley: “When America decides to stop murdering her citizens in cold blood, then maybe the house will come back,” she told NPR in October of 2016. Her statement came just two months after police shot and killed two unarmed Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, triggering national uproar and protest over racist police violence. Now, just one year later, Mendoza says, “it’s time for the house to return home,” a move that McCauley told the Detroit Free Press was “a step in the right direction.” Police violence against Black Americans has certainly not abated. However, Mendoza and the Parks family see the house’s return as a timely intervention into current national debates surrounding memorialization and the continued presence of white supremacy in the US.
The house itself is in disrepair: it has chipping paint, a crumbling roof and is barely structurally sound. McCauley says the house’s state is essential to conveying her aunt’s lifelong struggle against the racism that followed her from Montgomery to Detroit, and to demonstrate how histories of the Civil Rights Movement are still undervalued in the US. It was in Detroit where Parks struggled to find housing and employment, and where she eventually passed away, barely able to afford rent.
After it is shipped from Berlin to Providence, the house will be made available for public viewing for the first time in the US, chipped paint and all. As Bogues and Evans recognize, the way Civil Rights history is commemorated influences contemporary narratives of racism today. The house has the potential, both nationally and in Providence, to disrupt contemporary myths of a post-racial America and to highlight the continuity of Black activist work in the face of persistent antiblackness. However, the house on its own does not respond to white nationalist groups in Charlottesville. Only the specific narratives crafted about the house, in addition to the political action accompanied by this accounting for history, can do so. Beyond opening space for dialogue, the house brings with it a responsibility to carry on its former resident's legacy of Black freedom activism.
Parks’ time in Detroit was marked by her commitment to radical activism, including organizing around fair housing and employment discrimination and police brutality. The Detroit house is a material representation of these contributions, which have been overshadowed by the focus on Parks’ involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the wake of the Boycott, Rosa and Raymond Parks were denied employment throughout Montgomery. Finally, after receiving multiple death threats, the Parks family moved to Detroit in August of 1957 and settled into Parks’ brother’s house. Parks would go on to describe Detroit as the “Northern promised land that wasn’t.” The systemic racism and segregationist politics she had encountered in the South were rampant in the North. There, she and her family experienced job and housing discrimination, prompting her to comment that there wasn’t “too much difference” between Montgomery and Detroit.
Parks had been staying in her brother’s house for two years when, after a brief leave from Detroit, she moved with her husband and mother into a two-room apartment at the Progressive Civic League. After finding employment at the Sewing Stock Company, Parks moved to the Virginia Park neighborhood. In the following 40 years, she continued as an active leader of the freedom struggle in Detroit, fighting for open housing and school desegregation and protesting police brutality.
In 2002, Parks received eviction notices from her apartment when she could not pay the $1,800 a month rent. Although benefactors stepped in to support her housing for the remainder of her life, Parks passed away three years later, nearly penniless, at age 92. Meanwhile, the house on Deacon Street, home to Parks for just a few short years, was foreclosed and placed on a demolition list in 2008.
In an interview with the Independent, Bogues, a notable figure in public histories of US chattel slavery and Civil Rights and a leader of the house’s curatorial efforts, recognizes that popular accounts of Parks “freeze her in that moment rather than see that she was a figure who continuously fought for justice and racial equality.” For Bogues, it is essential to highlight her as “a figure of social justice” beyond the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in order to do justice to her underrepresented history of radical activism.
The house is neither an intervention into depoliticized narratives of Parks’ life nor simply a testament to the pervasive climate of antiblackness in the US. Bogues, Mendoza, Evans, and the Parks family understand the house’s homecoming as an intervention in a specific national conversation about white supremacy and public history.
Bogues recognizes the potential for the house to “trouble the particular narrative that we are in a post-racial society” but hopes that the house will do more than point out the existence of racism; he aims for it to “open a space for dialogue around the continued persistence of structural racism in this country.” This space for dialogue is especially critical in the wake of the white supremacist violence on display in Charlottesville during a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Mendoza stated,“If you look at the current situation in America, you have all of these monuments to the Confederacy—which are monuments to slavery... There are very, very few monuments to the Civil Rights movement.”
Civil Rghts memorials are not only educational tools, but, as Francois Hamlin, Brown University scholar of Black Freedom Struggle Movement and board member of the CSSJ, told the Independent, are important because they provide material reminders of histories of resistance, contextualize contemporary justice efforts, and create continuity with the past. This too is critical in how the house will be presented this March.
Other scholars of Civil Rights have noted that the house, as a relic of late 1950s Detroit, troubles myths of racism as an exclusively Southern issue. Parks’ continued struggle with segregationist policies and racial injustice after leaving Montgomery are testament to underrepresented histories of the Jim Crow North. Again, this is immediately relevant as events in Charlottesville turn contemporary debates about public monuments back toward the South. As Parks’ story makes clear, the North has its own history of antiblackness to contend with.
On one level, the house, as a memorial, functions as a project for raising consciousness about the reality of persistent discrimination. It is worth questioning who the audience is for this project and who needs these reminders. The ‘interventions’ proposed by the curatorial team and articulated here operate differently for white Americans and communities of color nationally and locally in Providence.
In March, Parks’ home will be open to public viewership at the Waterfire organization’s newest warehouse location on Valley Street in March. But what exactly the installation will look like and how it will be integrated into the city is still being debated in conversations between Bogues, Evans, and others. It is critical to consider how the house can open dialogue that is specific to Providence, and how it can support local organizing which contests racial inequity, including housing discrimination, employment, and racist police violence. These conversations must engage not only scholars and public artists, but also community leaders, activists, and local residents, in asking how the project can support local organizing.
Barnaby Evans, director of Waterfire Providence, and one of the sponsors of the house in Providence alongside Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, told the Independent that he and the curatorial team are thinking creatively about how to expand public engagement with the house. He is currently in conversation with city schools about bringing classes to the house and creating theatrical performances about Parks’ life. Brown will also host a multi-day conference on race, history and memorialization.
As Evans and others continue to develop programming around the house, material political action needs to be considered alongside efforts to inspire conversation. Providence, the Parks house’s new home in the states, is another Northern city that remains plagued with racial inequality. Black households in Rhode Island make just 52.5 percent of the white median household income, compared to a higher national average of 62.2 percent. While more than 23 percent of Black Rhode Islanders live in poverty, less than 11 percent of white Rhode Islanders do (according to 2015 data). Can the presence of Parks’ house do anything to offer redress for this inequity? Bogues’ interest in prompting dialogue may be the first step in any intervention, but dialogue needs to translate into political action in order to offer any real response to the racial injustice Parks dedicated her life to combating.
As Parks did in Detroit, Black Rhode Islanders today continue to lack employment opportunities. The Black unemployment rate in RI is 16 percent (the sixth highest in the country) compared to 9.2 percent of all US citizens. How might the house’s curatorial team support Rhode Island Jobs With Justice in its campaign for an end to tipped wages? The presence of Parks’ house in Providence could also speak to conditions of racist police violence, as McCauley called for, by supporting efforts to implement the Community Safety Act, or holding a fundraiser for local police accountability group AMOR.
Just as Parks struggled to access affordable housing in her lifetime, so do Black Rhode Islanders to this day with a Black homeownership rate of only 29.4 percent, the 10th lowest in the country. The Parks house could host a rally, pressuring city lawmakers to include affordable units in new downtown housing construction or provide a venue for meetings for Direct Action for Rights and Equality, a group that organizes around tenant rights in the city. Additionally, in considering the continuity of racism in housing policy from Parks’ day to the present, the project organizers—Brown and Waterfire—cannot ignore their own participation in processes such as gentrification, displacement, and monopolization. Anthony Bogues told the Independent he recognizes the need to “think about questions of relationship to community in trying to develop what we call public humanities and public history.” Can the Parks house be used to elevate Brown’s history of gentrifying the Cape Verdean community of Fox Point? Or ask for careful consideration of what Brown does with the land it buys in the new Jewelry District? Through the Parks house project, how could Waterfire take seriously its commitment to housing security in the neighborhood where it purchased and renovated a large post-industrial building?
It’s unclear where the house will travel after its brief stay in Providence. It may be purchased by the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, yet there are also strong calls for it to return to Detroit. Mendoza has stated that he thinks the best place for Parks’ home is on the White House lawn, directly in front of a house built by slaves. However, during its months in Providence, the house presents a unique opportunity for one city to respond to Parks’ unrelenting call for racial justice: “Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”
Kerrick Edwards B’18 and Erin West B’18.5 are looking forward to visiting the house.