The Rosa Parks House

Waterfire Arts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, is hosting Ryan Mendoza’s Rosa Parks House Project. It features Mrs. Parks’s brother’s house, from Detroit — the house she stayed in when she fled Montgomery, Alabama in August 1957, threatened and unable to find work after the bus boycott. The house, on Detroit’s demolition list, was purchased by Rhea McCauley, Mrs. Parks’s niece, in 2014. She hoped to turn it into a community center, but unable to restore it, gave it to artist Ryan Mendoza. He took it apart, moved it to his home in Berlin, and rebuilt it. The house returned to the United States in January 2018.

It’s an odd object, this house. It’s not Rosa Parks’s house, as that is traditionally defined: she never owned a house. It’s not the whole house: much was too decayed to move. There are no internal walls, no ceilings. What’s there is reconstructed on a frame; a good bit of new material has been added. Inside, Mendoza has added three ceramic objects, reproductions of a table, a sofa, and a telephone, fashioning them based on Rhea McCauley’s memories of the time her aunt spent in the house.

So what is it? A historic house? An art object? Or, perhaps something more: a historic house museum, a monument, even a shrine? Or something less: an archaeological remnant, a museum artifact? It’s all of these things, in different ways, and for different people.

To the artist, and some visitors, it’s a piece of art. It’s one of a series of houses Mendoza moved from Detroit to Europe. It’s displayed in an art center. There’s an artist’s statement.

Some people have flown to Providence from Detroit to see the house. For them, and for many local visitors, it’s a shrine, a place to remember Rosa Parks and what she stood for. And it is an object of remarkable power: for all its raggedness, it has an undeniable aura. It represents an icon of American history.

For others, it’s more of a museum object. Like most museum objects, it’s a complex thing. It has a long history, with many changes over its lifetime as a house and beyond. It has been removed from its geographic and historical context. It’s been reworked by demolition and disassembly and reassembly. It’s been (literally) framed and put on a pedestal. There are many layers of post-Rosa Parks history superimposed on this building. It’s both physically and narratively broken.

To be repaired, it needs to be explained. To be useful as a museum object — let alone as a monument, a memorial, or a shrine — it needs context. It needs a narrative.

The house’s story can be recovered through research, and used to repair the house, and perhaps offer a place to begin a larger discussion about repairing America. We need to recapture, through this short moment in Rosa Parks’s life, important stories of meaning : what this house meant to Rosa Parks; what family homes like this meant to African Americans who moved to northern cities in the middle of the 20th century; what Black places meant to the Civil Rights movement; what the Civil Rights movement meant to America, then and now. We can repair the brokenness of the house by putting it in context.

“These discourses are about home: an intellectual home; a spiritual home; family and community as home; forced and displaced labor in the destruction of home; dislocation of and alienation within the ancestral home; creative responses to exile….”
— Toni Morrison, from her essay “Home,” 1998

There are two ways that one might do that. One might look inward: put Rosa Parks into the context of that single house. Tell the whole story of the house — who lived there, for how long. Do the historical research, interview family and friends and neighbors. Explain not only Rosa Parks’s history with the house, but the larger story: the role of families in the Great Migration, the history of Detroit housing, redlining and segregation. This is a labor-intensive project. It would take a lot of work to reveal the stories of family, transience, making do. But it would be worth doing. There are good precedents: “Within these walls” at the National Museum of American History, or “Open House” at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Or we might provide another kind of context, another kind of history. We can use Rosa Parks’s life as the context: the house becomes a chapter in her story, one of many places in her life. That’s what we’ve done in the exhibition here.

The title of the show emphasizes place: “Places Of Strength, Solidarity And Shelter.” The exhibition asks: from what other places did Rosa Parks gain strength from family and friends and fellow activists? What places were important to her? Where else did she seek shelter, and rest, and companionship? The house is one of these places. You can see pictures of some of the others in the exhibition — her grandfather’s house, churches, the Highlander Center, a Detroit bookstore, and more.

”If I had to live in a racial house, it was important, at the least, to rebuild it so that it was not a windowless prison into which I was forced, a thick-walled, impenetrable container from which no cry could be heard, but rather an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and doors. Or, at the most, it became imperative for me to transform this house completely. “
— Toni Morrison, from her essay “Home,” 1998

Having one of these places here — the house, the real thing — makes all of the others more real, too. It calls attention to what we might call the infrastructure of the Civil Rights movement. The house becomes part of a bigger, more important, history, and in turn brings that history to three-dimensional life. That’s what putting museum artifacts in context does.

There’s one last category that the house might fall into: A site of conscience. “Sites of conscience,” according to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, “interpret history through site; engage the public in programs that stimulate dialogue on pressing social issues; share opportunities for public involvement and positive action on the issues raised at the site; and promote justice and universal cultures of human rights.” This house, explained, has the potential to do that. I hope that it continues to.

”In this new space one can imagine safety without walls, can iterate difference that is prized but unprivileged, and can conceive of a third, if you will pardon the expression, world ‘already made for me, both snug and wide open, with a doorway never needing to be closed.’
Home.”
— Toni Morrison, from her essay “Home,” 1998

The “Rosa Parks House Project” is open at the Waterfire Arts Center until June 3, 2018. See here for related programs. For more analysis of the meaning of the project, see the forthcoming 2019 issue of int|AR: Interventions Adaptive Reuse.

With thanks to Jasmine Chu and Amelia Golcheski, co-curators of the exhibit, and to Barnaby Evans of Waterfire.