“Rosa Parks House in Berlin Has a Ticket Home to America,” the headline proclaimed. In 2016, Ryan Mendoza, an American artist based in Germany, deconstructed a wood-frame home Rosa Parks stayed in when she first moved to Detroit, and shipped it in two containers to Berlin. The home had originally belonged to Parks’ younger brother, Sylvester McCauley.
Like many homes in Detroit, it had been slated for demolition until Mendoza, in concert with Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley, saved it. News outlets across the country broadcast the story. Mendoza reconstructed the house in Berlin, and media wrote follow-up stories featuring photos of the rebuilt home. And now the tale had a happy ending; the Nash Family Foundation in Manitowoc, Wis., had committed $45,000 to return the house to the U.S.
But the history the house signifies is much more sobering than these news stories spin. Using this house to remember Parks means facing her struggle, not just in Montgomery, Ala., but in the Jim Crow North. It means seeing the Detroit that Rosa Parks arrived at in 1957, which had widespread housing segregation, police injustice and a discriminatory job market, as well as a long-standing black freedom movement she became part of for four decades.
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At a moment when public attention has turned to the question of which history is publicly memorialized, this offers an opportunity to mark black life in the North, and the struggle against Northern segregation and racial injustice that continues to define our country today.
Five weeks after her courageous bus stand sparked a communitywide boycott of Montgomery’s buses, Rosa Parks lost her job as an assistant tailor at the Montgomery Fair department store. Her husband, Raymond, was forced out of his job a few weeks later. They never found steady work in Montgomery ever again.
Even after the yearlong boycott’s successful end in December 1956, the Parkses still couldn’t find work. And still facing death threats, in August 1957 they were forced to leave Montgomery and then relocated to Detroit with the help of her younger brother, McCauley, and cousin Thomas Williamson, who were already living there.
Rosa Parks would describe Detroit as the “Northern promised land that wasn’t.” While the public signs of segregation were thankfully gone, she didn’t find “too much difference” between Montgomery and Detroit in the systems of housing and school segregation, job discrimination and police brutality.
The three-bedroom, wood-frame house at 2672 Deacon St. was home to her brother, McCauley, his wife, Daisy, and their 13 children. That house would serve as a bit of a home base for the Parkses, as well as for Rosa Parks’ mother, Leona, over the next two years; they would stay there off and on and go by regularly.
Shortly after moving to Detroit, in desperate financial shape, Rosa Parks left Detroit to take a job at Hampton University as hostess in its inn. Raymond and Leona stayed behind. While she loved the Hampton students, Rosa was not content there. Missing her family and sick with ulcers that had developed during the boycott, she felt pressure to stay to send money home to her family. After about 15 months, she decided it was enough and returned back to her family in Detroit at the end of 1958.
The year 1959 was a perilous one for the Parkses. They quickly went through the $1,300 she’d saved from Hampton. Her niece Rhea McCauley recalled Parks leaving the house in the morning, “always neat as a pin,” to look for work, to no avail.
Affordable, decent housing for African Americans to rent or buy was exceedingly scarce. The Parkses’ situation paralleled that of many black people in Detroit and other Northern cities. In many sections of the city, white people refused to rent or sell to black people, and landlords who did charged extremely high rents, oftentimes for rundown, substandard places. While the waiting list for public housing for black people ran 6,000 deep, there was barely a wait for white families (the Parkses had lived in public housing in Montgomery).
In May 1959, Parks wrote fellow activist Septima Clark that her husband, Raymond, was out of work and wanted to leave. Then, in June, she wrote Clark that they needed to “move to a cheaper place but rent is so expensive if a house is fit to live in.”
In July 1959, Rosa, Raymond and Leona moved into a two-room apartment at the Progressive Civic League—to serve as building caretakers in exchange for reduced rent. She received a patronizing letter from the social worker who made the arrangements, instructing her “to have the folks who visit you come dressed neatly” because neighbors had complained. Jet magazine would interview her there in 1960, describing her as a “tattered rag of her former self—penniless, debt-ridden, ailing with stomach ulcers.”
Part of how the Parks family was making ends meet was with food grown in brother McCauley’s garden. In 1959, the Parkses reported only $661 of total annual income on their income tax. (By comparison, in 1955, the year she was arrested, while not well-off and living in the Cleveland Courts projects, they reported income of $3,749.)
Two years later, the Parkses were finally able to leave the Progressive Civic League and rented the ground floor of a brick flat in the Virginia Park neighborhood—a neighborhood “almost 100 percent Negro. ... In fact, I suppose you’d call it just about the heart of the ghetto.” Rosa had secured a job at the Stockton Sewing Co. doing piecework, and Raymond was barbering again. All the while—and for the next 40 years—she took part in Detroit’s freedom movement, pressing for jobs, school desegregation, open housing and an end to police brutality. Living to age 92 in Detroit, Rosa Parks never owned her own place.
The history the Deacon Street home represents is an unfamiliar history of Rosa Parks. Our popular narrative of the civil rights heroine is one of the South and her challenge to Alabama segregation. But looking squarely at the house shines a light on the “Northern promised land that wasn’t”—the brutal segregation, job discrimination and police brutality of Detroit—and the deep bonds of family and community that kept her afloat.
Despite the extensive interest in the house, this is not simply a feel-good memento; it instead asks us to grapple with her actual life in the city and the particular manifestations of Northern segregation and injustice.
Rosa Parks stayed with family because housing was so scarce and expensive that many black families doubled up. She left her family in Detroit for more than a year because she needed work, and jobs were extremely scarce for black rebels in the South and the North.
She and Raymond became caretakers for a social service agency because of the exorbitant rents Detroit’s housing segregation produced; they depended on food grown in her brother’s garden to have enough to eat. And she spent the second half of her life bringing her long-standing courage from Alabama to fighting the racism of the Jim Crow North.
If this house does return to America, it could be used to tell an important story about Rosa Parks’ life and activism in Detroit. In this moment of reconsidering our public monuments, it could become an important marker of the struggle against racism in the North. Isn’t it time to confront that history?