Once home to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, the dilapidated, two-story house previously sat in the backyard of American painter Ryan Mendoza in Berlin. In early 2018, a unique partnership between Mendoza, Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and WaterFire plans to bring the Rosa Parks house to Providence.
Parks’ niece purchased the Detroit house for $500, sparing it from demolition, and then reached out to Mendoza for help restoring it. The painter had the fragile house shipped to Berlin, where he personally rebuilt much of the structure.
Famous for refusing her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Parks’ subsequent arrest was a key turning point in the nascent civil rights movement. She continued her activism after moving to Detroit at her family’s behest in 1957. Like many cities across the North, Detroit drew Southern blacks with hopes of economic security and freedom from the indignities of Jim Crow. Yet the urban North presented its own subtler brand of injustice, and Parks became a strong advocate for housing equality there.
This is a point of particular importance to the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown, which is charged with unraveling the thorny implications of the Brown family’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as examining questions of systemic racism. Last summer, Mendoza contacted director Dr. Anthony Bogues to propose the partnership, which Bogues saw as very much in line with the mission of the Center.
“The house in Detroit represented one feature of anti-black racism in this country, which is segregated housing,” says Bogues.
“And so, for us, the question of the house and Mrs. Parks then gave us the opportunity to do what we think is necessary at this moment, which is to raise a set of questions about structural racism in America today.”
A lack of a large, covered space on Brown’s campus prompted the Center to reach out to WaterFire, whose newly opened arts center on Valley Street was ideal for protecting the fragile structure during winter.
It is significant that the Rosa Parks house is slated to return to the U.S. via Valley Street, a main artery in an often neglected working-class Providence neighborhood. Bogues hopes that this choice in location will prompt dialogue about how “structural racism, as a legacy of slavery, continues to shape lives in Providence and New England.”
Once the agreements are finalized, the house is scheduled to display in Providence in early spring 2018 before being transported to a final undisclosed location. Through a series of programming, Brown and WaterFire hope to engage the Providence community in “hopefully hard conversations,” according to Bogues, around race, memory and memorials. Though Rosa Parks only occupied it for a short time, the fragile house – and the work to bring it to Providence – highlights lesser-known parts of her extraordinary life and tireless work for justice.