PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The house where Rosa Parks lived after sparking the Montgomery bus boycott was on a demolition list in Detroit until it was saved by Parks’ niece and a Berlin-based artist, who moved it to Germany and reassembled it in his yard, piece by piece.
Now, it’s set to be returned to the United States and displayed for three months in Rhode Island. It’s a move the artist, Ryan Mendoza, and Parks’ family say is necessary at a time that racial justice is at the center of the American conversation.
“Auntie Rosa was an American hero, and we shouldn’t have to have other countries acknowledge our heroes for us,” said Parks’ niece, Rhea McCauley. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Mendoza is working on the project with Brown University, which has grappled in recent years with its historical ties to the slave trade. The project fits with the school’s work to address the legacy and public history of slavery, said Anthony Bogues, a Brown University professor and director of its Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice .
“It can be seen as a memorial to her, and as a memorial, it can be seen as a cause of action, and that is how we are trying to think about it,” Bogues said.
While the final details are still being worked out, the plan is to bring the two-story wooden house to the U.S. early next year and reassemble it in Providence inside the WaterFire Arts center . It would be displayed from March through May.
Parks moved to Detroit in 1957 amid death threats, two years after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. She lived in the home with her brother and his family, including McCauley. Parks died in 2005.
When the house ended up on the demolition list because it was abandoned, McCauley paid $500 to buy it and then donated it to Mendoza , an American who has done other art projects in Detroit, and lived and worked in Europe for years. He moved it to Berlin in 2016.
Today, it can be seen by passers-by from a distance through a crack between a gate and a wall. Mendoza wants it to find a home where hundreds or thousands per day will have access.
“There are no opening hours. If the house is an educational tool, it should be seen by as many people as possible,” he said.
Removing it from the U.S. made people realize its importance, he noted.
“By shipping it across the world, people say, ‘Why did you do that?’ I say, ‘I gave it value.’ Giving it value, that’s what I did.”
While Americans are re-examining Confederate monuments, they have woken up to the significance of Parks’ unassuming and fragile home, Mendoza said.
He is still looking for a permanent home for the structure elsewhere in America. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit has expressed interest, but Mendoza has not yet discussed it with them.
At a time when swastikas and nooses are appearing in public places, McCauley said her family’s main concern is that the house be protected from people who might want to damage it.
“I know what trolls are,” she said.
She and Mendoza are also working on another project: Mendoza is plumbing McCauley’s memories to make ceramic sculptures of the furniture that once inhabited the house. It’s possible the sculptures will one day be on display inside the house, but Mendoza is not sure yet.
“I send her photographs,” he said. “She corrects them, and I redo them.”
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