The Power Of 2857

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Lifson began where his predecessors left off. Previous researchers had checked the newspaper files, the police and court records, and the few direct participants who were still alive. The bus company records couldn’t be found and, save for one brief interview in 1989, James Blake had refused to speak publicly about the incident. Lifson’s team interviewed people who knew Hubert Summerford and anyone associated with the Montgomery City Lines. They obtained several written statements from friends and acquaintances reiterating Hubert’s version of the bus’s authenticity as it had been passed on to Vivian and Donnie.

New and absolutely key evidence came from Mary Cummings, the widow of Charles H. Cummings, a station manager and assistant supervisor for the Montgomery City Lines. Homer, as he was called, had worked for the bus company for 24 years before he died in 1974, the same year that James Blake retired. Homer’s widow had kept mementos of his years with the company.

When Rosa Parks refused to move, said Eldridge Cleaver, “somewhere in the universe, a gear in the machinery shifted.”

A cardboard box in the attic contained some 1950s photos of the bus company facilities, a few bus tokens, and a stuffed-to-overflowing accordion file. In that file were two binders holding several hundred pages of a scrapbook of newspaper articles dating from 1955 to 1957 gathered by a professional clipping service. Evidently, this had been standard practice for National City Lines franchises from the 1940s into the 1970s.

According to his widow and son, Homer Cummings was deeply affected by the turmoil of the boycott. “Caught between the blacks and the Klan,” as his son, Charles, recalled, Homer had struggled to keep drivers employed even when there were no riders, occasionally slept on a cot in the office to protect the buses from vandalism, and watched helplessly as the firm neared financial ruin. Recognizing the historical significance of the event, Homer held on to those scrapbooks, poring over the old articles for years before passing away at the early age of 53.

Robert Lifson was particularly interested in two of those pages. One contained an article from the Alabama Journal dated December 5, 1955, headlined negress draws fine in segregation case involving bus ride. Next to the paragraph describing the arrest of Rosa Parks is a penciled notation, “#2857.” Two pages later an article from the Tampa Morning Tribune entitled “Montgomery Bus Arrest May Bring Test of Segregation” is annotated with “Blake/#2857.” Mary Cummings recalled that Homer recorded the event by writing those entries in the scrapbook.

This was the written evidence that Lifson was seeking and it allowed him to announce that “the Rosa Parks bus” would be included in a MastroNet Internet auction closing on October 25, 2001. There were more than 900 lots in that auction catalogue: official documents signed by various Presidents, a guitar from John Lennon, a Studebaker once owned by Mickey Mantle, the June 1938 comic-book debut of Superman. But Lot No. 1 was the Rosa Parks bus.

Page B-1 of the September 27, 2001, issue of The Wall Street Journal carried a color photograph of 2857 lying in its field and an article headlined is this rosa parks’s bus? The cat was out of the bag, and both MastroNet and the Williams family were inundated with requests for information. In Dearborn, Michigan, Steven K. Hamp, President of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village (now the Henry Ford), recalled a conversation in the early 1990s when the curatorial staff brainstormed potential major acquisitions and the Rosa Parks bus headed the list. But the group acknowledged that none of them had heard of the bus’s surviving. Hamp saw the article and called me. “Bill, if this really is the bus, we want to do what we can to acquire it. I want you to look into this and get back to me.”

On December 1, 2001, Rosa Parks was reunited with the bus for the first time. The crowd gave her rock-star treatment.

I had just entered kindergarten in Sacramento, California, when Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery. I was in high school as the Free Speech Movement rocked the Berkeley campus of the University of California just 80 miles to the west and as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy rocked the nation. I’d quoted King in my high school graduation speech and done my share of antiwar and civil rights protesting in the late sixties, but that hardly qualified me as an expert on civil rights history. I had, however, researched many historical characters in my 25 years as a museum professional, the last 15 as a curator at the Henry Ford. But I never before had had the opportunity to tackle a project that involved a living legend, a fairly recent and contentious history, and the potential for controversy.

Working with the curator of transportation Bob Casey and the archivist Terry Hoover, I began a crash course in the history of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, motor-coach technology, and the creation of civil rights museums. We asked planners of the Memphis and Montgomery museums what they had done to seek out the original bus and why they had passed on this one. We contacted the General Motors Corporation for a copy of the specification booklet and transportation museum curators, historians, and amateur bus restorers to see what they knew about transit buses in the 1950s. We talked with Donnie Williams and Charles Cummings and asked Robert Lifson to describe his research. By early October we had copies of all the testimonial letters and detailed photographs of the bus and the scrapbook pages.