The Power Of 2857


We now could see for ourselves that the manufacturer’s plaque on this vehicle showed that it was built by the GMC Truck " Coach Division, Pontiac, Michigan. It was “Type TDH-3610” and “Coach No. 1132.” The number 2857 appeared boldly above the driver’s seat and was faintly repeated next to the front door and above the rear window.

Since the appearance of The Wall Street Journal article, one additional piece of evidence had surfaced. The Motor Bus Society, an amateur group based in Paramus, New Jersey, had produced a listing of General Motors coaches sold to National City Lines in the 1940s. GM bus serial number 1132 was identified as a TDH-3610, indicating the tenth model of a 36-passenger, transit, diesel, hydraulic (automatic) transmission. It had been delivered to National City Lines of Chicago in March 1948 and assigned coach number 2857. It was first sent to Terre Haute City Lines in Indiana and in late 1954 transferred to Montgomery City Lines.

So this bus was in Montgomery in 1955, but was it the bus? Had it or the scrapbook been tampered with?

The museum conservator Malcolm Collum was dispatched to Montgomery to examine the bus in person. Was the 2857 of recent vintage? No, it matched the rest of the paint in condition and style. Had the manufacturer’s plaque been altered or replaced? No, the screws were rusted in place and untouched; the plaque matched the painted background outline perfectly.

James L. Hayes, a certified forensic document examiner, examined the scrapbooks at the MastroNet office in Oak Park, Illinois. Dating lead pencil markings is impossible, but Hayes found “no characteristics” indicating that the scrapbooks or the markings were recent productions. Indeed, the paper, newspaper clippings, and tape all appeared authentic.

We estimate that 75 percent of the bus is original, 15 percent comes from other buses of the era, and just 10 percent is modern.

Hubert Summerford had told his daughter that 2857 was the bus on which James Blake had had Rosa Parks arrested in 1955. On the other side of town, Homer Cummings had passed on to his widow an informal written document linking James Blake and number 2857 to the arrest of Rosa Parks. Others had looked for the Rosa Parks bus for more than a decade and found no alternatives to 2857. Historians and curators often have to build their interpretations on informal sources and less than complete evidence. Convinced that this was, indeed, the Rosa Parks bus, the museum entered the auction.

Entrusted to do the bidding from my office computer, and with Steve Hamp’s cell phone number at my side, I put in our initial bid of $82,000 at noon on the October 25 and watched bids rise to $300,000 by midnight. During the next 30 minutes they rose to $388,000. Then the action stopped.

I waited until just after 2:00 a.m., when a new high bid of $405,000 appeared on my computer screen. It had taken my competitor 90 minutes to decide to make another bid. I thought I could break his spirit by bidding quickly and immediately entered the next available bid, $427,919. At 2:50 a.m. I received the phone call that the competition had ended with my successful bid.

At the same time, I successfully bid on the scrapbook of newspaper articles with the Rosa Parks bus identified in two places. I also purchased a Montgomery City Lines bus driver’s uniform offered for sale by a retired employee who had started working for the company in 1954. I called Steve Hamp at 3:30 a.m. to tell him that we had just paid nearly half a million dollars for a rusty old bus with broken windows and no seats, engine, or transmission. He was elated.

Out in Colorado, a reporter for the Denver Post was filing reports about how Mayor Wellington Webb and others had gathered at the home of his supporter—and auction veteran—Marshall Fogel to bid on the bus while snacking on shrimp and artichoke dip. Webb, an African-American himself, was building an African-American research library downtown and saw the bus as the ideal centerpiece. The group thought $125,000 to $200,000 would bring it in.

When their $369,000 bid was immediately topped, Webb speculated that they were bidding against Ted Turner. They got on their cell phones and solicited more supporters. At midnight, needing more money but unwilling to wake up supporters, Fogel offered an additional $25,000 contribution, and they bid once again. The $405,000 bid was their final shot.

The announcement of the museum’s purchase brought immediate media controversy and angry questions. Here’s how we answered them.

Why shouldn’t this bus be in Montgomery or Washington,D.C.? The Detroit metropolitan area is, unfortunately, the nation’s most racially segregated urban community. It has been the site of significant civil rights activities over the years and is home to the largest local chapter of the NAACP. Mrs. Parks chose to live here, from 1957 until her death last October. Resting in Metro Detroit, the bus will be a constant reminder of Mrs. Parks and the efforts of so many others to achieve racial justice. As a museum with a national audience, the organization feels the American civil rights movement exemplifies the traditions of innovation, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that are at the heart of our mission.