- Historic Sites
The Power Of 2857
Fifty years ago this December, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus she was riding. Because she wouldn’t, the whole country has changed. But what happened to the bus?
November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
Why isn’t the bus in a civil rights museum or a museum of African-American history? Rosa Parks has become an international symbol of the struggle for human rights, and that story is not limited to civil rights or black history. It is about all of us, and it affects the future of all of us. Besides, regardless of his notorious shortcomings, such as his highly public anti-Semitism, Henry Ford pioneered a progressive employment policy toward blacks, women, and the disabled. During the 1930s the Ford Motor Company had more African-Americans working for it than all other auto companies combined. In his immense educational museum, Ford included African-American history by collecting, among other things, a pair of slave cabins from a Georgia plantation, an Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, the chair from Ford’s Theatre in which Lincoln was shot, and a memorial building constructed to honor Ford’s acquaintance George Washington Carver. Rosa Parks as social innovator fits right in.
Why does this bus belong in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit famous not only as the home of the Ford Motor Company but also as the home of Orville Hubbard, a famously segregationist mayor from 1942 to 1978? After all, Hubbard left a long and bitter legacy that still dissuades some African-Americans from visiting Dearborn. The Rosa Parks bus is the Henry Ford’s tangible and highly visible symbol that everyone’s story has a place here and everyone is welcome here.
Of course, not everyone concurs: “An old bus from the South is still an old bus regardless of who rode it.” “You pay $400,000 for a crappy old bus that ‘might’ be the Rosa Parks bus—who cares?” “The bus is not the icon. Rosa Parks is. I don’t think the bus will touch anyone.” Some reactions mirror the range of contemporary racial attitudes: “I have a vintage toilet bowl that may have been used by Rosa. It has no plaque or number, but you could check it for DNA or but [ sic ] prints.” Clearly, the bus, like other icons, does not resonate with everyone and can evoke antagonistic responses.
On December 1, 2001, Rosa Parks was reunited with the bus during a reception cosponsored by the museum and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, the educational foundation she created. Frail at 88 and in a wheelchair, she made no public comment. But the crowd gave her rock-star treatment, applauding, reaching out to touch her, crowding her entourage just to catch a peek, with cameras flashing.
The bus was publicly exhibited in unrestored condition for just one day, Sunday, December 2. Hundreds of people came to see it; most of them were first-time visitors to the museum. Black families came in their Sunday best directly from church and had group photos taken in front of the bus. Shaking his head, a 63-year-old Georgia native spoke for many, saying it gave him a “chill” to see the bus. The newspaper reported that it was greeted with “reverence, even awe.”
Museum staff engaged in a spirited discussion of how to treat the bus’s condition and—a rare thing for curators—solicited opinions from the public. There was no clear split between blacks and whites on this issue. Many wanted it left just as it was. One elderly African-American woman jabbed her finger, saying, “If you change that bus, it will be another example of white people changing our history!” One woman said, “A restored bus will look ordinary, not magical, and this bus is magical.” Of course, she was right; the restored bus does little visually to stir the imagination. Another compelling argument came from an African-American schoolteacher who offered a more symbolic rationale for leaving the bus unrestored: “Looking the way it does, that bus represents our history; it speaks of struggle and survival.”
Others, black as well as white, felt that leaving the bus in a deteriorated condition would send the wrong message: that the museum did not value it as much as it valued other artifacts. In 50 years would the bus simply look like an unheeded relic?
What did the museum want people to take away from their encounters with the bus? That was the crucial question, and in the end, we decided to fully restore it. We thought people should see the bus looking just as it had when Rosa Parks got aboard that December evening. Not only that. They too should be able to get on the bus, sit in the front or the back, even sit in the seat that Rosa Parks sat in, and imagine themselves faced with what she faced. Restored, the bus would most fully evoke her personal courage and her community’s public commitment.
The conservator Malcolm Collum consulted with various restoration firms. An automotive design and development company, MSX International, of Southfield, Michigan, was selected to do the work. A grant from the Save America’s Treasures program sponsored by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation defrayed part of the $305,000 restoration cost.
The craftsmen at MSX embraced the museum’s goal of retaining as much original material as possible while still making the bus look complete. Stripping it carefully, they saved paint chips, paper signs, strips of rubber floor matting, scraps of leather upholstery, and window glass for exact replication. They called restoration shops and salvage yards all over the country, finally turning up a 1948 General Motors four-cylinder, two-cycle diesel engine with transmission. Staff of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, bus company provided a vintage fare box and led MSX staff members on weekend trips to “bus graveyards” to scavenge parts.