November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
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?
We can only imagine what James F. Blake must have been thinking when he pulled his bus into the yard of the Montgomery Bus Lines at the end of his run on December 1, 1955. For the most part, it had been a routine day’s work, but that one incident where the black woman had refused to move to the back of the bus had to have been infuriating. Still, Blake had done what he thought he was supposed to do, and the police had come and taken her off to jail.
Maybe the incident would pass without much effect, as similar events had. Blacks were talking about changing things, but Blake and most other whites couldn’t imagine that much would change in Montgomery, Alabama, the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” Certainly Blake knew the sturdy seven-year-old GM bus with the 2857 painted over his seat would be there the next day and the next, unchanged, mundane, and reliable. Blake surely had every reason to think his passengers, mostly black but a few whites as well, would continue to rely on him and that bus. Bus service was at the core of African-American city life; it was how blacks got to work, to school, to church, to shop, to visit.
Indeed, 2857 was there on December 2, and it was another routine day. But on Monday, December 5, Blake had to testify at the trial of Rosa Parks, and the attention it drew seemed extraordinary to him. About half of the city’s 44,000 blacks regularly rode the bus, and that day they failed to show up, depriving the company of about 70 percent of its patrons. The morning paper reported that a one-day boycott had been called. Then black riders stayed off the bus for 380 days more. By December 1956 much had changed for James Blake and the rest of Montgomery, the South, and indeed the nation. Still, for the next 15 years, whenever he was assigned the Cleveland Avenue route, James Blake drove that unremarkable bus.
By the time the bus was retired and sold as surplus in 1971, the world was a very different place, and that bus was no longer mundane. Memories of conflicts over civil rights were still fresh and raw in many places. White Montgomerians were eager to put all that behind them and would have been content to let the spotlight of memory shine on other Southern cities, like Little Rock, Birmingham, Jackson, or Selma. However, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had already been assigned places among the legends of the movement.
And so the bus itself (at least in people’s minds) had already become markedly different, so remarkable in fact that officials of the National City Lines in Chicago, the parent company of the Montgomery Bus Lines, are said to have directed the Montgomery managers to destroy it, dump it in the river, and never let anyone know what became of it. They also suggested that the office records covering those days in Montgomery should be misplaced before someone got hold of them and used the information in some unflattering way. The Montgomery bus franchise was sold to the city in 1972, and the company records from 1955 on are indeed gone: lost, destroyed, or taken as souvenirs by former employees.
As for the now fabled bus, it sat ignominiously in a field outside Montgomery.
How did it get there?
Roy H. Summerford was a maintenance supervisor for the Alabama State Patrol, freethinker, stock-car-racing enthusiast, mechanical genius, and inveterate tinkerer. Hubert, as he was called, was in the market for extra storage space for his machine shop/garage out in Wetumka, several miles northeast of downtown Montgomery. An old bus, stripped of its seats, would do nicely.
Hubert knew the men who worked at the bus company. Charles Friday and Charles H. Cummings remembered that bus number 2857 was the one Jimmy Blake had been driving that pivotal day. Rather than scuttle the bus in a river, they agreed to sell it.
In 1971 Hubert bought two old buses, one of them 2857, for $500 apiece from his friends at Montgomery City Lines and moved them to his property near the Coosa River. He tore out the seats and threw them into a ravine near his home in nearby Red Land. A couple of years later he sold the engines and transmissions. He stored lumber, tools, and car parts in the stripped-down buses. There 2857 stayed for 30 years.
Hubert told friends and relatives, visitors, city leaders, and even the Alabama Film Commission about the bus. Until his death in 1985 he never tired of bringing attention to the old bus sitting in the field.
People were interested but not interested enough to do much of anything. Indeed, few physical artifacts or sites of the civil rights movement received any attention at all until the 1980s. Perhaps any interested blacks were too busy consolidating the progress made during the movement, while Southern whites had little enthusiasm for commemorating what many of them considered moments of disgrace and defeat. Perhaps the history was just too new to be considered history.
Eventually, public efforts to commemorate the movement stirred. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed a bill creating the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta. In 1991 the National Civil Rights Museum opened on the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King had been assassinated in 1968. The arrest of Rosa Parks and the subsequent boycott were featured in the exhibits. Museum planners in Memphis worked closely with Montgomery veterans such as the attorney Fred Gray and were aware of Summerford’s buses. But there was no solid evidence linking one of them to the Bus Boycott, so a similar vehicle was acquired and restored to resemble a Montgomery bus of the era. The museum quickly became a landmark, drawing pilgrimages of schoolchildren and families eager to see in person what they had seen in a famous photograph, the balcony where King had fallen, and to gain some perspective on those violent years.
In the mid-1990s the focus shifted back to Montgomery. Troy University, about 50 miles from Montgomery, had purchased the Empire Theater, which sat at the corner where Rosa Parks had been arrested and was best known as the place where the country singer Hank Williams had made a name for himself. The university announced plans to raze it and build a parking structure. That just didn’t seem right, and the public criticism was scorching. The university quickly changed its plans; a library and museum named after Rosa Parks seemed more acceptable for the site. Groundbreaking took place in 1998 and the museum opened in 2000. The museum planners approached Hubert Summerford’s daughter and son-in-law, to whom the bus had descended upon Hubert’s death. Donnie and Vivian Williams had been busy raising a family of three and running their small grocery store. They held on to Hubert’s words: “That bus will be important to somebody someday; it’s a part of history.”
By this time Mrs. Parks was commonly referred to as “the mother of the civil rights movement” and Faith Ringgold had just published a popular children’s book, If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks . The bus itself had suffered from its three decades in the field. It was badly rusted in spots, the tires were rotting, and many windows had been shattered by bullets idly fired over the years. But it had survived.
University officials who offered Vivian and Donnie Williams $10,000 for the shell of the old bus felt they were making a fair offer; since the Williamses still had no tangible evidence that this was the actual bus and the museum would have to spend thousands more to make it exhibitable. Donnie and Vivian said no, somewhat offended that the veracity of their family’s story was questioned again and certain that the real Rosa Parks bus was worth more. Like the National Civil Rights Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum had to make do with a bus typical of the era. Donnie and Vivian were approached by state and city officials; the Smithsonian Institution even called to offer advice, but no one offered to pay the full cost of history as Donnie and Vivian calculated it.
With their curiosity piqued—and encouraged by friends and enthralled with their first computer—in May 2000 the Williamses tried selling the bus on eBay. The initial listing caused an uproar. Described as “The Rosa Parks City Line Montgomery Ala. Bus” and with a $100,000 minimum bid, the entry was immediately challenged. Ray White, the university administrator responsible for overseeing construction of the new museum, confirmed that his people had “done all kinds of research … and never found anyone who knows exactly what bus she was on,” while the attorney Fred Gray doubted that anyone knew where the original bus might be. There were no bidders.
As with nearly anything relating to Rosa Parks, the story received national attention. It caught the eye of Robert Lifson, president of MastroNet, Inc., a Chicago-based auction business, and a self-acknowledged political-history junkie. Lifson made an offer: He would conduct his own research into the provenance of the bus if he could be the one to put it up at public auction. The Williamses agreed.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The MSX staffers took on the assignment with great vigor. It was unlike anything else they had done (which included high-tech concept cars and the tour vehicles for a ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom). In the process, they were surprised to encounter responses suggesting that the memory of this 50-year-old event still draws visceral opposition. Told of the reason for requesting 1948 bus parts, some individuals responded with enthusiasm. But enough were silent or refused to return calls that the MSX staff stopped referring to Rosa Parks and merely asked about parts for a vintage GM bus.
Of course, the seats were a major interest. Could we find the original ones after 30 years in that Alabama ravine? A personal inspection of the ground and discussions with local residents convinced me that they could not be located. The place had been used as a landfill for those 30 years, and the seat frames were buried and likely twisted into unrecognizable shapes. Salvaged frames and reproduction seats with modern leatherette upholstery would have to suffice. A blow to authenticity, perhaps, but one that would make it easier to allow everyone to sit on the bus.
The paint scheme or “livery” was another concern. The restored buses in Montgomery and Memphis wear a dark forest green along with white and yellow. The paint chips uncovered on this bus were far lighter. Fortunately, we were able to confirm the color through a 1956 color postcard showing lime green buses on Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue and the reminiscences of Jesse Daniels, a museum staff member who participated in the boycott. In the end we estimate that 75 percent of the bus is still the original material, 15 percent comes from other buses of the era, and just 10 percent is modern.
The restored bus made its debut on February 1, 2003. The keynote presentation was made by Jesse Daniels. Born and raised in Montgomery, Daniels had been a 19-year-old college student at the time of the boycott. He told of the meaningfully mundane aspects of his boycott experiences: the ever-present police, the inconvenience of having to walk to his girlfriend’s house, the constant fundraising to support the cause, and the thrill of his family dressing in their Sunday best to ride integrated buses the next December.
African-Americans old enough to remember Jim Crow have been moved to tears by the bus. Perhaps the most evocative moment came when an elderly black woman refused to heed museum staff requests not to enter the bus during its one-day showing before the restoration, “No honky from Dearborn is going to keep me off this bus,” she said.
The bus remains contested space. It was segregated and then desegregated. It was James Blake’s bus, but now it is the Rosa Parks bus. Actually, it became the Rosa Parks bus in 1971, when its owners confirmed its power by trying to destroy it. Hubert Summerford and Vivian and Donnie Williams saved the icon by hiding it in plain sight. Like Rosa Parks, it is unremarkable in appearance yet spiritual in effect.
Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, writes that an icon is the result of “extraordinary natural, supernatural, divine or superhuman circumstances… . The closer believers are to the icon, the more they participate with or engage it and the more they are touched by its power—which may be transformative.” As thousands of people will attest, sitting on that bus is anything but mundane. Asked by a group of energetic third-graders if the bus really could talk as Faith Ringgold’s book suggested, I invited them to sit quietly, close their eyes, imagine Rosa Parks gently but firmly insisting on respect and equality, and then listen.