NEW YORK-Civil rights icon Rosa Parks used to jot notes in her church bulletins, noting sermon titles and song selections.
She kept a postcard sent by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited Rome two years after she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
And among the clothes she left behind when she died in 2005 was a simple white stewardess dress and black stewardess hat that she wore when she prepared Communion at her African Methodist Episcopal church in Detroit.
Parks, a private woman best known for her one act of public defiance 50 years before her death, spent her life holding onto treasures and tidbits of her own history, both religious and cultural.
There are her 1996 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 1999 Congressional Gold Medal, keys to numerous cities, and hundreds of tributes from schoolchildren.
Now thousands of Parks’ personal items have been inventoried by Guernsey’s, the Manhattan auction house that has handled the possessions of celebrities from President John F. Kennedy to Elvis Presley.
The collection offers an intensely personal view into the rather ordinary life of a laywoman who was actively involved in her church, and who kept several Bibles and worship programs with her personal notes jotted down over the decades. In 1976, she noted that the minister at her church, St. Matthew AME Church, preached on “Conquering the Storm.” In 1983, it was “The Inherent Power of Friendship,” and in 1997, “We are God’s children.”
On the back of some 1980s stationery from the Rosa Parks Art Center, she wrote: “Spiritual message: I will greet this day with love in my heart. Expecting nothing as all things are already in my possession.”
A Michigan probate court has asked Guernsey’s to find a new owner for the entire collection of Parks’ belongings. The proceeds of the sale-which could total $10 million-will be divided between a Detroit institute named for Parks and family members.
Leaders of the AME Church were on a conference call with Guernsey’s president Arlan Ettinger Thursday (July 16) to express their interest in the collection. Other interested parties include some organizations from Parks’ native Alabama.
The AME Church, at its quadrennial General Conference earlier this month (July), passed a resolution calling on church leaders to “do whatever is necessary to protect the legacy of Deaconess Rosa Parks and the role of the AME Church in the modern day civil rights movement.”
Bishop Carolyn Tyler Guidry, chair of the AME Church’s Social Action Commission, said church leaders are considering the possibility of purchasing the collection.
“We feel that without Rosa Parks, the movement would not have been as intense as it was,” she said. “Even Martin Luther King Jr. himself might not have been thrust into the public stage as soon as he was. It is because of Rosa Parks that the movement escalated when it did.”
The collection contains writings from around the time of her famous 1955 protest and the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott that show she drew on her faith in troubled times.
In an account written neatly in pencil, she recalled learning that King’s house had been bombed on a January night in 1956 and his wife and baby daughter had escaped safely.
“We do not know what else is to follow these previous events, but we are trusting in God and praying for courage and determination to withstand all attempts of intimidation,” she wrote to supporters.
The collection is striking for it being at turns noteworthy and normal.
On the back of a 1997 invitation to be honored as a trailblazer by the Michigan Conference of the AME Church, Parks writes an apparent “to do” list: “Cocoa buter (sic), Cream, Panty hose, Rolaids.”
Said Ettinger: “Perhaps more than any archive that I’m aware … that exists anywhere, this reflects on her whole life.”
There are hoods she received with honorary doctoral degrees and a recipe for “featherlite pancakes” with melted peanut butter. There are old Ebony magazines and the NAACP Image Award for her supporting actress role playing herself in the CBS drama “Touched by an Angel.”
Her $5 donation listed on a 1971 church financial report shows she was a moderate giver, between donors of $10 and 25 cents. The one-time seamstress wrote many of her words of historical note on the back of stationery of civil rights organizations, demonstrating her frugality.
“You do see her as a full human being,” said Carolyn Salter, Guernsey’s senior archivist. “Not just the woman on the bus, not just the seamstress, but everything.”