Aug. 3, 2011 — -- Members of the institute that Rosa Parks formed nearly 20 years before her death are horrified that Parks' personal letters, one of which reveals a near rape, are sitting at a New York City auction house waiting to be sold.
"The folks who cared about Rosa Parks the most, the folks at her institute, her best friend, Elaine Steele, and others are mortified that her private thoughts have now been published," said Steven Cohen, an attorney representing the institute.
A Michigan court has authorized Guernsey's Auctioneers and Brokers of New York to sell the merchandise as part of the settling of Parks' estate. Parks died in 2005 in Detroit, Mich., at 92 and a battle has since ensued among the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, Parks' relatives and the probate court.
Media coverage of an impending sale of 8,000 of Parks' items revealed a treasure trove of civil rights memorabilia, valued between $8 and $10 million. Along with the items that reveal details about Parks' civil rights work are personal letters written when she was a teenager and later in life to her husband and mother. Of particular concern to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute is a 1931 letter in which Parks describes fighting off a white neighbor who nearly raped her.
Parks, who moved to Detroit in the late 1950s, helped found the institute in 1987 and attorney Cohen said she had intended for her items and the licensing of her name to benefit the institute.
Cohen recently filed an application with the Michigan Supreme Court, challenging previous rulings that have stripped the institute from being a beneficiary of Parks' estate and from receiving any benefit from the sale of Parks' memorabilia and personal belongings.
In the July 19 court filing, Cohen wrote, "Since Mrs. Parks death in 2005, however, the court system of her adopted city has embarked on a course to destroy her legacy, bankrupt her institute, shred her estate plan and steal her very name."
Rosa Parks Details Near Rape in Handwritten Letter
Cohen said he filed the paperwork before he and the institute knew there was a letter detailing the near rape.
The letter was written by an 18-year-old Parks when she was working as a housekeeper in her native Alabama. She describes in painful detail fighting off a white neighbor and employer who tried to seduce her. She referred to him as "Mr. Charlie," which black people commonly used as a disparaging term for white people.
She writes that he offered her whiskey and said he would give her money if she did what he wanted. Parks refused.
"I would never stoop as low as to have anything to do with him," she writes in her longhand cursive.
She goes on, "He moved nearer to me and put his hand on my waist."
Parks continues, "I was trapped and helpless. I was hurt and sickened through with anger and disgust."
The institute claims that the personal revelation in the letter is not civil rights memorabilia and thus is not authorized to be sold.
"There has been a lot of commentary about how important this document is to understanding Mrs. Parks but the fact is she didn't want the document to be disclosed," Cohen said. "It's equivalent to looking through her diary or journal. … She never authorized any person to look through her private papers."
Historians say that the letter, along with the thousands of other items that include books, clothing, photos and awards, provide a fuller picture of Parks and show some of what drove her lifelong activism.
"I share the concerns of invasion of privacy but for the sake of larger history, I think it's extraordinary that we would have this material," said Farah Griffin, professor of English and African-American Studies at Columbia University.
Griffin said part of what makes the archive so unique is that it was gathered by a black woman.
"We have so few archival collections of black women," Griffin said. "There's such a silence from women themselves about sexual violence and abuse … to actually talk about an incident that happened to herself is tremendous; it's very rare that we do have the first-person [account] of the dangers of working in a domestic household."
Danielle McGuire, author of "The Dark End of the Street" and an African-American history professor, said that some of Parks' unsung civil rights work included raising awareness about violence against black women.
"For historians, you want to jump up and down and say it's an amazing find," McGuire said. "This will help give a fuller portrait of who she is."
McGuire said the collection debunks the myth surrounding Parks' most famous moment when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955 to a white person.
"She was a political actor and activist for her whole life and that her work for justice and for freedom really spanned six, seven decades and that's so important," McGuire said. "We have this image of her as this silent seamstress who tiptoed into history and it's a disservice to her."
Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's Auctioneers and Brokers, said the house is acting in accordance with the court's rulings on how to handle the archive.
"The court decided that the archive needed to be sold and that the proceeds would be divided by the court in a matter it saw fit," Ettinger said. "The court has spoken repeatedly and repeatedly informed us to do what we're doing. We are neutral here and simply following the dictates of the court."
Ettinger said his auction house wants to sell the collection in its entirety with the intent that it end up at a museum or institution.
"Following the dictates of the court and with respect to the memory of Mrs. Parks, everyone has been in agreement that this archive should stay together," Ettinger said. "The good news is that every institution we've approached desperately wants it, the bad news is they don't have the money to afford it."
A 2007 confidential settlement outlines the distribution of proceeds from the sale of the items. The institute is no longer a legal beneficiary, so it's unclear who will get the money.
Rhea and William McCauley, a niece and nephew of Parks, said through an attorney that they support the auction house's handling of the archive.
"They're looking to preserve and honor the legacy of their late aunt," attorney Lawrence Pepper said. "From my clients' perspective, they believe in the integrity of Guernsey's and that it's an appropriate place for the collection right now."
Everything from Parks' childhood school books and family Bibles to her clothes and glasses and even a suitcase packed full of her samples when she worked as a seamstress are part of the collection. For Ettinger, the collection is rare.
"Typically, when one looks to find treasures that relate to famous Americans, people who've changed our nation's history, often times … you discover this material has been scattered to the four winds," he said.
But Parks saved just about everything. "In the nicest use of the word … she was a pack rat," Ettinger said.
Rosa Parks' Estate Reveals Postcard From Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parks also wrote about defining moments in her life and in the civil rights movement as they happened rather than reflecting on them as an older person.
"You really have to get goosebumps when you read her writings because they are so revealing, so extraordinary," Ettinger said.
Parks' writings, on the backs of NAACP pamphlets and stationery, reveal a woman firmly implanted in the civil rights efforts. She also had the ear of prominent leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He sent her a postcard while on vacation in Rome, saying she was in his thoughts. Parks was also with King the day his home was bombed, something she wrote about the day after it happened.
Parks wrote, "We are really in the thick of it now. Rev. King's home was bombed last night while we were at the First Baptist Church mass meeting. His wife and baby were in the house, but not hurt."
The impressive collection also shows a lighter side to Parks too: recipes for peanut butter pancakes, letters to her husband whom she called "Parks" and letters and art sent to her from kids as part of their school projects.
"She had many facets, many sides to her life," Ettinger said. "If you grow up as I did and thought of Rosa Parks as a woman who did an enormously important and wonderful and noble deed, but that's all she did, I think you would be surprised is an understatement."