Berlin: Rosa Parks may have refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, but her house has now made a move of its own – across the ocean all the way to Berlin.
American activist Rosa Parks‘ refusal to be segregated triggered a wave of ultimately successful protests against racial discrimination and is often cited as the beginning of the American Civil Rights movement.
Along with becoming a hero, Parks also became the target of relentless death threats in the South, leading her to relocate to Detroit, where she moved in with her brother Sylvester McCauley into a modest two-storey, white-shuttered house in South Deacon Street, sharing it with up to 16 other family members. Parks died in 2005.
That house, known as the Rosa Parks House, has now been rebuilt by American artist Ryan Mendoza, in his backyard in the ethnically diverse Berlin suburb of Wedding.
“This is the home Auntie Rosa moved to after the ‘hell’ of Alabama,” Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley tells Fairfax Media.
In recent times the house had fallen into disrepair and was scheduled to be demolished. McCauley (who was born and raised in the house) acquired the property from the Detroit City Council for $US500 ($664) on behalf of the Rosa Parks Family Foundation and set about trying to find a way to restore the property in honour of her relative’s legacy.
“All my efforts for financing were in vain,” she says. “The city of Detroit demolishes properties without analysing historical context for greed and money.”
In desperation, McCauley eventually contacted Berlin-based New York artist Ryan Mendoza who had recently created a different work called The White House that involved moving another house from Detroit to Europe for international art shows. That work was criticised in some media, who described it as “ruin porn” exploiting the poverty of US cities like Detroit.
But according to Joel Boykin, executive producer for Pulse TV in Detroit, this project has been received differently because the house is an important part of the African-American cultural legacy.
“This house was the first house she came to for refuge, her only sibling’s house. With a young and growing family, Sylvester McCauley urged his sister Rosa to forsake Montgomery, Alabama, and take haven with him in Detroit, Michigan, and she did.”
“What made this house unique is the personal and private side of a woman who has done so much to change the fabric of this country,” says Boykin.
Although she would like to see the house eventually returned to the US, Boykin says it can also be a powerful symbol in its new Berlin location. “It illustrates that civil rights and the struggle for human rights is universal, it crosses the seas and the oceans of the world.”
Mendoza says he hopes the work, which is open to the public on selected weekends, becomes a poignant reminder of the neglect of civil rights heroes in the US in a time of new political and racial tension since the election of US President Donald Trump.
“This house is proof of an enormous neglect in the United States,” he says. “This is a situation where the white mayor of Detroit did not give this house the significance it deserved. The neighbours around this spoke of the pride they felt living so close to this house – but the City obviously didn’t feel that way.
“Dealing with this house has been an enormous reminder of my privilege as a white guy. The black community in America really wanted to save this house but they were not able to do so. They went to every institution they could and it was only because none of them provided a solution that I was their last hope. Otherwise the house would now be demolished.
“It is ironic that in a place like Berlin that has a history of absolute horror – ideologically this place seems to be more in tune with democratic ideals than my home country, America. So I’ve decided to hold the house hostage from its place of origin.”
To Rhea McCauley, the ultimate hope is that the house will stir sufficient discussion that it eventually goes back to the United States.
“When it comes to Trump, people need to re-read The Emperor’s New Clothes and 1984 by George Orwell to explain where the United States is now; the artists of this world may be our only hope.
“We as a country need to acknowledge this history around Rosa Parks,” she said. “But if we can’t – I take her somewhere where she is acknowledged”.