Published July 29, 2011
NEW YORK – A first-person essay written by Rosa Parks presents a detailed and harrowing account of a young black housekeeper who is nearly raped by a white neighbor.
Looking like a remembrance from Parks' own life, an expert called it an exciting find that might help explain her lifelong advocacy. But on Friday an institute created by Parks disputed that, saying it was hers but a work of fiction.
The six-page document is among thousands of the civil rights activists' personal items currently residing in the Manhattan warehouse and cramped offices of Guernsey's Auctioneers, which has been selected by a Michigan court to find an institution to buy and preserve the complete archive.
The Associated Press was provided with some samples of the documents in the archive, including portions of the essay. Archivists who reviewed the documents for Guernsey's provided descriptions of their contents and characterized the encounter as a "near-rape."
Steven G. Cohen, a lawyer for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, said people who knew Parks well were aware that she liked to write fictional essays for herself. Parks' friend of 45 years, Elaine Steele, never heard Parks speak of the encounter and was not aware of the document, Cohen said.
"This six-page essay we believe is a work of fiction," said Cohen. "We believe that Mrs. Parks meant for the story to be private. It never should have been part of the memorabilia collection."
Civil rights historian Danielle McGuire, however, called the essay an astounding find. "Rosa Parks was very likely to have encountered this kind of proposition," she said.
It helps explain what triggered Parks' lifelong campaign against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men, said McGuire, whose book "At the Dark End of the Street" examines how economic intimidation and sexual violence were used to derail the freedom movement and how it went unpunished during the Jim Crow era.
"I thought it was because of the stories that she had heard. But this gives a much more personal context to that," said McGuire, an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her book recounts Parks' role in investigating for the NAACP the case of Recy Taylor, a young sharecropper raped by a group of white men in 1944.
McGuire said she had never heard that Parks wrote fictional essays.
"It would be nice to see evidence of that. She never talks about that in any of her work out there," said McGuire. "It would be more likely that the protectors of her legacy are trying to protect her respectability."
Parks writes in the essay: "He offered me a drink of whiskey, which I promptly and vehemently refused. ... He moved nearer to me and put his hand on my waist. I was very frightened by now."
"He liked me ... he didn't want me to be lonely and would I be sweet to him. He had money to give me for accepting his attentions," she wrote.
"I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never."
Most people know the story of Parks, a black, middle-aged seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.
Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger said her personal papers reveal a much more complex individual, one who spent a lifetime fighting for racial equality and against sexual violence targeting black women.
Parks is credited with inspiring the civil rights movement with her solitary act of defiance on Dec. 1, 1955, that led to the Supreme Court outlawing segregation on buses. She received the nation's two highest honors in her lifetime, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
She died in 2005 at age 92, leaving the trove of personal correspondence, papers relating to her work for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, tributes from presidents and world leaders, school books, family bibles, clothing, furniture and more — about 8,000 items in all.
Guernsey's sale is a component of a resolution to a dispute over her estate among her relatives and the institute she created in 1987.
Guernsey's, known for its sale of iconic and celebrity collections, took an inventory of Parks' homes in Detroit soon after she died and is looking for an institution to buy her archive.
Parks worked on many cases with the NAACP, including the Scottsboro defense of nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Alabama in 1931. She was involved in the black power conventions in the 1970s and the anti-apartheid movement in the 1990s.
Parks wrote on anything she could get her hands on.
There are detailed notes on how African-American citizens should comport themselves during the 382-day bus boycott following her arrest and about the organization that led it, the Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by a young pastor named the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Parks' memoirs include one with author Jim Haskins and another with one of her attorneys in the early 1990s, but by then said McGuire, "her story was pretty much well-rehearsed, and limited to her time in Montgomery and the bus incident."
"Her story had become mythic and iconic ... I can't imagine what that felt like for her to have a whole history of activism and political work erased and turned almost into a cartoon character," said McGuire.
Guernsey's has talked to about 20 museums, libraries, university and churches about buying the archive over the past three years.
"There hasn't been a group that didn't desperately want it but had to face the reality whether they could afford it," Ettinger said, adding that he was currently in discussions with three separate entities — an institution and two individuals who could buy the archive with the intention of donating it to a museum or other cultural institution.
He declined to give an exact figure but said $8 million to $10 million was in the "ballpark."