After Years In Lockdown, Rosa Parks' Papers Head To Library Of Congress

Feb 7, 2015
Originally published on February 20, 2015 11:02 am

Archivists at the Library of Congress are hard at work cataloging the papers of Rosa Parks, received on loan recently after a legal battle kept them under lock and key for the past decade.

Among the collection are a receipt for a voting booth's poll tax, postcards from Martin Luther King Jr., a datebook with the names of volunteer carpool drivers who would help blacks get to work during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and thousands of other historic documents.

Meg McAleer, a senior archives specialist working on Rosa Parks' papers, spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about the documents. Excerpts are below — but to get Parks' full recipe for feather-light pancakes, you'll have to listen to the audio above.


Interview Highlights

On Rosa Parks' husband, Raymond

Actually, photographs of Raymond Parks are really rare. This is a photograph of Raymond Parks when he's in his 40s. He's, you know, a strikingly handsome man. Very very pale complexion, and at first Rosa Parks didn't like that when they were dating. She said that he was the first activist she ever knew in person. He was involved in the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, and at the time of their marriage he was very involved in organizing on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, and in fact were holding meetings in their new home together, which is quite a dangerous thing to do.

An excerpt from a letter Parks wrote about Raymond's reaction to her arrest

"He was a madman, furious. His fury was directed at himself for being a financial failure — not having provided the material comforts necessary for a well-appointed home. He was angry with the driver for causing my arrest. He mentioned so often the fact that colored people were sitting on the same seat, the same day, and all of the other days, where I was arrested for not getting up. He also was very angry with me for refusing to give up the seat, and at least not getting off the bus. So many times he said he would have gotten off the bus. He said I had a goat head."

On how Rosa and Raymond Parks struggled following her arrest

Rosa Parks — because of her arrest, because of her activism — loses her job at the Montgomery Fair department store, where she was an assistant tailor. She wasn't fired, they just let her go. And Raymond Parks also loses his job as well. And neither one of them is able to find sustainable employment in Montgomery after that — because of their activism, absolutely. They are basically boycotted. ...

This is a 1955 tax return, and of course her arrest is in December of that year, and their combined income is $3,749. So they're, you know, the working poor, but they're holding their head above water. And here is their tax return in 1959 when they're living in Detroit. Their combined income is $661. They have descended into deep, deep poverty.

On how the archives alter the perception of Rosa Parks

You know, we think of her as the quiet seamstress, and her writing just absolutely blew me away — the strength of it, the power of it, the courage of it. I mean, she's writing things down about the way things are in the South in ways that could get her killed, and she's unflinching in how she does it. ...

It really kind of lets us hear her voice in a way that I don't think we've truly heard before. ... We know her actions, you know, we know the fact she refused to give up her seat, we know about her arrest, we know the whats. But this brings us into the psychological impact of that. We see her in a much more animated way — we know the events she attended, you know, who she was supporting, and so I think that this really shows her to be a very skilled, experienced civil rights worker.

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MEG MCALEER: We're now going into the secure stacks of the Manuscript Division.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier this week on the birthday of Rosa Parks, we visited the archives of the late Civil Rights icon at the Library of Congress.

MCALEER: There's always - actually a lot of heavy lifting that has to get done.

CORNISH: The Rosa Parks archive had been under lock and key for the last decade. The result of a legal battle that erupted over her estate after she died in 2005. Now the collection has been bought and made available on loan to the Library of Congress, where archivist Meg McAleer and others are hard at work cataloguing it all.

MCALEER: It has a label on the front - the Rosa Parks' papers. And there is a color strip, in this case red. And believe it or not, when we process collections, we spend a lot of time discussing what color we're going to use. And one of my colleagues said, Rosa Parks, it has to be red, both for her courage, her strength, but also rose - Rosa. And so red seemed to be appropriate.

CORNISH: A receipt for a voting booth poll tax, postcards from Martin Luther King Jr., a date book with the names of volunteer carpool drivers who would help blacks get to work during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There are thousands of historic documents in this archive. But Meg McAleer says the things that stand out might surprise you, like a letter from a teenage Rosa Parks to a friend about a boy she had a crush on - a boy who would become her husband, Raymond Parks.

MCALEER: Actually, photographs of Raymond Parks are really rare. This is a photograph of Raymond Parks and - when he's in his 40s. He's, you know, a strikingly handsome man. Very, very pale complexion, and at first Rosa Parks didn't like that when they were dating.

She said that he was the first activist she ever knew in person. He was involved in the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, and at the time of their marriage, he was very involved in organizing on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys. And in fact were holding meetings in their new home together, which was quite a dangerous thing to do.

CORNISH: Are there letters from him, to him?

MCALEER: We don't have any letters from him, but we have an amazing cache of letters from Rosa Parks to him, which reveals a great deal about their relationship. They're written in 1957, 1958 when Rosa Parks is living in Hampton, Virginia. She has recently gotten a job at the Hampton Institute, and at this point, they are poverty-stricken as a result of her activism. They're in deep, deep poverty. And so this opportunity, this job was just too good to turn down. And we have her letters to him during this period. And they are loving, compassionate, nonjudgmental. He had been very traumatized by what had happened with her arrest. And, you know, during much of 1956, she's traveling around the country speaking to different groups, trying to increase support for the boycott and raise funds. He's at home receiving the death threats.

CORNISH: Many pages from the collection are undated, written in pencil on unlined paper browning on the edges - like this one, in which Rosa Parks writes of her husband's frustrations in the aftermath of the boycott.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He was a madman, furious. His fury was directed at himself for being a financial failure - not having provided the material comforts necessary for a well-appointed home. He was angry with the driver for causing my arrest. He mentioned so often the fact that colored people were sitting on the same seat, the same day, and all of the other days, where I was arrested for not getting up. He was also very angry with me for refusing to give up the seat, and at least not getting off the bus. So many times he said he would have gotten off the bus. He said I had a goat head.

CORNISH: There are lots more pages like this, sometimes written on scraps of paper or on the back of programs for civil rights events. They tell the story of what life was like for Parks and her husband when she was in the spotlight and struggling.

MCALEER: Rosa Parks - because of her arrest, because of her activism - loses her job at the Montgomery Fair department store where she was an assistant tailor. She wasn't fired, they just let her go. And Raymond Parks also loses his job as well. And neither one of them is able to find sustainable employment in Montgomery after that.

CORNISH: Because of who they are?

MCALEER: Because of their activism, absolutely. They are basically boycotted. And we have - one of the - like, it's totally mundane documentation, but it just speaks volumes. We have their tax returns actually from the '40s through 1987 so a very long stretch of time. And this is a 1955 tax return, and, of course, her arrest is in December of that year. And their combined income is $3,749. So they are, you know, the working poor. But they are holding their head above water. And here is their tax return in 1959 when they're living in Detroit. Their combined income is $661 dollars. They have descended into deep, deep poverty.

CORNISH: How does this all complicate the image that people have of her?

MCALEER: You know, we think of her as the quiet seamstress. And her writing just absolutely blew me away; the strength of it, the power of it, the courage of it. I mean, she's writing things down about the way things are in the South in ways that could get her killed. And she's unflinching in how she does it and then so incredibly generous in bringing us into the psychological impact of it.

CORNISH: Does this unfreeze her from that moment in time that we all know? Does the archive kind of, you know, take us out of the photograph and give us a broader picture?

MCALEER: It does. I think it does. It really kind of lets us hear her voice in way that I don't think we've truly heard before because it's what moved me so much - her power as a writer. It was just absolutely phenomenal. And bringing us into - you know, we know her actions, you know, we know the fact she refused to give up her seat. We know about her arrest. We know the whats, but this brings us into the psychological impact of that. We see her in a much more animated way. We know the events she attended, you know, who she was supporting. And so I think that this really shows her to be a very skilled, experienced civil rights worker.

CORNISH: Meg McAleer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCALEER: It was my pleasure.

CORNISH: That's Meg McAleer. She's a senior archive specialist at the Library of Congress. We spoke to her about the Rosa Parks archive. One more thing Meg McAleer dug up for us - written on the back of a small, manila money envelope, a recipe for feather-light pancakes in Rosa Parks' handwriting. Of course, the archivist couldn't resist trying it out.

MCALEER: The secret ingredient, by the way, is a third of a cup of peanut butter. Sift together one cup of flour - and I think people should be writing this down - one cup of flour, two tablespoons baking powder, half a teaspoon of salt, two tablespoons of sugar. And then you mix together the wet ingredients - one egg, one-quarter cup of milk, one-third cup of peanut butter, one tablespoon of shortening or oil. Combine with the dry ingredients. Cook at 275 degrees on griddle. They are good, just phenomenally good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.