This is part of our series of places where Black History happened
All Rosa Parks wanted to do was go home on that cold Montgomery day, or did she have an ulterior motive?
On December 1, 1955, after a day’s work as a seamstress, the 42-year-old Parks took bus #2857 home from her department store job on Cleveland Avenue. She sat in the fifth row of the bus, the beginning of the “colored section”. Next to her sat a black man and in the row across from her two black women. It was on the third stop, in front of the Empire Theater on Montgomery Street, that Parks and the three other black riders were asked by driver James Blake to move from their seats because there were only two available in the white section of the bus and a group of white people were boarding. The other three eventually complied, but Parks refused to give up her seat.
The bus stops here. Rosa Parks, stood up by sitting down
Some stories claim she refused because of being tired from working all day. Other accounts say this was part of a planned boycott by Parks, who was involved in the NAACP and they were planning to protest Montgomery’s racist bus laws. James Blake, who Parks encountered on a bus 12 years earlier, threatened to have Parks arrested if she didn’t move. She didn’t, so he did.
In an interview with Scholastic, Parks recounted what ensued. The police boarded the bus within minutes asking why she didn’t stand up. Parks didn’t think she should, asking the officer, “Why do you push us around?” He didn’t know, he was trying to uphold the law. She then stood up, the three of them left the bus, with each officer holding her purse and a shopping bag. They escorted her to their squad car, gave back her belongings and opened the back door to the car. Parks was fined $10 plus $4 in court fees.
Four days later, a 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, claiming that 77 percent of all Montgomery bus riders were African-American. It lasted for 381 days and brought the bus company to its knees financially and went a long way to changing their policy.
Rosa Parks’ house in Detroit, which she moved to after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was shipped to Berlin and reassembled in 2016. It’s now on its way back to the U.S. The house will be on exhibit in Providence, Rhode Island from March to May.
Rosa Parks wasn’t the first to test Montgomery’s bus system. Nearly nine months prior, on March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was taking the bus home from school when the bus driver ordered her to move to the back so that a white person could have her seat. She told the driver that she had paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right to not give up her seat. She was then arrested by two police officers. Colvin was the first to challenge the law in court, being one of four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle. The court case successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and throughout Alabama.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE BUS?
After the bus was retired in the early 1970s, it was purchased by Roy Summerford of Montgomery, who kept it in a field using it for tool storage. There was no proof this was the bus Rosa Parks was on, but Summerford was told it was. After his death, the bus was bequeathed to his daughter and son-in-law. An online auction house wanted to auction the bus off and went on a quest for authentication. They tracked down the family of Charles Cummings, a local bus station manager who kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the bus boycott. One of them about Parks’ arrest had “Blake/#2857” written on it, the name of the driver and bus number.
On October 25, 2001, the bus went up for auction. At 2.00 a.m. on October 26th, the Rosa Parks bus was was sold to The Henry Ford Museum for $492,000. After methodically examining the bus, which lay unprotected for 30 years in a field, the museum and MSX International, a Michigan-based automotive engineering firm, took on this restoration project. The cost was over $300,000
After nearly two years of finding original material and parts, bus #2857 was fully restored, returning the 1948 General Motors bus to its 1955 condition. It’s been on exhibit at The Henry Ford Museum since February 1, 2003.