A Sense of Purpose: Organizing the Rosa Parks Collection

(The following is a guest post written by Meg McAleer, senior archives specialist in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.)

Archivists have wonderful jobs. Four colleagues – Kimberly Owens, Tammi Taylor, Tracey Barton and Sherralyn McCoy – and I shared nods of understanding, delight and awe often during the last two months of 2014 as we organized and described the papers of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, and in the process launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a new phase of the civil rights movement. Working through the holiday season, we were fueled in equal parts by excitement and a strong sense of responsibility to get it right for the sake of her legacy and the scholars, young and old, who would be using the collection.

Parks_pancake recipe

Parks’ recipe for “featherlite” pancakes

The collection contains correspondence, family papers, writings, notes, honors and tributes, financial records, books, and, among other material, an item that entices by its very name – a recipe for “featherlite” pancakes. All told, the manuscript portion of the collection comprises roughly 7,500 items that provide rich insights into Parks’ private life and public activism on behalf of civil rights. An additional 2,500 photographs are preserved in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. From the perspective of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, this is a fairly small collection. Our largest collection, the records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), contains more than 3 million items.The Rosa Parks collection encompasses the most personal of personal papers. The majority of collections we receive consist largely of office files that come to us fairly well organized, having been maintained by office staff. Some collections, however, also contain far more personal papers that are typically stored in homes (as were the Parks papers). There they are stashed in drawers, stuffed in desks and corralled into boxes relegated to attics and basements. Over the years they are taken out, reexamined and reassembled. Idiosyncratic in nature, they are fragmentary rather than comprehensive but very revealing about the private person who also played prominent public roles. Personal papers help us make sense of the public person, understanding their actions, reactions, thoughts and motivations a little more clearly. In one of her autobiographical writings available in the collection, Parks asked herself: “Is it worthwhile to reveal the intimacies of the past life? Would the people be sympathetic or disillusioned when the facts of my life are told? Would they be interested or indifferent?” Hardly making us indifferent, Parks’ collection breathes life into an icon in ways that truly inspire.

Personal papers stored in homes also tend to be poorly organized, as were Parks’. Her papers came to us with a partial item-level inventory prepared by an auction house. The inventory gave us a good sense of what was in the collection, but item-level description is no substitute for an organization that brings like material together in a logical order. Only when logically arranged and sequenced is a collection able to tell a coherent story. It is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. Individual pieces hint at what is being depicted but only when they are assembled does the picture fully emerge. As an archivist, I know that my arrangement decisions are good ones if the collection’s narrative voice is released. The voice emanating from Parks’ fragmentary writings in the collection is strong, courageous, clear-eyed, grounded in core ethical beliefs and not immune to pain when describing the daily humiliations of racial segregation. That same voice is loving, compassionate and nonjudgmental in the relationships that mattered the most to her.

Cover of Parks' date book

Cover of Parks’ date book

In letters to her husband Raymond Parks in 1957-1958, she shared intimately the heavy toll her protest took on their personal lives. Both Rosa and Raymond Parks lost their jobs in 1956 following her arrest, pushing them over the edge into deep poverty. Another set of records – their income tax returns – reveals how deep and prolonged their descent was.

The collection’s lack of a coherent order actually heightened the thrill of discovery. I found myself opening each container with eager anticipation. Mixed in with material from the 1990s, I found a 1955 date book from the Montgomery Fair department store where Parks worked as an assistant tailor. Opening it, I discovered that Parks had repurposed it as a notebook during the bus boycott in 1956. It brought me closer to those events as I read the names of people who bravely volunteered to drive Montgomery’s African Americans to their jobs.

Inside page of date book

Inside page of date book

All of us who worked on this collection were deeply inspired by a life lived so completely aligned with principles. To an extent, we felt like the scores of people who wrote to Parks and struggled to express their gratitude for her lifelong crusade for equal rights. For myself, I think I came to admire her most as a writer and for the power of her words. The collection contains bits and scraps of her writings and notes for speeches, created in or around 1956, in which she described what happened that fateful evening of Dec. 1, 1955, and the subsequent unfolding of the bus boycott. In none of her accounts does she portray herself as a lone heroine. Parks worked hard to place her arrest in the broader context of Jim Crow racial segregation and discrimination. She framed her decision to remain seated as one among many incidents of black protest. In other words, what happened on that bus was not a one-off event. “Treading the tight-rope of Jim Crow from birth to death,” she wanted us to understand, always involved, “… a line of some kind – color line hanging noose rope tight rope.” Her words beat at our national conscience.

The collection is now arranged and described in a written guide that lays out its organization and describes its content. Available in the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room, the Rosa Parks collection enters a new, dynamic phase of its life, engaging researchers in a dialogue that will leave few indifferent.

This post is part of a short series celebrating Rosa Parks and her collection on temporary loan at the Library of Congress. You can read the first post in the series here

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