Behind the Scenes: Inspired by Rosa Parks

The following interview with Luis Clavell, Program Specialist at the Library of Congress, marks the anniversary of December 1st, 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for keeping her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Luis is instrumental in bringing the Rosa Parks collection to the public and serves on a team that manages the collection. Our conversation took place in anticipation of the December 5th opening of the first major exhibition of the Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress, called “In Her Own Words.”

Luis with a photograph of Raymond Parks and his sister Gemica Heard, part of the Visual materials from the Rosa Parks Papers. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2019.

Luis with a photograph of Raymond Parks and his sister Gemica Heard, part of the Visual materials from the Rosa Parks Papers. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2019.

Melissa: Thanks for agreeing to speak with us about your work with the Rosa Parks Collection. Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself and your role with the collection?

Luis: Sure. I’ve been at the Library of Congress for 10 years. Before working here I lectured at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana for eight years. I feel intimately linked to all things connected to the African American experience, and I really enjoy African-centered perspectives on history. Working at the Library, I am blessed to experience primary source materials and really connect on a deeper level to knowledge.

The Library’s stewardship of the Rosa Parks Collection has included cataloging, preservation, and digitization of the manuscripts and photographs. When the collection first arrived in 2014, I organized a public program about Rosa Parks where her Pathways to Freedom colleagues spoke eloquently about their work with youth and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. With the upcoming exhibit, I’m also working on public programs and such activities as inventorying books in Mrs. Parks’s library.

Melissa: I know it’s hard to choose from so many great images from the collection, but are there any that really stand out to you?

Luis: One image – a photograph of a woman surrounded by a windmill landscape and flowers – really stood out. There was nothing on the image itself or its mount that indicated who the woman was. I saw that a little slip of white paper was peeking out from behind the image. I pulled it out and read the caption (probably in Rosa Parks’s own hand!) that identified the woman as Geri Parks, who was the mother-in-law of Mrs. Parks, Raymond Parks’s mother. It is so moving how Mrs. Parks carefully placed that little piece of paper there. I remembered that there was a similarly-styled image of Mrs. Parks’s husband, Raymond, and his sister, which further confirmed the Parks family identification.

Mr. Raymond Parks Mother (Geri Parks). Visual materials from the Rosa Parks papers, 1923. //

Mr. Raymond Parks Mother (Geri Parks). Visual materials from the Rosa Parks papers, 1923. //

Raymond Parks' sister Gemica Heard at age 3 yrs., Raymond A. Parks at age 20 years. Visual materials from the Rosa Parks papers, 1923. //

Raymond Parks’ sister Gemica Heard at age 3 yrs., Raymond A. Parks at age 20 years. , 1923. //

Melissa: Having worked with this collection hands-on, you have some unique insights. Can you tell us in your own words why the collection is significant?

Luis: Mrs. Parks had a lifelong dedication to human rights and her papers, images and personal effects reflect her work in an amazing way. What a thoughtful person she was to consider us in the future and to preserve these things to deepen our knowledge and understanding.

I found her to be an incredible archivist – she saved all things that mattered to her story, which reflected her own interest and appreciation for African American history.

The picture you see below, of Mrs. Parks with her childhood classmate and civil rights leader Johnnie Carr, is actually a copy made on printer paper – I love this one so much. It’s the most alive that I’ve seen Mrs. Parks’s spirit in a photograph. Johnnie Carr got Mrs. Parks involved in the NAACP. In the photo it looks like she can’t get over the moment of sitting next to someone she admired so much. I also love the colors in this copy, as they aren’t what you’d expect – they have a metallic, pastel quality, from whatever chemical reactions are happening between the ultraviolet exposure and the ink. When I look at those flowers –they look like they are a hyper detail and were drawn on later. This photo to me means: women’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is so much more than we have been taught.

Rosa Parks posed with Johnnie Carr. Visual materials from the Rosa Parks papers, between 1980 and 1990. //

Rosa Parks posed with Johnnie Carr. Visual materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, between 1980 and 1990. //

Mrs. Parks (1913-2005) was 42 when she was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, and she had dedicated her life to the struggle for human rights for a long time before that. At 30 years old she became Secretary for her local NAACP chapter in Montgomery. Mrs. Parks and E. D. Nixon surrounded themselves with others who worked for racial justice and created an activist chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery. Rosa and Raymond Parks worked with the NAACP and other black-centered organizations to pursue justice and a truer democracy for all in America. They were not thanked. Instead, they were punished, threatened, and black-balled. They got death threats, unemployment, and poverty as a reward. Amid all of this unimaginable horror, they stayed committed to the struggle for equal rights and justice. It’s time for us to see Mrs. Parks as the lifelong advocate for human rights, workers’ rights, children’s rights, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, and black youth rights that her papers and words show us the evidence of. The collection helps researchers understand her international impact and so much more about her contributions to this country. We don’t often remember Mrs. Parks as a woman who inspired those who fought against apartheid or the various issues of injustices around the globe, but she did.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander. Photo by Ida Berman, 1955. //

Mrs. Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School, Monteagle, Tennessee. Photo by Ida Berman, 1955. // Parks found a mentor in Septima Clark, whom she met at the Highlander Folk School during a workshop on racial desegregation.

Rosa Parks was a seamstress by training, and in her personal papers she literally stitches together the tapestry of the American human rights movement.

Now people will have an opportunity to explore her collection through the exhibit that is opening on December 5th, the anniversary of the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Mrs. Parks ties together the threads from so many aspects of American history – 250 years of slavery, the Civil War, 100 years of Jim Crow, and 50 years of the civil rights movement. That’s four hundred years of global history. In order to move forward I believe we must continue to apply her successes to the many problems that remain today.

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