Rosa Parks was a history maker, yet the belongings she left behind, including her Presidential Medal of Freedom, are gathering dust in a New York warehouse, unsold and unarchived.
Her possessions are said to be worth millions, especially as the 50th anniversaries of various civil rights era milestones are being celebrated. (NBC News estimates it at $10 million.) They would also be an important addition to the new Smithsonian museum of African-American history.
The situation is the result of a years-long legal fight between Parks’ heirs and her friends (similar to the current court battle between Martin Luther King Jr.’s heirs). A judge ordered her belongings seized from her home in Detroit and offered up to the highest bidder.
This battle over Parks memorabilia has kept everyone — even historians — from items including her photographs with presidents, her Congressional Gold Medal, a pillbox hat that she is believed to have worn on the Montgomery bus on which she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, a signed postcard from Dr. King, documents from civil rights meetings, and her thoughts about life in the South as a black woman.
It was Parks’ wish for people to see her mementos and learn from her journey, said Elaine Steele, a longtime friend who heads the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, a Detroit foundation co-founded by Parks in 1987.
“In my opinion, it was quite clear what she wanted,” Steele said.
According to Steele’s lawyer, Steven Cohen, Parks’ heirs and the institute could reach an agreement “if we could close out the estate and get away from” the probate court.
“It will happen,” Cohen said. “But right now we’re hamstrung, because the probate court continues to want to monitor and control our activities. And it shouldn’t.”
In her will, Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92, stipulated that the institute bearing her name be given her personal correspondence, her papers relating to her work for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, tributes from presidents and world leaders, school books, family Bibles, clothing and furniture. But her nieces and nephews challenged the will, which led to a court seizing the valuables and a judge ordering it sold in one lump sale.
And since 2006, Guernsey’s Auctioneers has been waiting for someone to offer a bid of $8 million to $10 million. “By comparison, the city of Atlanta paid $32 million to King’s children for his papers, and the Henry Ford Museum paid $492,000 just for the bus aboard which Parks took her 1955 stand for civil rights,” reports The Grio.