Erica Winkler: Beyond 4 Walls -- The Rosa Parks House, Relocated to Berlin

Rosa Parks home in Berlin (Photo: Fabia Mendoza)

The author is a writer, reporting assistant and culinary enthusiast. She lives in Asia and travels regularly to post at winkofaneye.meThis is her first Deadline Detroit contribution.

By Erica E. Winkler

As a young African American woman married to a German man, living abroad in Asia, with a father from Detroit who attended Morehouse College in the 1960s and met MLK through a friend, and with parents that grew up in the south in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, I found the preservation of Rosa Parks' house an essential part of building the future.

Erica Winkler: "The walls speak and show their strength.."

I came to Berlin to meet artists, Ryan and Fabia Mendoza, unsure what to expect, what I would find and what the intentions were behind this project. I wondered why no one else was interested the home, why it wasn't kept in Detroit and why a couple of artists would be interested in disassembling and reassembling the home in Berlin?

The house of African American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, is now in the hands of a Caucasian American artist living in Berlin. The house was disassembled from Detroit and recently reassembled in Berlin.

I'm keenly aware that this might ruffle a few people. But if you look past skin color and see humanity, you'll see the truth of this story.

I went to Berlin unsure what to expect, what I'd find and what the underlining intentions of the project were. I went boldly and I didn't leave disappointed. 

History That Cannot Be Shaken

Glints of light stream through the wooden planks and radiate incandescent light from the windows. Warm, inviting and intriguing, this house woos you to its door.

Through the walls, it speaks to you. It tells you of a history that cannot be shaken, although it has been ignored.

It tells of the story of one woman, whose simple act of peacefully refusing to give up her seat on Dec. 1, 1955, led to a 15-month boycott of Birmingham city buses. It tells the story of how this house became a refuge for her and her relatives in a new city where the pursuit for peace was a passionate mission.

You hear the stories that have been forgotten by a past generation and left untold or undervalued to the next generation. Although hollow, the house echoes the cries of justice and does not forsake its original intent of being a refuge.This is the Rosa Parks House.

Empty and abandoned, the house at 2672 S. Deacon St. in Southwest Detroit stood unoccupied for years. Still it spoke, but no one heard it. Still it stood proud, but no one saw it.

Division and Reunification

Until one day the house was added to the demolition list and its destruction was imminent -- that is until Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley sought the help of two artists in Berlin, Ryan and Fabia Mendoza, who were already involved in using their art as a platform to advocate social justice in the city of Detroit. (Ryan is American-born.)

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted (Wikimedia Commons)

The plan was simple: To persevere and promote the house and the legacy of “the mother of the Civil Rights movement" in America. The proposal: To disassemble the house piece by piece and bring it to Berlin, the home of the Mendoza’s and also the home of a nation which has witnessed a history of division and reunification.

But why Parks? Considering that there are several other notable women who were pioneers in the Civil Rights movement including the predecessor to Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old African American woman who refused to give up her seat nine months earlier on March 2, 1955. Although Colvin was one of the plaintiffs in the ‘Browder v. Gayle’ case, that eventually ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional, she was not chosen by the NAACP to challenge the segregation laws. Their decision not to choose her was supposedly because of her young age and her pregnancy out of wedlock.

With Parks’ husband Raymond, a NAACP member, she was chosen as the forerunner of this movement. Although she was considered a leader, her life in the South did not get easier. Parks and her husband experienced many hardships, including death threats and job loss.

Tirelessly and Tenderly

Through the pleas of her brother and sister-in-law, Parks, her husband and her mother moved to Detroit. Although the communities of Detroit were still very much segregated and unequal, this house became the focal point of establishing a new life in Detroit and actively campaigning for civil rights in Detroit and throughout the country.

Ryan Mendoza (Deadline Detroit photo)

With McCauly’s approval to preserve and relocate the house, it was disassembled by Mendoza and a small team that worked tirelessly and tenderly to preserve this historical home.

The house was shipped from Detroit to Berlin for re-assembly.

Unlike building a new home, this rebuilding process was one involving careful calculation, like assembling a million-piece puzzle: Gently and purposefully matching the planks of the house and completely recreating the weathered and rotted back of the house. The project was completed at the end of March.

Now, sheer beige curtains coat the windows and warm lamps beam rays of light from the home. There is no furniture and no family inside, but the purpose is not to go inside. It is a home, a home that belonged to Parks and a home with a legacy that lives on. It tells a story of the past and gives a warning for the future. The walls speak and show their strength. They remind us that justice is not reserved for some, but for all and that love covers a multitude of faults.

► More information on the Rosa Parks House is here. Gallery weekend showing: Friday, April 28, 6-10 p.m.; Saturday, April 29-30, 2-10 p.m. Breanna 'Breezy' Caprice, a rapper who helped dismantle the Detroit house, performs in front of the Berlin site April 29. 

Related post:

Rosa Parks' Home in Detroit Home Comes Alive in April Exhibit in Berlin, March 16

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