Citing free speech, Rosa Parks house artist moves on
Providence, R.I. – The artist who turned a house in Detroit where Rosa Parks once lived into an art piece says he’s working to ensure the home is displayed in Rhode Island even after Brown University pulled its support.
Ryan Mendoza says he has a First Amendment right to show the house. The Ivy League institution told a donor who helped pay for the project that it was threatened with legal action by an institute that claims to own the rights to Parks’ name. Brown University officials announced they were canceling the display of the Parks house last week.
Mendoza is working with a local arts group for legal help and to find the money and other support they need to move forward. He said in an interview Sunday he has a right to continue.
“It’s a bit presumptuous on the part of Brown that they would consider themselves as having the possibility of canceling the show. This show cannot be canceled,” Mendoza said in an interview next to the house that has been partially reassembled in an arts center in Providence.
The tiny house was owned by Parks’ brother, and people including relatives, neighbors and others have said she lived there for a time after she fled the south amid death threats for refusing to give up her bus seat. Her brother later lost the home to foreclosure, and the house ended up on a demolition list.
Parks’ niece, Rhea McCauley, bought it for $500 and connected with Mendoza, who had worked with abandoned homes in Detroit. She gave it to Mendoza, who took it apart piece by piece and shipped it to Germany, were he reassembled it in his yard in Berlin.
There, it drew a steady stream of visitors and gained a higher profile. Mendoza eventually said he received requests from multiple venues to bring the house there and selected Brown because in recent years it had publicly grappled with its historical ties to the slave trade.
McCauley told The Detroit News she she wasn’t surprised by the university’s decision and said it missed a big opportunity.
“They’re not the first person to turn Auntie Rosa down, but she didn’t let them stop her,” she said in a phone interview from Boston. “I want her to come back to the United States. She’s not a German hero, but all she got was love over there. She comes back to the United States and all she gets is hate. It’s a shame and a sham.”
Mendoza spent the last few months disassembling the house, sending parts across the Atlantic Ocean by ship and reassembling it at the WaterFire Arts Center, a few miles from Brown’s campus, which the Ivy League university brought in as a venue. There, it was to open to the public next month with free admission.
Plans were in the works for Brown to display a civil rights exhibit alongside the house, with school children visiting and Brown students acting as docents, according to Barnaby Evans, WaterFire’s executive artistic director.
The house was about 80 percent assembled when Brown announced on Thursday that the display was canceled. It cited an unspecified dispute involving the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which Parks co-founded but which has feuded with relatives for years. Officials for the institute, which is located in Detroit didn’t return calls Monday.
A board member for the Wisconsin-based Nash Family Foundation, which donated $45,000 to Brown to be used to pay for the project, said a Brown professor called him last week to tell him the institute sent the university a cease-and-desist order. Member Jim Nash said he was told it was “based on their view that they owned the rights to the Rosa Parks name because of something that Rosa Parks evidently signed in her dotage,” Nash said.
“He said, this is a quote, ‘We have no choice but to sever our relationship here.’ To which I said, ‘Of course you have a choice. Rosa Parks had a choice. She chose not to give up her seat and faced huge risks for doing so. You had a choice, and you made the wrong choice,’” Nash said.
He called it a “betrayal” by Brown and said he is pursuing his legal options because the house was never displayed.
A Brown spokesman refused to discuss the nature of the dispute, saying it was not a party to it.
“It is out of deep respect for the legacy of Rosa Parks and what it represents for America that the University feels it cannot responsibly move forward with the exhibit of the house, previously set to open April 3,” officials said last week in a statement.
They also said the university will immediately begin repackaging the house and arranging to ship it to its next destination, to be determined by Mr. Mendoza.
Detroit News writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.
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