Brown, WaterFire partner to temporarily move Rosa Parks house to Providence

Photos courtesy of Fabia Mendoza (left) and Lennart Brede (right)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The former home of civil rights leader Rosa Parks has been located in a backyard in Berlin, Germany, which is more than 4,000 miles from its original location in Detroit. But now, if early concepts for its U.S. homecoming continue, it could soon be on display in Providence.

Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) and the team behind WaterFire Arts Providence joined American artist Ryan Mendoza, who owns the home and transported it to Berlin, to look into a potential visit to Providence in spring 2018.

This temporary exhibition would precede the home’s move to a permanent location elsewhere in the U.S.

“Rosa Parks is an iconic American figure,” CSSJ Director B. Anthony Bogues said. “The house in which she lived should be a part of America’s history. And bringing the house to Brown aligns with the University’s commitment to issues of racial justice.”

The early concept for displaying the Rosa Parks house includes it alongside an exhibition on the historic Civil Rights Movement, which would include new works by Mendoza and be located inside WaterFire’s arts center on Valley Street.

The Rosa Parks house used to be a small dilapidated structure that even after restoration by Mendoza needs protection from weather. Bogues said in addition, CCSJ, WaterFire and other partners would create a series of programs to explore questions about race, slavery, memory and monuments in America.

“Given the events of recent years and the ways in which race has appeared in the national discourse, there is an urgent need for conversations around race and the legacies of slavery,” he said. “This return of this house can serve as a symbolic moment for us to begin a national dialog.”

Brown’s role would be to build on the university’s work convening difficult conversations on the legacy of slavery. The CSSJ came to be after the 2006 release of a groundbreaking report commissioned to explore Brown’s relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

“Not only would the return of the Rosa Parks house create a national conversation, but it would continue the tradition of dialog we have established at Brown and contribute to the legacies of Rosa Parks,” Bogues said. “That’s why we’re working to make this happen.”

Mendoza said that a university setting can serve as a “moral thermometer” and the unfettered minds of students will be crucial as the house “goes on trial” before proceeding to its ultimate destination.

“Before the house has a permanent, historicized feel to it, it has to be judged and understood,” Mendoza said. “It’s still a living thing right now, and it’s important that young people have a chance to see it for themselves and judge it before it becomes a historical monument. As soon as it goes into a permanent museum setting, it dies in a way.”

He also said Brown’s work to understand its own ties to history makes the university an ideal landing spot.

“Not to be forgotten is that the fact that the Brown family reaped huge profit from the slave trade. This is part of what makes Brown University such an apt place for a trial setting,” he said.

Brown WaterFire and Mendoza still need to finalize the terms and logistics of the visit. But if all goes forward as planned, Bogues and Mendoza said the house would open for public exhibition in March 2018.

“This house was abandoned and then it was put on a demolition list…” Mendoza said. “Now I love the idea that it’s being championed by Brown University and will return to the U.S. in a triumphant way.”