You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

The Unfortunate Story of the Years-Long Battle Over Rosa Parks’ Belongings Finally Resolved (Film Material?)

The Unfortunate Story of the Years-Long Battle Over Rosa Parks' Belongings Finally Resolved (Film Material?)

For filmmakers (writers, directors, producers, etc), there are many films to be made of this specific story we’ve seen play out repeatedly, year after year: deceased prominent public personality whose belongings (and in some cases, whose corpse) are at the center of a years-long legal fight between said person’s heirs (and in some cases heirs and friends of the person). And maybe said belongings include memorabilia of historical significance that the general public today would greatly benefit from, even if only educationally. 

It’s a premise that’s we’ve seen unfold in real life a number of times, sadly – more than I’d like to count. And I was reminded of it again today, as I was reading remembrances of Rosa Parks’ December 1, 1955 arrestin Montgomery for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Today marks the 60th anniversary of that incident.

In summary…

A year ago, there was a battle over Parks’ belongings – a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia, said to be worth millions of dollars, and all of which sat in a New York warehouse, unseen.

The battle was between Parks’ heirs and Parks’ friends – a dispute that had been in the courts for years apparently, and, sadly, as I noted, was just one of a handful of similar cases with deceased prominent public figures (in this case, African Americans) at the center. The legal fight over Parks’ valuable belongings resembles that for another Civil Rights icon’s estate, Martin Luther King Jr., whose heirs (his children) have long been divided with regards to his legacy. And because of their squabbling, a judge ordered some of the prized items being fought over to be held in a safe deposit box controlled by the court, until the siblings reach an agreement.

The battle over Parks’ memorabilia led to the government’s involvement, which resulted in them removing her belongings from her home city of Detroit and, sadly, putting the entire estate up for sale to the highest bidder.

But, incredibly (and this could be an intriguing twist to your script), no bidders initially emerged! And so all her belongings (items of historical relevance and more) taken from her home city, sat in a warehouse for a long time, unseen and unsold – for example, photographs with presidents, her Congressional Gold Medal, a pillbox hat that she may have worn on the Montgomery bus, a signed postcard from MLK, decades of documents from civil rights meetings she attended, her written ruminations about life in the South as a black woman, tributes from presidents and world leaders, school books, family Bibles, clothing, furniture and more.

Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92, stipulated in her will that her estate (via an institute that bears her name) receive the bulk of her belongings. However, her nieces and nephews challenged her will (I didn’t even know that was legally possible; I figured, a will is a will, and it should be honored no matter what), and, surprisingly, her assets were then seized by the courts, and a judge ordered all the items sold in one lump sale.

But, no bidders! Again, it took some time before a sale finally happened – as in years, which I was dumbfounded by.

Guernsey’s Auctioneers had kept Parks’ valuables in a New York warehouse since 2006, when a stalemate between heirs and the estate was reached. The asking offer for the items was $8 million to $10 million. But apparently no one was willing to pay that much. To compare, 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 on which Parks took her 1955 stand for civil rights.

I was amazed that no museum has bid on the items. And maybe even more surprising, no African American with the financial means to afford the $8 to $10 million for the estate items (and there are many of us with the funds) had stepped up to meet the asking price. Or maybe a collective of African Americans with the financial means – it doesn’t have to be a single person’s financial *burden.* These are items that should be housed in some public facility (like a museum or university) so that the general public can appreciate them – especially ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott this next year.

Thankfully, on what would have been Parks’ 102 birthday earlier this year, 7,500 manuscripts, 2,500 photographs and other artifacts from Parks’ estate became available to researchers for the first time at the Library of Congress. The library is housing them on a 10-year-loan from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation who would eventually purchase the collection for $4.5 million last year (obviously about half the initial asking price). A portion of the artifacts are available to the public in the library’s Jefferson Building and several items also appear in the library’s civil rights exhibit.

According to Steven G. Cohen, who represents the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute, the family dispute has been settled, stating: “I’m sure I speak for everyone involved: they’re thrilled with the disposition of the artifacts and the use made by them.” 

I think I speak for everyone else that we are also thrilled.

There’s probably an “inspired by” film to be made of all this… or of all the similar family estate feuds that have unfolded publicly, where black people are concerned.

The above photo is just one of the 2500 photographs that now sit with the Library of Congress.

I should mention the 2002 film, “The Rosa Parks Story,” which was made for television, written by Paris Qualles, directed by Julie Dash, and starring Angela Bassett as Parks, and Cicely Tyson a supporting role as her mother. It aired on CBS on February 24, 2002.

For the 55th Annual Directors Guild Awards, Julie Dash was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, making her the first African American woman nominated in that category of “Primetime Movies Made for Television.”

This Article is related to: Features and tagged