1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why Rosa Parks' house now stands in Berlin

Gero Schließ eg
April 7, 2017

The city of Detroit wanted to destroy the former house of Rosa Parks, "the first lady of civil rights." Her family didn't allow that to happen. It was moved to Berlin, to the garden of artist Ryan Mendoza.

Rosa Parks' house in Berlin
Image: DW/G. Schließ

The house looks like hundreds of thousands of others in the American suburbs: two stories high, two windows wide, made of simple wood. But this is not an ordinary house. It used to be the home of Rosa Parks, the icon of civil rights in the US.

Her house could have disappeared, along with a lot of 8,000 houses in Detroit set to be demolished. Nothing would have been left of this testimony to the life of the woman who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. It was a fundamental moment in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

"At the end of the 1950s, this house meant family and peace for her," her niece, Rhea McCauley, told DW. After receiving death threats, Rosa Parks had fled to the north of the country, like thousands of other African-Americans, and found shelter in Detroit with her younger brother. She lived there from 1957-1959, together with her brother's 15-member family. She survived on sewing jobs and a little financial support from the parish.

artist Ryan Mendoza in front of Rosa Parks House in Berlin
The New York artist Ryan Mendoza rebuilt Rosa Parks' house in his gardenImage: DW/G. Schließ

Vain rescue attempts for the Rosa Parks House

When Rosa Parks' niece learned that the city of Detroit wanted to demolish the house of her famous aunt, she asked artist Ryan Mendoza, who happened to be in Detroit for an art project, to help. McCauley managed to buy it from the city for $500, but didn't know what to do with it next. Mendoza, who has his studio in Berlin, turned to the mayor of Detroit to try to prevent the imminent demolition of the house - in vain. "The mayor was aware that Rosa Parks had lived here, but he was not interested in it."

After further unsuccessful attempts to save the house, Mendoza and Rosa Parks' family decided to dismantle the house in Detroit and rebuild it in Berlin. That turned into a months-long and arduous project for Mendoza and his assistants. It was also expensive.

For Mendoza, the way the US has treated this house demonstrates its disrespect for civil rights.

Deutschland Haus von Rosa Parks in Berlin
Rhea McCauley (center) with her son Eric and daughter-in-law Shareece Image: DW/G. Schließ

An accusation out of wood in Berlin

Now the house stands in Ryan Mendoza's garden, right next to his studio. "Two days ago, a woman came and asked: Where is the art?" he said. "But that's it. I did not want to change much." The house stands for itself, like an accusation made of wood. "The Rosa Parks house should actually be a national monument and not a demolition project," the artist born in New York said, outraged.

It looks like a foreign body amidst the workers' apartments lining up in the Berlin district of Wedding. But at least it has found asylum. And Rosa Parks, if you will, has become a Berliner - at least temporarily, until the Americans review their position.

Former house of Rosa Parks in Berlin
The view to the interior remains concealedImage: DW/G. Schließ

When Rhea McCauley bought the house, it was full of garbage, stinking. The trash stayed in Detroit. Its broken windows were replaced. Curtains have been added to the windows and the door remains closed for now.

"The house was so badly injured and abused, I want to give it back its dignity," said Mendoza. The artist has created a sound installation for the house, which includes a telephone interview that Rosa Parks gave to a radio station, a talk that was recorded in this house.

Memories of Aunt Rosa

Ryan Mendoza's art often focuses on houses. He recently built an American wooden house in Rotterdam, which he calls his "White House."

For another work, he painted the names of the presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, onto two houses in a poor district of Detroit, and invited them to spend time there to observe the country's reality from another perspective. But they both politely declined the offer.

Houses are connected with childhood memories, said Mendoza about his fascination for them.

Rosa Parks
Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2001, four years before her deathImage: AP

The Rosa Parks House evoked memories for Rhea McCauley as well, as she flew in to Berlin for the public opening of the house with Ryan Mendoza. She could still hear the voice of her mother, see her father weeding the garden and remember the smell of the food there, she said.

She also remembered her aunt Rosa, who was very awe-inspiring. "When she looked at you, you felt soooo small," she said, showing a little space between her thumb and her pointer finger. Rosa Parks had been a strong woman. She had seen her aunt cry only three times in her life: in church, after the assassination of Martin Luther King and when she learned of her dementia.

Rhea McCauley hopes that the US will eventually "grow up" and appreciate the legacy of her aunt. Then the house could be sent back home - where it actually belongs.