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Rosa Parks archives remain unsold in warehouse


NEW YORK — At a time when interest in civil rights memorabilia is rekindled, a lifetime’s worth of Rosa Parks’s belongings — among them her Presidential Medal of Freedom — sits in a New York warehouse, unseen and unsold.

Parks’s archives could be worth millions, especially now that 50th anniversaries of the civil rights era are being celebrated and the hunt is on for artifacts to fill a new Smithsonian museum of African-American history.

But a legal fight between Parks’s heirs and her friends — a dispute similar to the court battle between Martin Luther King Jr.’s heirs — led to the memorabilia’s being taken away from her home city of Detroit and offered up to the highest bidder. So far, no high bidder has emerged.


Parks is one of the most beloved women in American history. She became an enduring symbol of the civil rights movement when she refused to cede her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man. Her arrest triggered a yearlong bus boycott that helped to dismantle officially sanctioned segregation — and lift King to national prominence.

But because of the legal fight, historians, students of the movement, and the general public have had no access to Parks’s photographs with presidents, her Congressional Gold Medal, a pillbox hat that she may have worn on the Montgomery bus, a signed postcard from King, and decades of documents from civil rights meetings.

Parks wanted people to see her mementos and learn from her life, said Elaine Steele, a longtime friend who heads the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, a foundation Parks cofounded in Detroit in 1987.

‘‘In my opinion, it was quite clear what she wanted,’’ Steele said.

Parks' Presidential Medal of Freedom (left) and her Congressional Gold Medal will be offered up to the highest bidder.
Parks' Presidential Medal of Freedom (left) and her Congressional Gold Medal will be offered up to the highest bidder.Richard Drew/Associated Press

Steele’s lawyer, Steven Cohen, said Parks’s heirs and the institute certainly could come to agreement on sending the artifacts to an appropriate institution ‘‘if we could close out the estate and get away from’’ the probate court. He said he hopes to resolve the matter in six months to a year.


Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92, stipulated in her will that the institute bearing her name receive a trove of personal correspondence, papers relating to her work for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, tributes from presidents and world leaders, school books, family Bibles, clothing, and furniture. Her nieces and nephews challenged her will, and her archives were seized by a court. A judge ordered them sold in one lump sale.

Since 2006, Guernsey’s Auctioneers have kept Parks’s valuables in a New York warehouse, waiting for someone to offer the $8 million to $10 million asking price.

Rex Ellis, associate director of Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, thinks Parks’s archives should be in a museum or research facility. Ellis would not say whether Smithsonian officials are interested in buying it, just that they would ‘‘love for these items to be a part of the museum,’’ due to open next year.