Reflections On The Rosa Parks Bus

When planning a day at the Henry Ford Museum, there was one thing I really wanted to do. I wanted to have a few uninterrupted minutes on the Rosa Parks bus.

To make this wish a reality, I was there when they opened and then headed straight for this exhibit.

For the benefit of my international friends, Rosa Parks was a pioneer in the American Civil Rights movement. In 1955, when segregation ruled the American south, she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. The police were called and this mild mannered African American seamstress was led off to jail.

She became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for over a year and forced the desegregation of the city’s buses.

The Henry Ford Museum confirmed the authenticity of the bus and outbid some major players (including the Smithsonian) to the tune of $492,000. However, after sitting outside for about thirty years, the bus required a massive restoration project that cost another $300,000. As you can tell, they really wanted to preserve this piece of history.

And honestly, they did a great job.

Sitting there, I kept thinking it could be 1955 just as easily as it was 2019. The bus is immaculate but it’s not just a museum piece. You are welcomed aboard and invited to sit a while. You can even sit in her seat.

The docent was good at his job, answering my questions and relating the story for me. He even took my picture.

However, he also gave me time to sit quietly and absorb the magnitude of this space and of the actions of one woman, who on that one day, said enough is enough. History was made with that split second decision, made under the glare of a white driver who was known for being unfriendly to his black passengers on a good day.

A hastily organized boycott crippled the city bus system and forced changes into law. She wasn’t seeking fame or money or publicity of any kind. She didn’t appreciate the attention she received but later said she was just tired of giving in.

With all that is happening in our country today and with leaders who seem to encourage the divide between races, there was something reassuring about sitting in her seat. It was a great reminder that a 42 year old seamstress could start a revolution because she was tired of giving in.

The moment felt both sacred and peaceful.

I had that bus all to myself for several minutes before anyone else arrived and I was grateful for every passing second. Still, it was gratifying to walk by later in the day to find the bus full of a diverse group of people who wanted to have the experience too.

The bus is part of a larger exhibit that covers segregation and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time the museum bought the bus, they also acquired a scrapbook containing a number of news clippings you can read. There are some interactive features here and some truly disturbing things including a flier for a cross burning that sounds like an invitation to a Sunday school picnic rather than a hate rally.

I felt sorrow that our country hasn’t advanced more than it has and I felt gratitude for the progress we have made, even knowing there are plenty of people who would look at such hateful materials and think they’re ok.

If you find your way to the Henry Ford Museum, make time for this exhibit. Read the materials, watch the videos, listen to the songs and think about what it all means.

Sixty-five years ago sounds like a long time but it isn’t that long at all. We have plenty of people living in this country today who remember all too well not being allowed to eat in a restaurant, drink from a water fountain or use a waiting room because of the color of their skin.

After Rosa Parks stood up for her beliefs by sitting down, close to another decade passed before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law changing all of that for good.

But while the law guarantees equality, racial divide is still far too great in this country. I’m as white as can be and I do not take responsibility for things that happened before me but I do think it’s my right and duty to contribute something positive to the world I live in now. I can’t change the past but I can help change the future by showing kindness and empathy and by celebrating our similarities rather than complain about the differences.

The last words today go to Rosa herself.

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.”

Road Trip to the Henry Ford Museum

My last road trip of the year took me to Detroit to visit the Henry Ford Museum. This museum of innovation features all sorts of things I love – artifacts from history, cars, planes, trains, machinery, furniture, dollhouses…. the list goes on and on.

This was not my favorite road trip but this museum is incredible, making it all worthwhile. I’m going to tell you about a few special exhibits in the coming days but for today I’ll leave you with a handful of pictures.

That last picture is of a train snow plow from Canada. That’s right friends – this museum is so big it has a set of railroad tracks to accommodate a collection of trains. Not to mention the airplanes hanging from the ceiling and the acres of other cool stuff at ground level.

Check back tomorrow. There are stories to tell.

At Home with the Frick Family

Imagine being so wealthy that your child’s playhouse is a full size home with a bowling alley addition.

When you buy a Rolls Royce, you have your monogram added to the door. You buy one, not just for yourself, but for your wife and daughter at the same time.

Your art collection is museum worthy and your homes are decadently furnished with the most expensive decor of the day.

As a contemporary of industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, you dabble in manufacturing and financing and build an empire the envy of businessmen everywhere.

This is the story of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick. His family’s story is fascinating and it’s told every day thanks to the forethought, planning and generosity of his daughter Helen who saw to it that the family’s Pittsburgh home and art collection would be accessible to all.

Today, it’s simply known as The Frick. You can walk the grounds, enjoy the hot house flowers, marvel over their car collection and be inspired by their art collection for free. For just a few dollars you can tour the family home as well as whatever special exhibition they have at the time.

When I was there, it was decorated for the holidays and the docent related stories of how the family celebrated Christmas as well as stories of their everyday life.

They also had the traveling Katherine Hepburn exhibition for which there is an additional fee.

I benefited from the generosity of my friend Nichola who purchased a membership for her family, gaining me free access to everything.

If I lived in a city like Pittsburgh, I would have memberships to the Frick and many of the museums I love. Alas, I live in the sticks where museums are rare.

If you go, allow plenty of time to enjoy everything. House tours sell out pretty quickly so it’s best to arrive early to schedule your tour. There’s plenty to do including a cafe and gift shop. However, we had lunch in nearby Shadyside which I wrote about earlier this week. Check it out!

I’ll soon tell you more about the Katherine Hepburn exhibit as well as my friend’s happy place – the Phipps. Come back tomorrow for more!

Aboard the USS Requin

USS Requiem

Walking aboard the USS Requin is a little like stepping into another time and place. It’s now a part of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh but was once a very active submarine and home to eighty men at a time.

Commissioned in 1945, she entered service just days after the war ended and remained in service until the early seventies. Today she’s a floating museum and was manned by a very informative veteran the day I visited last year. He gave us a nice tour and overview of life aboard a submarine. If my memory is correct – he had served on a similar ship but not this specific one.

To say that the quarters are tight is an understatement. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t fare well in the Navy. My goodness, everything is so small! I can’t imagine sharing this space with ten people that I know well – much less 79 shipmates. But that’s exactly what went on here for more than 25 years.

You get a glimpse of life in the kitchen, in the captain’s quarters and in the life of the sailors who kept the ship running for each mission.

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It made me appreciate our nation’s veterans more than ever. Those active duty men and women who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way every single day deserve better than our nation and our people give them.

After leaving the submarine, I felt bad that I didn’t have more questions for our host but, frankly, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere and the close quarters. I was in awe of anyone who could live under the sea in this tin can for weeks and months at a time. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t imagine volunteering to serve here or in any number of dangerous and uncomfortable places that our nation’s military go everyday. Worse yet, I also can’t remember if I thought to thank him for his service to our country.

If you are a veteran, please know that I am grateful for your service. Thank you.

And if you talk to a veteran today, be sure to say thanks.

Want to touch a piece of military history? Click here to visit the USS Requin.

 

 

Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters

Saturday around Winchester (127)

Winchester, Virginia is a thriving city today but it was once ravaged by war as control over the town was hotly contested between the North and South. There are a lot of reasons why everyone wanted control of this city and region around it. I won’t bore you with all those details but will mention this – the railroad and the surrounding farmland made Winchester important to both sides.

While southern states farmed, they focused on cotton and tobacco – crops that you cannot eat. But the rich, fertile lands of the Shenandoah Valley were ripe for growing crops, making Winchester the bread basket of the Confederacy.

Historians say that control over Winchester changed at least 72 times, possibly 73. Thirteen times in a single day. When residents woke up each morning, they had to look outside to see which flag was flying to know who was running the show that day.

This makes the area an excellent source for learning about the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression or whatever you like to call it. There are historic markers all over the region and lots of museums.

If you choose to visit, there is no shortage of places to help sharpen your understanding of the war. This is such an important topic these days as we continue to grapple with vital issues like racism and the controversy over celebrating Confederate leaders in communities across our nation.

It’s hard to believe that 154 years after the Civil War ended we haven’t advanced a little further than we have today.

But I digress.

Old Town Winchester is home to the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum and there are many more important sites across the region. 

I most appreciated my visit to Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters, high atop a hill overlooking the city. Here, my tour guide (I think her name was Reva) was a retired history teacher who spoke of Stonewall Jackson as an old friend and of the history of Winchester as though she lived it.

If only we all could be so lucky to have a history teacher like this woman. 

She told us about the house, constructed in 1854 and occupied by Jackson during the winter of 1861-62. At the time, it was owned by Lewis T. Moore who had previously served in the military with Jackson. He was in the process of boarding up his gorgeous home to seek medical treatment out of town when he learned that Jackson needed a quiet place to set up his office. He had been working out of a hotel in what is now Old Town Winchester (it’s now a restaurant) and faced constant interruptions in this high traffic area.

So Moore offered the use of his home, believing it better occupied by Jackson than left empty and vulnerable. Jackson sent for his wife who joined him for the remainder of his stay in town and who remembered that winter as being one of the most romantic times of their marriage.

You can tour the home. It’s furnished with antiques – some original to the region but not to the house. However, there are a number of pieces original to the home and to Jackson himself. They have his desk and his personal prayer book which Jackson carried everywhere. Sometimes he rode with it in his hands, not to read, but simply for comfort. You can almost imagine him sitting in his office, wrestling with decisions that might cost lives if he chose wrong.

You cannot take pictures inside the house but they do sell postcards featuring some of the more important rooms.

Reva did a commendable job telling the human side of the house and the people who occupied it. She spoke of Jackson as a very humble, pious man. She talked about the difficulties of cooking over fire and how skilled a cook must be to prepare a large meal using cast iron and wood heat. She pointed out that this house was warmed by forced air heat and explained how such as system worked in 1861. We learned about the personal heartache and loss that endured by Jackson during his brief 39 years on this earth.

We also learned that Mr. Moore had a descendant, an elderly woman who used her wealth to help the museum during her later years. That woman was the actress Mary Tyler Moore, a fact I found terribly cool having grown up watching reruns of her shows on television.

I often think that people don’t like history because there’s too much focus on memorizing facts and dates and not enough emphasis on the people and their stories.

Reva’s tour beautifully illustrated how to relate history to a modern audience and how to give new life to the past.

Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters is available for tours April through October and they would welcome you as a guest. It’s a bargain at just $5 for a guided tour and a must-see if you’re in town. 

Check back tomorrow for more from my road trip adventure!