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Rosa Parks: How It all Started

 

Rosa Parks & Jim Haskins

(Excerpt from the book 'Rosa Parks: My Story')

 One evening in early December 1955 I was sitting in the front seat of the colored section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The white people were sitting in the white section. More white people got on, and they filled up all the seats in the white section. When that happened, we black people were supposed to give up our seats to the whites. But I didn't move. The white driver said, "Let me have those front seats." I didn't get up. I was tired of giving in to white people.

    rosa parks

"I'm going to have you arrested," the driver said.
"You may do that," I answered.
Two white policemen came. I asked one of them, "Why do you all push us around."
He answered, "I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest."

For half of my life there were laws and customs in the South that kept African Americans segregated from Caucasians and allowed white people to treat black people without any respect. I never thought this was fair, and from the time I was a child, I tried to protest against disrespectful treatment. But it was very hard to do anything about segregation and racism when white people had the power of the law behind them.

Somehow we had to change the laws. And we had to get enough white people on our side to be able to succeed. I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to the segregation laws in the South. I only knew that I was tired of being pushed around. I was a regular person, just as good as anybody else. There had been a few times in my life when I had been treated by white people like a regular person, so I knew what that felt like. It was time that other white people started treating me that way.

One of my earliest memories of childhood is hearing my family talk about the remarkable time that a white man treated me like a regular little girl, not a little black girl. It was right after World War I, around 1919. I was five or six years old. Moses Hudson, the owner of the plantation next to our land in Pine Level, Alabama, came out from the city of Montgomery to visit and stopped by the house. Moses Hudson had his son-in-law with him, a soldier from the North. They stopped in to visit my family. We southerners called all northerners Yankees in those days.The Yankee soldier patted me on the head and said I was such a cute little girl. Later that evening my family talked about how the Yankee soldier had treated me like I was just another little girl, not a little black girl. In those days in the South white people didn't treat little black children the same way as little white children. And old Mose Hudson was very uncomfortable about the way the Yankee soldier treated me. Grandfather said he saw old Mose Hudson's face turn red as a coal of fire. Grandfather laughed and laughed.

I was raised in my grandparents' house in Pine Level, in Montgomery County, near Montgomery, Alabama. All my mother's people came from Pine Level. My mother's name was Leona Edwards. My father came from Abbeville, Alabama. His name was James McCauley. He was a carpenter and a builder, very skilled at brick- and stonemasonry. He travelled all around building houses.

My father's brother-in-law, Reverend Dominick, Aunt Addie's husband, was pastor of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pine Level, and it was there in Pine Level that my father met my mother, who was a teacher. They were married right there in Pine Level on April 12, 1912. My mother was twenty-four years old, and my father was the same age.

After they were married, they moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, to live. It was the home of Tuskegee Institute, which Mr. Booker T. Washington had founded back in 1881 as a school for blacks. My parents lived not far from it. Both black and white leaders called the town of Tuskegee a model of good race relations, and that may have been why my father wanted to move there. and there were a lot of building jobs in the county of Macon, Alabama. My mother got a job teaching.

It wasn't long before they started a family. I was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, and named Rosa after my maternal grandmother, Rose. My mother was around twenty-five years old by the time I was born, but she always said that she was unprepared to be a mother. I guess she was unhappy because my father worked on building homes in different places in the county and she was left alone quite a bit. She had to quit teaching until after I was born, and she always talked about how unhappy she was, being an expectant mother and not knowing many people. At that time women who were pregnant didn't get out and move around and socialize like they do now. They stayed pretty much to themselves.She said she spent a lot of time crying and weeping and wondering what she was going to do and how she was going to get along, because she wasn't used to having a child to take care of.

I came along and I was a sickly child, small for my age. It was probably hard for my mother to take care of me. And my father's younger brother came to live with us, so that was someone else to cook and wash for. My uncle Robert was a carpenter too, and he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute to take courses in carpentry and building. But my mother always said Uncle Robert knew so much about what they were trying to teach him that he was teaching the instructors. Every time they would say something about a building plan, he would say, "No, I think we should arrange to do it this way," and then they would arrange it the way he suggested and it would come out right. He didn't stay at Tuskegee Institute very long as a student.

I have pictures of the houses my father and my uncle built— beautiful houses. They learned from their father, I think. They didn't learn anything at Tuskegee.

But Tuskegee was still the best place in Alabama for African Americans to get an education, and my mother wanted to stay there. Her idea was for my father to take a job at Tuskegee Institute. Teachers got houses to live in at that time, so they would have a place to stay. The other children they would have and I would get an opportunity for an education at the Institute. At that time black children in the South had very limited opportunities for schooling. But my father didn't go along with that idea. He wanted to do contracting work and make more money. He and my mother didn't agree on planning for the future.

My father decided he didn't want to remain in Tuskegee. He wanted to go back to his family in Abbeville. My mother had no choice but to go with him.

So we went to Abbeville to live with my father's family. It was a big family, with lots of children. My grandmother had started having children early and didn't stop for a long time. when I was born, my father's youngest brother, George Gaines McCauley, was eight years old. He used to tell me he was jealous of me because he'd been the baby for eight years and he didn't like me as a new baby at all. But he like me as I grew older.

I learned all I know about my father's family from my young uncle George. He said that my father's grandfather was unknown and someone said he was one of the Yankee soldiers who served in the South during the Civil War. My father's grandmother was a slave girl and part Indian or something. That's all I know. If my mother knew more than that, she never told me. I guess she felt she wasn't as compatible with that family as she should have been with her in-laws.

I think my mother may have done some teaching in Abbeville, but she didn't stay there long. My father decided to go north, and my mother didn't want to stay with his family while he was gone. She was pregnant with my brother by then, and she decided to go back to live with her own parents, who had a small farm in Pine Level. They were all alone by then. The niece that they had been raising had married and left. My mother said she thought about the house in Abbeville with a father and mother and growing children, and then she thought about her own mother and father not having anybody with them. So she just up and left and went to stay with her parents.

My mother took me to live with her parents in Pine Level, Alabama, when I was a toddler. Later my father joined us, and we lived as a family until I was two and a half years old. He left Pine Level to find work, and I did not see him again until I was five years old and my brother was three. He stayed several days and left again. I did not see my father anymore until I was an adult and married.

My mother and father never got back together. They just couldn't coordinate their lives together, because he wanted to travel and she wanted to be situated in a permanent home.

My memories of my mother's parents are very clear. In fact, my earliest memory is of my grandfather taking me to the doctor to look at my throat. I had chronic tonsillitis all through my childhood, but this was very early. I wasn't more than about two and a half because it's the only time I can remember being an only child in the house. My mother didn't go. I think she was ailing - it must have been just before my brother was born. My grandfather took me to a store; there wasn't a doctor's office. Grandfather sat me up on the counter, and I remember I was wearing a little red velvet coat and bonnet.The doctor asked me to open my mouth, and I opened it; I can recall that everything the doctor asked me to do, I just obeyed very nicely. The people were amazed, with my being so small and being so little trouble. I opened my mouth, and he put something in it — I thought it was a spoon or something — to hold my tongue down. When Grandfather took me back home, he told my mother and grandmother about how well behaved I was. That's the first time I can remember anything at all about myself. I always liked to be praised about any little thing. I felt kind of happy because he thought I was such a good little girl.

Living in my grandparents' house, I learned a lot more about my mother's family history. My great-grandfather, my grandmother's father, had the last name of Percival. As a young Scotch-Irish boy he had been brought to the United States on a ship. He was white, but he wasn't free.

In those days, over in Europe, poor white people were sometimes indentured servants. They signed an agreement that in return for their fare to America, they would work for someone for a particular number of years. During those years they had no rights and could be treated as poorly as slaves.

My great-grandfather arrived in this country through the port of Charleston, South Carolina, and then was brought down to Alabama. He was indentured to some people named Wright in Pine Level, but they never changed his name from Percival, which I guess he brought with him from Percival, which I guess he brought with him from the old country. That was a difference between black slaves and white indentured servants. Black slaves were usually not allowed to keep their names, but were given new names by their owners.

He married Mary Jane Nobles, a person of African descent with no white ancestors. She was a slave and a midwife, who helped to deliver and care for babies. They were married and had three children, two daughters and a son, before freedom was declared by President Abraham Lincoln. Six other children were born free. Their oldest daughter Rose, my grandmother, was five years old when the Civil War ended with a Union victory over the Confederate states.

My grandmother told me that before the Union soldiers arrived, the slave owners had the slaves dig holes and bury many of the slave owners' most valuable household possessions - dishes, silver, and jewelry. The younger slave children were then sent to sit and to play on the freshly dug soil to tamp it down.

After the war ended, slavery was also ended. But many former slaves stayed where they were. They didn't know where else to go and did not want to leave their homes. My great-grandparents stayed on in their small log house on the Wrights' land and continued to work for the family. Life was not very different from before, but they knew they were free to leave if they wanted to. They also had the right to purchase land. I don't know how or when they did it, but sometime after emancipation my great-grandparents purchased twelve acres of land that had been part of the Hudson plantation.

After slavery was ended and the folks found out they were free, that's when my great-grandfather build a little table so his family would have something to eat on. My grandmother was six years old at the time, and the oldest child, and she helped him by holding up a burning pine knot so he could see to work at night. I still use that table today.

During the day my great-grandfather made furniture for Mr. Wright, his former master. I suppose he was using Mr. Wright's tools when he made that little table, or maybe even his own hammer and gimlet. A gimlet is a little tool you use to bore holes in wood. Instead of using nails, he would sharpen a little piece of wood down kind of small and put it in there as a peg. That's how he put the table together.

After Emancipation, my grandmother moved into the house with the Wright family to take care of their child. She wasn't much older than six, but she was large enough to take care of a small child. She didn't have to out in the fields to work and did not have much work to do around the house either.

My grandfather's father was a white plantation owner named John Edwards, and his mother was a slave housekeeper and seamstress who never went out to work in the fields. I guess she was probably of mixed black and white blood, because my grandfather, the child she had with her owner, was so close to white. She died when my grandfather was very young, and then John Edwards, the plantation owner, died too.

After that, their child, my grandfather Sylvester, was treated very badly. An overseer named Battle took over the plantation and he disliked my grandfather so much that he beat him every time he saw him. I used to hear my grandfather say that when he was small, the only food he remembered getting was the scraps the kitchen workers would slip to him. The overseer beat him, tried to starve him, wouldn't let him have any shoes, treat him so badly that he had a very intense, passionate hatred for white people. My grandfather was the one who instilled in my mother and her sisters, and in their children, that you don't put up with bad treatment from anybody. It was passed down almost in our genes.

I remember that he was very emotional and excitable. My grandmother was the calm one. My grandfather was very light completed, with straight hair, and sometimes people took him for white. He took every bit of advantage of being white-looking. He was always doing or saying something that would embarrass or agitate the white people. With those who didn't know him, when he was talking with them he would extend his hand and shake hands with them. He'd be introduced to some white man he didn't know, and he'd say, "Edwards is my name," and shake hands. Then people who knew him would get embarrassed and have to whisper to the others that he was not white. At that time no white man would shake hands with a black man. And black men weren't supposed to introduce themselves by their last names, but only by their first names.

And I remember that sometimes he would call white men by their first names, or their whole names, and not say "Mister." The whites wouldn't always like that too well, in fact, he was taking a big risk. At that time black people were never supposed to call a white person by name without saying "Mister" or "Miss." My grandfather had a somewhat belligerent attitude toward whites in general. And he liked to laugh at whites behind their backs.

My grandfather did not want my brother and me to play with white children. The white overseer of the Hudson plantation had some children just about my age and my brother's age. When we wanted to play with them, or when they wanted to play with us, Grandfather would be very hostile. He made us stay away from them. We wouldn't even have to be close to them. We might be sitting on the ground under the shade of the wagon, playing, and he would yell at us and have us leave from around them.

Any little thing he could do, he did. It wouldn't be anything of great significance, but it was his small way of expressing his hostility toward whites. The whites never did anything to him because of his attitude. How he survived doing all those kinds of things and being so outspoken, talking that big talk, I don't know, unless it was because he was so white and so close to being one of them. I guess they knew him well enough to not bother him physically about it.

His irritability also might have had something to do with his being crippled. He had arthritis. We called it rheumatism then. I don't know how old he was when he became crippled, but I think he was very young. He could hardly wear shoes without cutting holes in the toes, and sometimes he couldn't walk at all. And there he was, trying to take care of a family.

He and my grandmother marred very young, and the one thing he wanted most of all was for none of his children or anyone related to him to ever have to cook or clean for whites. He wanted all his children to be educated so they wouldn't have to do that kind of work.

Domestic work paid very little, and those who did domestic work were not respected. Most domestic workers worked very hard and did not have an opportunity to be educated. That's why my grandfather wanted my mother to become educated and teach school. Teaching was a prestigious job, and it paid more. African-American teachers did not receive as much pay as Caucasian teachers, but they were paid more than domestic workers.

My Grandfather and grandmother had three daughters.There was one daughter who died in her teens. She never went away from home to school. Another daughter, Fannie, did just what my grandfather didn't want: She left home and went to work in the city of Montgomery in white people's homes. She never went away to school, so that means she never got past the sixth grade, because the black schools around Pine Level didn't go past the sixth grade. For high school you had to go away. She was about seven years older than my mother. Either my grandfather didn't have enough money to send both her and my mother to school or the older one didn't want to go. Most southern women, black or white, didn't go beyond grammar school in those days, I think at one time I heard my mother say that my grandfather had hopes of his oldest daughter being educated, but I guess Fannie had a different idea. Maybe she wanted to make some money right away, even though it was just the little bit of money that housekeepers could make at that time.I think she wanted to be on her own, and she was until she got married. She married before my mother did by several years.

My mother, Leona Edwards, went to school in Selma, Alabama, at Payne University. She didn't go long enough to get a bachelor's degree, but she did get a teaching certificate. She taught in Pine Level, and then of course she met my father and they got married.

After my mother took me back to Pine Level to live with my grandparents, and after my brother, Sylvester, was born, she went back to teaching. The Pine Level black school already had a teacher, so she had to go and teach in the village of Spring Hill. It was too far away for her to walk back and forth every day and still prepare her lessons, so during the week she stayed with a family there. I can remember when she left in the wagon with my grandfather driving. He used a little mule wagon to travel around in. I wasn't exactly sure why she was going away. I said to my grandmother, "Is Mama Leona going to learn how to teach school?" My grandmother said, "No, she's been teaching school since before you were born, so she's just going to teach school." We got that straight, but I was very glad when my mother came back.

I liked being with my grandparents. Sometimes they would take me fishing at a creek on the plantation. Being a little bit up in age, sometimes they couldn't get the bait on the hook, so I used to bait the hooks for them. I guess that's why they liked to take me fishing. I'd get the worm and he could wiggle all he wanted to. All I had to do was get one end of him started on the hook. Some people used to hit the worms and kill them, but I always believed that the fish should see that worm moving on the hook and that they'd bite a lively worm much sooner than a dead one. People used to use other things besides worms too, like fat meat and crawfish tails.

Sylvester, who was named for my mother's father, was two years and seven months younger than I. He followed me around all the time. Whatever I said, he would say it too. He was always getting into mischief, but I was very protective of him. I don't remember this myself, but my grandmother told me that one time when my mother was away, she was going to give my brother a whipping. He was just a little fellow, and she was scolding him, and then she took up a little switch. I said "Grandma, don't whip brother. He's just a little baby and he doesn't have no mama and no papa either." And so, she said, she put the switch down and looked at me and decided she would not whip him that day. I can remember what a mischievous little boy he was and how I got more whippings for not telling on things he did than I did for things I did myself. I never did get out of that attitude of trying to be protective of him.

~~~

 

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was an African-American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott.

Image courtesy: the internet. Transcribed by Surekha Bedide. 

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