Rosa Parks house artist pushes forward, citing free speech

PROVIDENCE — An artist who turned a Detroit house where Rosa Parks lived into an art piece says he's working to ensure the home is displayed in Rhode Island even after Brown University pulled its support.

Ryan Mendoza said he has a First Amendment right to show the house. He is working with a local arts group for legal help and to find the money and other support he needs to move forward. He said he has a right to continue.

"This show cannot be canceled," Mendoza said in an interview Sunday next to the house, which has been partially reassembled in an arts center in Providence.

He called it "presumptuous" for Brown to think it could cancel it.

The tiny house was owned by Parks' brother, and people including relatives, neighbors and others have said she lived there for a time after she fled the South amid death threats for refusing to give up her bus seat, one of the civil rights movement's seminal moments. The home later was lost to foreclosure. Parks' niece Rhea McCauley saved it off the demolition list for $500 and gave it to Mendoza, who shipped it to Germany piece by piece and reassembled it in his yard in Berlin.

There, it drew a steady stream of visitors. Mendoza said he received requests from multiple venues to take the house there and selected Brown because it has publicly grappled with its historical ties to the slave trade.

Mendoza spent the last few months disassembling, shipping and reassembling the house at the WaterFire Arts Center, a few miles from Brown's campus. The house was to open to the public next month with free admission. Plans were in the works for Brown to display a civil rights exhibit alongside the house, with schoolchildren visiting and Brown students acting as docents, according to Barnaby Evans, WaterFire's executive artistic director.

The house was about 80 percent assembled when Brown announced on Thursday that the display was canceled. Brown cited an unspecified dispute involving the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which Parks co-founded but which has feuded with relatives for years.

A board member for the Wisconsin-based Nash Family Foundation, which donated $45,000 to Brown to be used to pay for the project, said a Brown professor called him last week to tell him the institute sent the university a cease-and-desist order. Member Jim Nash said he was told it was "based on their view that they owned the rights to the Rosa Parks name because of something that Rosa Parks evidently signed in her dotage," Nash said.

"He said, this is a quote, 'We have no choice but to sever our relationship here.' To which I said, 'Of course you have a choice. Rosa Parks had a choice. She chose not to give up her seat and faced huge risks for doing so. You had a choice, and you made the wrong choice,'" Nash said.

He called it a "betrayal" by Brown and said he is pursuing his legal options because the house was never displayed.

A Brown spokesman said Monday that it did not breach any agreements. Asked whether the institute told Brown it owns the Parks name, he referred the question to the institute, which did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Mendoza said he initially wanted to give up after Brown pulled out last week but he's now committed to pushing forward.

"What are you going to do? Are you going to throw this house away? It was already almost demolished once," he said. "What are you going to do? Ship it to Germany? That doesn't make any sense."

 

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