Complaints about why there’s a Black History Month infuriate me. If you have to ask, you clearly don’t get American history period. The revisionists aren’t the ones teaching black history, they’re the ones who wrote it out in the first place. Slavery, segregation, Jim Crow stole an entire peoples’ past. Black History Month can’t replace that. But it can renew the future. It can revive traditions, restore voices and reinvest in the heritage that was denied. I’ve always felt intense solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. But recently, I experienced it in a new way. I sat in Rosa Parks’ bus seat.
Over Christmas, we took the family to Detroit and visited Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Since our last visit, the museum had acquired the Montgomery bus upon which Rosa refused to surrender her seat to a white man. Henry Ford Museum purchased the Rosa Parks bus from an Alabama family who’d used it for storage.
Looking to profit, the family claimed, despite proof, theirs was the bus. An auctioneer found journal clippings and matching serial and coach numbers. With a bid of roughly $429,000 the museum won it from the Smithsonian and the city of Denver.
The bus required extensive restoration The museum placed it in the “Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit. This ironically-named collection pays tribute to oppressed Americans who enjoyed no such liberty and justice–blacks, women, Latinos, native Americans. The chilling display features a “whites only” drinking fountain, Ku Klux Klan robe and Klansman’s oath. Images show suffragette hunger strikers being force fed through the nose and mobs assailing black Woolworth’s Lunch Counter. It’s a gruesome reminder that freedom isn’t free.
Sitting in Rosa’s seat was both eerie and exciting. Her act of defiance on December 1, 1955, spurred the Montgomery bus boycott. A Baton Rouge, Louisiana boycott failed due to lack of focus. Mrs. Parks’ quiet, but firm “no” provided that. Desegregation fire lit the nation, birthing Freedom Riders, SNCC protests, marches. And Jim Crow started to crumble.
If you’re a teacher, you must visit the Henry Ford and experience Rosa Parks. There’s no more fitting way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There’s no better way to teach black history (or any history) than from inside looking out. Use these free Rosa Parks resources to prepare or follow up.
Rosa Parks printables from Scholastic
Rosa Parks classroom activities from Education world
Printable Jim Crow activity booklet
Free Jim Crow worksheets from iCivics (you’ll have to register for a free account)
Black History Month and Jim Crow laws from EdHelper
Jim Crow Unit from Mr. Donn
Create a booklet for each student. Be sure to add a blank page for journal reflection on Rosa Parks or what life would be like under Jim Crow.