This 1885 Harper's Weekly cover celebrated the freedom of enslaved African Americans 22 years after emancipation with the text, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants." / THF11676
Liberty stands as one of the ideals that inspired the United States from its beginning, as the following quotes from founding documents indicate:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” –Declaration of Independence, 1776
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general Welfare, and ensure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” –Constitution of the United States, 1788
National aspirations for liberty resonated, but “liberty” for some trapped others in servitude. United States expansion came at the highest cost to indigenous and enslaved individuals. For them, liberty rang hollow.
The Union victory in the Civil War affirmed the nation’s authority to abolish slavery, expand citizenship and civil rights protection, and grant universal manhood suffrage. The Fourteenth Amendment affirmed that “No state shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” Yet, newly freed Black Americans faced discrimination that deprived them of these unalienable rights.
Throughout this tumultuous history, the word “liberty” has been on all U.S. coins. The Coinage Act of 1792 established the U.S. Mint and decreed that all coins include an “impression emblematic of liberty” and the word “liberty.” Thus, the lawful tender in the United States, from the start of our national currency, emphasized liberty—even as the nation built its economy on and around the enslavement of people of African origin and descent.
The United States marked its 170th anniversary in the year that the U.S. Mint first linked “liberty” to Black history. Congress authorized production of a 50-cent coin to “commemorate the life and perpetuate the ideals and teachings of Booker T. Washington,” about 30 years after Washington’s death, on August 7, 1946 (Public Law 610-79th Congress, Chapter 763-2D Session, H.R 6528 August 7, 1946). Washington, noted educator and advocate for economic independence and Black autonomy, built his reputation as he built a segregated public school in Tuskegee, Alabama, into an engine of Black economic development. The Tuskegee alumni networks enthusiastically sustained his ideals, including liberty achieved regardless of racism and separate-but-equal segregation.
Commemorative Half Dollar Coin Featuring Booker T. Washington, 1946. / THF170779
In addition to the word “liberty,” the coin’s reverse side summarized Washington’s evolution, from his birth as an enslaved person to his induction into the Hall of Fame for Great Americansin 1945.
The Black sculptor who designed the coin, Isaac Scott Hathaway, summarized Washington’s life story on a trajectory from enslavement to recognition. Hathaway had pursued this work for most of his life, convinced that Black Americans warranted representation in classical forms—specifically on busts and bas-relief plaques—that rivaled those of gods and goddesses. He mass-produced plaster busts and plaques of more than 200 Black women and men for customers to purchase and display in homes, schools, and churches. He divided his time between memorializing Black individuals and teaching in Tuskegee Institute’s Department of Ceramics, which he founded. His connection to Tuskegee helped secure his appointment as the first Black artist to design a coin for the U.S. Mint in 1945.
George Washington Carver Plaque, 1945. Hathaway knew Carver, and he cast this small bas-relief plaster plaque out of respect for “this venerable man whose acquaintance and friendship I enjoyed for 40 years.” He donated this plaque, as well as a plaster cast of Carver’s hand, to The Henry Ford in December 1945. / THF152082
The commemorative half-dollar coin featuring Booker T. Washington remained in production between 1946 and 1951. Sales of the commemorative sets, however, fell short of expectations. The U.S. Congress amended the August 7, 1946, act, reauthorizing a redesigned coin that added Tuskegee Institute agricultural scientist George Washington Carver to the front, and a patriotic message on the back (Public Law 151-82d Congress, Chapter 408, 1st Session. H.R. 3176 September 21, 1951). The Mint again retained Hathaway to design this second coin. One and one-half million Washington coins were melted and recast into the new issue.
Commemorative Half Dollar Coin Featuring George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, 1953. / THF152213
Reverse Side, Commemorative Half Dollar Coin Featuring George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, 1953, Produced at Denver, Colorado. / THF152214
Proceeds from sales of both of these commemorative coins were ear-marked for completion of the only national monuments documenting Black history at the time—the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial in Virginia and the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri. But sluggish sales did not generate the anticipated income for these two projects. When the amended act expired on August 7, 1954, the remaining million coins minted but not sold were melted and used for other coins. The practice of issuing commemorative coins for private initiatives—funding historic sites and memorials, in the case of these two coins—also ended with the expiration of the Washington commemorative coin act.
Interior of Henry Ford’s Private Railroad Car, “Fair Lane,” June 22, 1921 / THF148015
Beginning in 1921, Henry and Clara Ford used their own railroad car, the Fair Lane, to travel in privacy. Clara Ford designed the interior in consultation with Sidney Houghton, an interior designer based in London. The interior guaranteed a comfortable trip for the Fords, their family, and others who accompanied them on more than 400 trips between 1921 and 1942.
The view out the railcar windows often featured the landscape between Dearborn, Michigan, and Richmond Hill, Georgia, located near Savannah. The Fords purchased more than 85,000 acres in the area, starting in 1925, remaking it into their southern retreat.
On at least three occasions, Henry Ford might have looked out that Fair Lane window, observing changes in the landscape between Richmond Hill and a siding (or short track near the main railroad tracks, where engines and cars can be parked when not in use) near Tuskegee, Alabama. Henry Ford took the railcar to the Tuskegee Institute in 1938, 1941, and 1942, and Clara accompanied Henry at least twice.
Henry Ford and George Washington Carver, Tuskegee, Alabama, March 1938 / THF213839
Henry first met with George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis at Tuskegee on March 11, 1938. A small entourage accompanied him, including Ford’s personal secretary, Frank Campsall, and Wilbur M. Donaldson, a recent graduate of Ford’s school in Greenfield Village and student of engineering at Ford Motor Company.
George Washington Carver and Henry Ford on the Tuskegee Institute Campus, 1938. / THF213773
Photographs show these men viewing exhibits in the Carver Museum, installed at the time on the third floor of the library building on the Tuskegee campus (though it would soon move).
Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson, and Frank Campsall Inspect Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF 213794
Frank Campsall, Austin Curtis, Henry Ford, and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, March 1938 / THF214101
Clara accompanied Henry on her first trip to Tuskegee Institute, in the comfort of the Fair Lane, in March 1941. Tuskegee president F.D. Patterson met them at the railway siding in Chehaw, Alabama, and drove them to Tuskegee. While Henry visited with Carver, Clara received a tour of the girls’ industrial building and the home economics department.
During this visit, the Fords helped dedicate the George W. Carver Museum, which had moved to a new space on campus. The relocated museum and the Carver laboratory both occupied the rehabilitated Laundry Building, next to Dorothy Hall, where Carver lived. A bust of Carver—sculpted by Steffen Thomas, installed on a pink marble slab, and dedicated in June 1937—stood outside this building.
The dedication included a ceremony that featured Clara and Henry Ford inscribing their names into a block of concrete seeded with plastic car parts. The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most influential Black newspapers, reported on the visit in its March 22, 1941, issue. That story itemized the car parts, all made from soybeans and soy fiber, that were incorporated—including a glove compartment door, distributor cap, gearshift knob, and horn button. These items symbolized an interest shared between Carver and Ford: seeking new uses for agricultural commodities.
Clara Ford, face obscured by her hat, inscribes her name in a block of concrete during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, March 1941, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Others in the photograph, left to right: George Washington Carver; Carrie J. Gleed, director of the Home Economics Department; Catherine Elizabeth Moton Patterson, daughter of Robert R. Moton (the second Tuskegee president) and wife of Frederick Douglass Patterson (the third Tuskegee president); Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson; Austin W. Curtis, Jr.; an unidentified Tuskegee student who assisted with the ceremony; and Henry Ford. / THF213788
Henry Ford inscribing his name in a block of cement during the dedication of George Washington Carver Museum, Tuskegee Institute, March 1941 / THF213790
After the dedication, the Fords ate lunch in the dining room at Dorothy Hall, the building where Carver had his apartment, and toured the veterans’ hospital. They then returned to the Fair Lane railcar and headed for the main rail line in Atlanta for the rest of their journey north.
President Patterson directed a thank you letter to Henry Ford, dated March 14, 1941. In this letter, he commended Clara Ford for her “graciousness” and “her genuine interest in arts and crafts for women, particularly the weaving, [which] was a source of great encouragement to the members of that department.”
The last visit the Fords made to Tuskegee occurred in March 1942. The Fair Lane switched off at Chehaw, where Austin W. Curtis, Jr., met the Fords and drove them to Tuskegee via the grounds of the U.S. Veterans’ Hospital. Catherine Patterson and Clara Ford toured the Home Economics building and the work rooms where faculty taught women’s industries. Clara rode in the elevator that Henry had funded and had installed in Dorothy Hall in 1941, at a cost of $1,542.73, to ease Carver’s climb up the stairs to his apartment.
The Fords dined on a special luncheon menu featuring sandwiches with wild vegetable filling, prepared from one of Carver’s recipes. They topped the meal off with a layer cake made from powdered sweet potato, pecans, and peanuts that Carver prepared.
Tuskegee shared the Fords’ itinerary with Black newspapers, and the April 20, 1942, issue of Atlanta Daily World carried the news, “Carver Serves Ford New Food Products.” They concluded, in the tradition of social columns at the time, by describing what Henry and Clara Ford wore during the visit. “Mrs. Ford wore a black dress, black hat and gloves and a red cape with self-embroidery. Mr. Ford wore as usual an inconspicuously tailored business suit.”
Dr. Patterson wrote to Henry Ford on March 23, 1942, extending his regrets for not being at Tuskegee to greet the Fords. Patterson also reiterated thanks for “Mrs. Ford’s interest in Tuskegee Institute”—“The people in the School of Home Economics are always delighted and greatly encouraged with the interest she takes in the weaving and self-help project in the department.”
The Fords sold the Fair Lane in 1942. After many more miles on the rails with new owners over the next few decades, the Fair Lane came home to The Henry Ford. Extensive restoration returned its appearance to that envisioned by Clara Ford and implemented to ensure comfort for Henry and Clara and their traveling companions. Now the view from those windows features other artifacts on the floor of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in place of the varied landscapes, including those around the Tuskegee Institute, traveled by the Fords.
A view of the interior of Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car, the “Fair Lane,” constructed by the Pullman Company in 1921, restored by The Henry Ford to that era of elegance, and displayed in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF186264
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
This April 1956 issue of Liberation magazine featured the Montgomery bus boycott on its cover. / THF139343
In the 2021 book, Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, Civil Rights movement leader Julian Bond (1940–2015) stated that the Montgomery bus boycott provides a case study of how a social movement starts, develops, and grows. Such movements, Bond continued, begin with a concrete, precipitating event (in this case, Rosa Parks’s arrest), but they are usually the result of known or shared incidents on the part of the participants. A successful movement, he added, contains agitation, fosters fellowship, sustains morale, and develops tactics. The Montgomery bus boycott embodied all of these things—aided by both the words and actions of well-known leaders, such as Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, and the active involvement of countless others.
This 1957 comic book, produced by the international Fellowship of Reconciliation, highlighted the leadership of Martin Luther King, as well as featuring Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. / THF110738
How did the Montgomery bus boycott begin? By 1955, Black activists and community leaders in Montgomery, Alabama, were exploring the idea of a city-wide bus boycott—an organized refusal to ride the buses after decades of humiliating incidents and indignities that the Black community suffered. But they knew they would need the united support of the city's African American bus riders, a notion that was unprecedented, untested, and likely to fail, given past experience. After some fits and starts in trying to find an appropriate test case, they finally found that test case when Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. Rosa Parks’s arrest led directly to a city-wide bus boycott, during which members of the Black community willingly walked, shared rides, and worked out carpools for 381 days—despite continual resistance from white segregationists in the community.
Bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, currently in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF134576
Accompanying The Henry Ford’s acquisition of the Rosa Parks bus in 2001 was a binder of newspaper clippings recounting the events of Rosa Parks’s arrest and the ensuing bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. These had been clipped, dated, taped onto pieces of blank white paper, and compiled in chronological order into a binder by Montgomery bus station manager Charles “Homer” Cummings.
I had initially naively thought that these articles would contain a neat, objective recounting of the bus boycott. A closer perusal, however, revealed that this was, of course, not the case. Newspaper journalists write with a story-based angle in mind, one that will capture the attention of their readers—and these accounts are no exception. Moreover, even though the newspapers included here—primarily the Montgomery Advertiser—had a large following among both Black and white citizens, the journalists who wrote these articles were white, as were the newspaper company owners, the Montgomery city bus company owners and operators, and the local Montgomery government that maintained ties with both of these.
Keeping these perspectives in mind, this selection of clippings—with occasional added content to provide context—provides a portal to the events that unfolded during the first three months of the twelve-month boycott. These clippings not only offer a powerful lens into how quickly and deeply the boycott divided members of the Montgomery community, but they also uncover a clear sense of the Black community’s collective strength and resilience when faced with continual obstacles.
Note that the images below were adapted from the original articles to emphasize the headlines; if you want to read the entire articles or see the original scrapbook pages, you can find links to those pages in the image captions.
“5000 at Meeting Outline Boycott; Bullet Clips Bus,” by Joe Azbell, Montgomery Advertiser, December 5, 1955 / adapted from THF147008
As the boycott began, an estimated 90–100% of local African Americans chose to participate. They walked, shared rides, and worked out carpools
This “mass demonstration of black pride” took by surprise the city’s white leaders, who were certain the boycott would end soon. Mayor W.A. Gayle was said to have remarked, “comes the first rainy day and the Negroes will be back on the buses.
But the Black community held fast and strengthened their resolve, inspired by ongoing mass meetings led by community and church leaders. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., arose as a key leader, increasingly articulating a vision for nonviolent protest.
“Negroes to Continue Boycott,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 5, 1955 / adapted from THF147011
According to this article, on the evening of the first day of the boycott, “an estimated 5000 hymn-singing Negroes” packed the Holt Street Baptist Church and voted to continue “a racial boycott against the Montgomery City buses.” The “emotional group” unanimously passed a resolution “with roaring applause” to extend the boycott beyond the first day, refraining from riding city buses “until the bus situation is settled to the satisfaction of its patrons.”
Detailed in the article is the speech given at the meeting by “the Rev. M.L. King, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” who told the crowd that the “tools of justice” must be used to attain the “day of freedom, justice and equality.” He urged “unity of Negroes,” for “we must stick together and work together if we are to win and we will win in standing up for our rights as Americans.”
City officials assumed there would be violence but found little. The headline of this article reported that a bullet hit the rear of a city bus but further reading revealed that the bus driver could not determine from where it had been fired.
“Bus Boycott Conference Fails to Find Solution,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 9, 1955 / adapted from THF147024
On December 8, a delegation of Black leaders issued a formal list of requests to the city bus company and political officials, one of several attempts to reach a compromise. Led by Rev. King, the Black delegation assured bus company officials that “they were not demanding an end to segregated seating (as this was the law).” Instead, they issued three requests: more courteous treatment on the buses; the hiring of Black drivers on routes serving Black neighborhoods; and a first-come-first-serve seating by race, back to front and front to back, with no one having to give up their seat or stand over an empty seat.
City and bus company officials expressed surprise at these grievances and refused to comply with them. The bus company responded only by disciplining a few of its employees while avoiding the larger questions of systemic racial inequity and injustice on city buses. They also declared that they had no intention of hiring “Negro drivers” (stating “the time is not right in Montgomery”) and dismissed the third demand as illegal under existing segregation laws.
According to the article, Rev. King’s response was simple: “We are merely trying to peacefully obtain better accommodations for Negroes.”
“Notice to Bus Patrons,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 10, 1955 / adapted from THF147026
The Montgomery city bus company, lacking its usual business, soon raised fares, cut services to Black neighborhoods, begged local citizens to use the buses for Christmas shopping, and asked the city for help. The year ended with the mayor and other city officials determined to get tough, to find new ways of dealing with the Black community’s united display of nonviolent resistance to segregation with their own united response.
“Negro Rule in Boycott Is to Walk,” Alabama Journal, December 12, 1955 / adapted from THF147029
As the boycott continued into the second week, Black taxicab operators told their drivers to charge only 10 cents a person for Black passengers—the same price as bus fare. Almost immediately, Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers threatened to arrest any Black taxi driver who charged less than the minimum 45-cent fare.
Responding to this, Black leaders implemented a carpool system to support citizens taking part in the boycott. They called on car owners to volunteer their vehicles and urged those with licenses to volunteer as drivers. Ministers also volunteered to drive cars. These “car pools” had to be organized and executed precisely, with an intricate web of pickup and drop-off points that were developed by postal workers who knew the layout of neighborhoods.
Eventually 275 to 300 Black-owned vehicles transported thousands of boycotters, while thousands more walked. As the article described, “None thumbed rides. As each car passed, the Negro driver would inquire of the men and women on the street corner where they were going. If they were going in the same direction, they loaded in.” In addition, “scores of Negroes were walking, their lunches in brown paper sacks under their arms. None spoke to white people. They exchanged little talk among themselves. It was an event almost solemn.”
While the newspaper article claimed that the police were out in force to “protect” the boycotters, in fact, police harassment was formidable. Local police pulled over cars, intimidated drivers, and gave tickets for real or imagined infractions.
“White Citizens of Central Alabama / Rally to the Support of Your Central Alabama Citizens Council,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 15, 1955 / adapted from THF147035
This announcement is a membership appeal to white segregationists in the Montgomery community. In Fall 1955, a local group of the White Citizen’s Council (WCC) had been established in Montgomery to provide organized economic, political, and at times physical resistance to impending desegregation. Before the boycott, the council had less than 100 members. But after the boycott started, membership swelled to 14,000 members in three months.
The WCC played an increasing role in public life, believing that white citizens’ way of life was under siege. Whites were pressured to join—in fact, it was dangerous to be white and not join, as such people could be accused of sympathizing with the Black community.
“Mayor Stops Boycott Talk,” Montgomery Advertiser, January 24, 1956 / adapted from THF147077
In January, tensions were rising. The Montgomery bus company was on the verge of bankruptcy. WCC members supported economic reprisals. Mayor Gayle, who had been previously known as “pleasant and easy to approach,” now felt increased pressure from hardline segregationists, and urged putting an end to the boycott. Leaders of the Black community continued to take the stance that, “More than 99 per cent of the Negro citizens of Montgomery have stated their positions and it remains the same. The bus protest is still on and it will last until our proposals are given sympathetic treatment.”
But Mayor Gayle had had enough. This article describes his new “get tough” policy—stating that he would hold the line against integration and that there would be “no more discussions with the Negro boycott leaders until they are ready to end the boycott.” According to the article, Gayle remarked that, “We have pussyfooted around on this boycott long enough and it has come time to be frank and honest.” Furthermore, he made the accusation that, “The Negro leaders have proved they are not interested in ending the boycott but rather in prolonging it so that they may stir up racial strife.”
The city commissioners and members of the WCC were convinced that most Blacks wanted to ride the buses, but that they were tricked and manipulated by the boycott leaders, whom city officials began to refer to as “a group of Negro radicals.” Furthermore, they assumed that there was a single instigator behind the boycott, someone behind it who was inciting otherwise cooperative Black community members to boycott. They pinpointed Rev. King as that instigator, certain that getting rid of him would put an end to the boycott once and for all. They attacked King through words (calling him, among other names, a “troublesome outsider”) and, soon, through action.
“End to Free ‘Taxi Service,’”Montgomery Advertiser, January 25, 1956 / adapted from THF147081
One of Mayor Gayle’s first moves in his new “get tough” policy was to crack down on Black carpool drivers, especially urging white Montgomerians to halt the practice of using their automobiles as “taxi services for Negro maids and cooks who work for them.” As Gayle remarked, “When a white person gives a Negro a single penny for transportation or helps a Negro with his transportation, even if it’s a block ride, he is helping the Negro radicals who lead the boycott.” He also insisted, “We are not going to be a part of any program that will get Negroes to ride the buses again at the price of the destruction of our heritage and way of life.”
At this point, police were told to step up their issuing of tickets to Black drivers, whether they were deserved or not. They also harassed boycotters waiting at pickup stations, accusing some of “vagrancy.”
“None Injured after Bombing of King Home,” Montgomery Advertiser, January 31, 1956 / adapted from THF147091
Once city and WCC leaders (now one and the same) decided that Rev. King was the “ringleader” of the boycott, they focused their efforts on going after him. They arrested him for speeding and threw him in jail—attracting bigger and noisier mass meetings and more determination by the Black community to continue the boycott. King received threatening letters and phone calls from both angry white segregationists and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
This anger led to outright violence on January 30, when a bomb was thrown through a window of King’s home. As a crowd of about 300 anxious members of the Black community gathered outside his house, Rev. King asked the group to be “peaceful.” “I did not start this boycott,” he told the crowd. “I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. If I am stopped our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”
"Grand Jurors Told to Probe Legality of Bus Boycott," Alabama Journal, February 13, 1956 / adapted from THF147126
The month of February saw both sides digging in, strengthening their resolve. The racial divide grew wider. White pushback increased, with more arrests. Black determination gained strength.
Continuing the Mayor’s “get tough” policy, a local circuit judge impaneled a Montgomery County grand jury to determine whether the bus boycott was legal. “If it is illegal,” Mayor Gayle said, “the boycott must be stopped.” He declared the jurors to be the “supreme inquisitorial body” and called the grand jury system “democracy in action.”
“Plan to End Bus Boycott is Rejected,” Mobile Register, February 21, 1956 / adapted from THF147150
This article reports that, on the eve of the grand jury report, Black leaders rejected a supposed “compromise plan for ending the boycott.” They argued that they did not see any change. The proposed seating was similar to the plan they had already rejected. Promises for driver courtesy were not called out and individual bus drivers still had the authority to assign seats. Finally, boycotters were not promised that there would be no retaliation against them for their participation in the boycott. At a mass meeting, the Black community voted to continue the boycott with a count of 3,998 to 2.
In “a prepared statement following the meeting,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy stated that, “We have walked for 11 weeks in the cold and rain. Now the weather is warming up. Therefore, we will walk on until some better proposals are forthcoming from our city fathers.”
“The protest is still on,” he confirmed, “and approximately 50,000 colored persons have stated that they will continue to walk.”
“75 Nabbed by Deputies on Boycott Indictments,”Montgomery Advertiser, February 23, 1956 / adapted from THF147165
The city called more than 200 Blacks to testify before the grand jury, including King, 23 other ministers, and all carpool drivers. The indictment was based upon an obscure 1921 state law prohibiting boycotts “without just cause or legal excuse” (and referencing an earlier 1903 law that outlawed boycotts in response to Black streetcar protests). Those indicted were accused of taking an “active part in the 12-week-old racial boycott” against the Montgomery City lines buses.
Rev. Abernathy called it a “a great injustice.” Many indicted boycott leaders showed defiance by voluntarily turning themselves in and drawing attention away from singular blame on Martin Luther King. Hundreds of Black spectators shouted encouragement, cheered, and applauded as leaders showed up one by one to be “taken through the arrest process at the county jail.” The act of being arrested had become a badge of honor.
"Boycotters Plan ‘Passive’ Battle," Montgomery Advertiser, February 24, 1956 / adapted from THF147180
The boycott indictments strengthened the resolve of the Black community. At a mass meeting that an estimated 5,000 attended, Black leaders called for a Prayer and Pilgrimage Day and asked all Black citizens to walk that day.
The Central Alabama White Citizens Council was incensed about the continuation of the boycott. State Senator Sam Englehardt of Macon County, Chairman of the Central Alabama Citizens’ Council, said, “If these people [who were indicted] succeed in getting the Negroes of Montgomery to break this law, and get away with it, then who’s to say what unlawful act they will advocate next?”
Rosa Parks reflected the feelings of the Black community that day by remarking, “The white segregationists tried to put pressure to stop us. Instead of stopping us, they would encourage us to go on.”
These events, as documented through a selection of newspaper clippings compiled in a bus manager’s scrapbook, mark just the first three months of the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott went on to last more than one year—381 days to be exact—with members of the Black community enduring continual arrests, bombings, jailing, threats, and general harassment until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared segregation on Alabama buses to be unconstitutional. Before it was over, it would become what Julian Bond referred to in his book as nothing short of “a struggle to achieve democracy in the mid-20th century.”
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks also to Hannah Glodich, Graphic Designer at The Henry Ford, for adapting the original scrapbook pages into the images shown in this post.
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900 / THF163072
This microscope, reputedly used by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver during his tenure at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, offers us a closer look at Black empowerment through Black education.
It took training to run educational laboratories, and administrators at Black schools sought qualified faculty to do the job. Booker T. Washington, principal at the private, historically Black Tuskegee Institute, recruited Carver as the one person who could build an agricultural research program comparable to the ones available to whites through other public land-grant institutions. Carver was qualified, having earned a master’s degree in agricultural science in 1896, the first Black American to do so.
Austin W. Curtis, Jr., who assisted Carver in his laboratory between 1935 and Carver’s death in 1943, donated and affirmed Carver's use of this microscope. Through it (and other scientific instruments), Carver documented the molecular structure of organic matter—the plants, fungi, bacteria, soils, and sedimentary material of Alabama and beyond. He translated his findings into how-to pamphlets, sharing strategies that Black families in the South could use to improve their own health and the health of their soils. Carver’s pamphlets also introduced hundreds of new uses for plant-based materials, ranging from livestock feed and medicines to pigments and synthetic polymers.
The highest level of learning requires analysis of original research. This microscope supported that cause while in use at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and it continues to help us focus on Black history.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Montgomery city bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move to the back, now in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF14922
This year marks the 65th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to stand up and move to the back of this city bus from Montgomery, Alabama (above). In our previous blog posts, we have focused primarily upon the story of Rosa Parks herself—her background, character, motivation, and legacy.
In 1992, Rosa Parks visited Greenfield Village with a group of students during a "Freedom Tour" sponsored by the Raymond and Rosa Parks Foundation. After she spoke to students, she posed here in the Mattox House, the 1930s Georgia home of an African American family. / THF123775
We now take the opportunity to acknowledge the important contributions of numerous other individuals to this legacy.
Our first acknowledgment goes to those who helped lay the foundations for Rosa Parks’ act: the many black Montgomerians who put up with mistreatment and humiliation on segregated buses for years, and even decades, so that when the right time came they were ready to take collective action; to early community activists in Montgomery like Raymond Parks (Rosa’s husband), Mary Fair Burks, Rev. Vernon Johns, Rufus Lewis, Johnnie Carr, and J. E. Pierce; and to Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, who made the conscious decision to refuse to stand up and move to the back of the buses on which they rode just months before Rosa Parks.
Token used on Montgomery bus lines, about 1955 / THF8293
Second, we recognize the important work of community organizations that worked toward effecting change at the time—the Women’s Political Council, the Montgomery Improvement Association, and the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP (for which Rosa Parks had worked); to black community leaders who shaped these organizations and mobilized the black community to take action as a response to Rosa Parks’ arrest—including Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and to young black lawyer and activist Fred Gray for defending both Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks as well as for bringing other notable civil rights cases to court.
Liberation Magazine from April 1956, featuring the Montgomery bus boycott on its cover. / THF139343
Finally, we acknowledge Montgomery’s black community for courageously defying the city’s segregated bus practices by boycotting Montgomery buses after Rosa Parks’ act. For 381 days, this community surmounted obstacle after obstacle created by those attempting to obstruct and put an end to this boycott. Their courage and determination set an example for others, both then and now.
The story of the Montgomery bus boycott and how it unfolded will appear in future blog posts.
For more background on the story of Rosa Parks, see:
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African American seamstress, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This led to a city-wide bus boycott by the African American community that was so successful many consider Rosa Parks’ act to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
It’s a powerful story: one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. Today it’s difficult to imagine the real risks that Rosa Parks faced and the tremendous amount of courage she possessed in refusing to give up her seat that day. To get a better sense of this, we must explore the nature of segregated travel in the Jim Crow South.
Separate and Unequal Jim Crow laws -- first enacted in the 1880s by angry and resentful Southern whites against freed African Americans -- separated Blacks from whites in all aspects of daily life. Favoring whites and repressing Blacks, these became an institutionalized form of inequality.
Jim Crow was a character created for a minstrel-show act during the 1830s, the date of this sheet music. The act -- featuring a white actor wearing Black makeup -- was meant to demean and make fun of African Americans.THF98689
In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the legal power to require segregation between Blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws - now legally enforceable - spread across the South virtually anywhere that the two races might come in contact. Many of these practices lasted into the 1960s, until outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Through separate (and inferior) public facilities like building entrances, elevators, cashier windows, and drinking fountains, African Americans were reminded everywhere of their second-class status. THF13419andTHF13421
Travel in the segregated South was particularly humiliating for African Americans, beginning with railroads back in the 19th century. Traveling in or between southern states by railway, African Americans of all economic classes were generally relegated to primitive, uncomfortable "Jim Crow cars." Located just behind the locomotive, these were also the most dangerous cars should a collision or boiler explosion occur. Any Black railway passenger who complained or refused to comply with the rules could be forcibly removed from the train, beaten, or even killed. Conductors in some states were given policing power to enforce the rules or they could summon local police at station stops to back them up.
Southern states established segregated railroad station facilities for Blacks, with separate (and often inferior) ticket agent windows and restrooms, and often lacking the eating facilities available to whites. This sign was installed in a Louisville & Nashville Railroad station. THF93445
The coming of affordable automobiles seemed to provide southern Blacks with a way to get around the indignities of long-distance rail travel. However, as soon as Black motorists stopped along the road, Jim Crow laws returned in force. Service station and roadside restrooms were usually closed to African Americans, so they often resorted to stashing buckets or portable toilets in their trunks. Diners and restaurants regularly turned away Black customers, who took to bringing food along with them. Roadside motels often refused to admit Blacks, so they had to depend on the hospitality of their own people or chance the discovery of a "Negro" rooming house.
To avoid Jim Crows laws while travelling in the South (and unwritten Jim Crow practices followed in the North), Black motorists created their own tourist infrastructure, with specially published guides steering them to safe accommodations. This is the 1949 edition of "The Negro Motorist Green Book," produced by postal employee Victor H. Green, of Harlem, New York, from 1936 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. THF77183
Physically separating Blacks and whites was most difficult on city transit systems. By 1905, every southern state had outlawed Blacks from sitting next to whites on trolleys and streetcars, while individual conductors usually ordered black patrons to move from this or that seat. Middle-class Blacks were particularly indignant about these laws and organized numerous long-forgotten boycotts and protests. But, like railroad conductors before them, streetcar conductors were given policing power - and even weapons - to enforce the laws. Any Blacks who challenged the rules of behavior were dealt with swiftly and harshly.
As buses replaced trolleys and streetcars on city streets, Jim Crow laws continued. Each state and city had different requirements and customs to signal how Blacks and whites were to be separated on the buses. But, as with earlier modes of transportation, individual drivers had great latitude in determining where people sat and the power to enforce their decisions.
By the 1950s, as many as 40,000 African Americans regularly rode the city buses in Rosa Parks’ home town of Montgomery, Alabama (compared with about 12,000 whites). Officially, 10 seats in the front of each bus were reserved for whites. These spaces were reserved no matter what. Often this meant Black riders were jammed in the aisle, standing over empty seats. If the white section filled up and more white riders came in, an entire row of Black passengers had to get up and move back. Bus drivers could demand more seats for whites at any time and in any number. Furthermore, drivers often forced African American riders, once they had paid their fare, to get off the bus and re-enter through the back door-sometimes driving away without them. (Rosa Parks had actually experienced this.) Those who didn’t comply with these rules could be not only verbally abused but also slapped, knocked on the floor, pushed out the door, beaten, or even killed (which did occur in a few little-publicized cases).
A Courageous Act As stories of abusive drivers and humiliating incidents continued to spread, anger in the black community grew. However, most of the time, the indignities went unchallenged. Expecting African Americans to resist these long-established laws and traditions meant asking them to risk great harm and to summon an extraordinary amount of personal courage.
By 1955, inspired by attempts in other cities, Black community leaders in Montgomery explored the idea of a city-wide bus boycott - an organized refusal to use the buses. But they would need the united support of the city's African American bus riders, a notion that was unprecedented, untested, and likely to fail given past experience. And, after some fits and starts in trying to find an appropriate test case, they realized that a successful boycott would require the determined action of someone who possessed a flawless character and reputation and, at the same time, could ignite the action of an entire community.
That person, it turned out, was Rosa Parks. Her action on December 1, 1955, was unplanned and spontaneous, although her life experiences had undoubtedly prepared her for that moment. She was not the first African American to challenge the segregation laws of the Montgomery city bus system. But her sterling reputation, her quiet strength, and her moral fortitude caused her act to successfully ignite action in others.
This Montgomery city bus, acquired by The Henry Ford in 2001, is the actual bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat back in 1955. It now resides in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation's With Liberty & Justice For All exhibition.THF134576
Sparking a Movement Rosa Parks’ arrest for defying the Jim Crow law of segregation on Montgomery buses led to an immediate city-wide bus boycott, during which the Black community shared rides, walked, or worked out carpools-despite burnings, bombings, gunshots, and arrests. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than one year - 381 days to be exact -until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared segregation on Alabama buses to be unconstitutional.
Rosa Parks' simple, courageous act gave African Americans everywhere a new sense of pride and purpose, and inspired non-violent protests in other cities. Because of this, many consider her singular act of protest on the bus to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
Unfortunately, the impact of her act took its toll on Rosa Parks herself. She lost her job, her marriage became strained, her quiet life was gone, and she received threatening phone calls and letters. In 1957, she left Montgomery, moving to Detroit and eventually working for Congressman John Conyers.
How did Rosa Parks summon the courage to defy decades of established rules and traditions about segregated travel? A few months after her arrest, she explained it like this:
The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks was not a civic, political, or religious leader. She was just an ordinary person. And she well knew the risks of her actions. But, through her example, she showed others what was possible. Her uncommon courage shines through as an inspiration to us today.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.
African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.
Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619
Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.
Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store. These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations. Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355
Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand. Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape. Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.
Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486
Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759 For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources. The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food.
Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834
Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.
In a rare moment, one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. On the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we pause to reflect on the impact and legacy of her courageous action.
Rosa’s awareness of social injustice started at an early age. As a girl growing up in Alabama, Rosa hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her.
Jeanne Theoharis’ definitive political biography of Rosa Parks sets out to correct the popular myth of Rosa Parks as the quiet, tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on Montgomery City Lines Bus #2857. Through extensive and intricate research, Theoharis asserts that Rosa Parks spent years working courageously for civil rights. She prepared herself with an assured readiness, which she could rely on when an opportunity occurred as it did on the bus on December 1, 1955.
As Theoharis points out, Parks started her political activist career at an early age, decades before she refused to give up her bus seat. Parks and husband Raymond, who met in 1931, shared a passion for taking action against segregation laws. She joined the Montgomery NAACP in 1943 as a volunteer advocate organizing black youth groups and trying to bring justice for young black women raped by white men. A few years later, she became the secretary of the NAACP — working with E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery NAACP chapter — to advocate for anti-lynching laws and overcoming the formidable process of registering black people to vote.
Rosa Parks also was a strong advocate for integrating whites and blacks. In 1947, the Freedom Train, carrying historic copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and the original Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, “was scheduled to stop in Montgomery and Parks published a report objecting to Montgomery’s all-white train committee,” according to Theoharis. The national requirement that the exhibit be racially integrated was highly controversial in Montgomery, Birmingham and Memphis. Parks and her colleagues were instrumental in bringing the Freedom Train to Montgomery as they pressured city officials to ensure all children would actually enter on a first-come, first-served basis. As the Montgomery NAACP secretary, she created several campaigns for racial integration, wrote numerous press releases countering white arguments for segregation and continued to mount successive and tireless campaigns for black voter registration.
Theoharis brings us through six decades of Parks’ courageous life as a political activist, which had serious consequences for her and her family. Great economic stress, constant harassment and people threatening physical harm and even death were now part of her life. Despite the private toll, Parks continued to publicly urge perseverance for the civil rights movement, never retiring as an advocate for racial justice.
Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is an exceptional scholarly work that offers a great story for its readers and should be part of every library and classroom. This work provides a new awareness of the importance of an American icon whose real history is better and far more relevant to move our society forward than the myth of a tired seamstress.
Review by Christian W. Øverland, former Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford.
Susana Allen Hunter (Object ID 2007.71.15, THF37810)
Since joining The Henry Ford in 2010, I had been hearing about the wonderful collection of quilts made by Susana Allen Hunter. I had seen photos of the exhibition that The Henry Ford mounted in 2008 and had glimpsed the quilts in storage. But, I was not quite prepared for the true beauty and historical value of the collection until I got to see the quilts displayed.
The Henry Ford recently loaned part of its collection to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) for its exhibition, “The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter.” On May 9, I attended the opening with Marc Greuther, chief curator, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life. Was I ever impressed! These quilts are a stunning representation of artistry and the daily life of an African American woman living in the difficult conditions of rural Alabama as late as the 1970s.
In collaboration with the GRAM, we loaned 22 quilts from the collection, along with personal objects that belonged to Susana. Our textile conservator, Fran Faile, worked with GRAM staff to ensure that these significant pieces were handled and installed according to museum standards.
Jeanie Miller had secured the initial collection and then painstakingly researched its rich history. She worked with GRAM curatorial and education staff and shared not only her knowledge, but her passion for this extraordinary collection. She understood its value, and the way it captures rich stories of a distinctive time and place. Such stories are elusive and very difficult to collect and preserve. In this collection, The Henry Ford holds a remarkable piece of African American and women’s history.
During the process of acquiring the collection, Jeanie had developed a strong relationship with Tommie Hunter, grandson of Susana, who had lived with her as a young boy and with whom Susana lived in her later years. After Jeanie’s masterful presentation at the GRAM exhibition opening on the quilts and the related materials she has collected, she conducted a question and answer session with Tommie, his wife, Susie, and the audience. What a delight.The personal nature of the memories and tales of Susana Hunter’s quilting had the audience’s rapt attention.
The opening was great fun - food, wine, and people to share the excitement of the evening. But the sense of pride I felt to be associated with an institution that had the foresight to acquire and preserve such a remarkable piece of American history will stay with me always.