The University canceled the planned exhibition of a house connected to Rosa Parks March 8, citing a “dispute” over the house that is independent of the University, wrote Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark in an email to The Herald.
The house, which belonged to Parks’ brother Sylvester McCauley, was to be featured in an exhibition on the life and times of Rosa Parks at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence, The Herald previously reported.
Steven Cohen, lawyer for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, claims that the significance of the house has been overplayed by Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley. Cohen claims that Rosa Parks never lived in her brother’s house.
Both McCauley and Ryan Mendoza, the exhibit’s artist, dispute Cohen’s account. The house was only ever described as belonging to Parks’ brother, they said, adding that Parks fled there in 1957.
Cohen said he spoke to the General Counsel of the University earlier this year, informing them that, to his knowledge, Rosa Parks never lived in or stayed at the house. According to Cohen, following this conversation, the University conducted an investigation after which they ultimately decided not to feature the house.
Clark did not confirm or deny that the University conducted an investigation following Cohen’s call. The University is “not in a position to speak about the nature of the dispute,” Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.
Cohen believes that going forward with the exhibit would have devalued Parks’ name. “It’s false information,” Cohen said. “False information tends to degrade, or has the potential to degrade, the value of a person’s publicity rights.” The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development has taken legal action in the past to protect their intellectual property rights to the name, likeness and image of Rosa Parks.
On the other hand, Mendoza and Barnaby Evans, executive artistic director of the WaterFire Arts Center, see the dispute over the house’s legitimacy as a distraction from the goals of the initial exhibition: informing the public about Parks’ life and struggle. “We don’t want to defend ourselves … we want to just talk about Rosa Parks,” Mendoza said. “To turn their backs now on the Rosa Parks house is to silence the family members.”
Evans said the exhibition of Parks’ brothers’ house sheds light on her desperation — penniless and jobless, she fled to the only place she could afford.
“The real cost of her leadership as a Civil Rights icon is represented by the fact that she lost her job, she lost her home in Montgomery, and fortunately, Sylvester was able to take her into this home,” Evans said. “She was never occasioned the respect to be able to have an income where she could buy a house of her own. That’s the point.”
Mendoza chose Brown specifically as the first exhibition place for the house, turning down offers in Europe, including a UNESCO World Heritage site. He felt the house needed to return to America and provide an opportunity to educate the public, he said.
Mendoza and McCauley both said the University did not contact them immediately after deciding to cancel the project. They found out about the cancellation from the press release, after Mendoza had arrived in Providence from Berlin.
The University claims that the artist and all donors were contacted before the decision was announced, according to Clark.
The fate of the house for the time being remains unclear. The WaterFire Arts Center is looking to see if the exhibit can proceed without support from the University and is hoping to keep the house in Providence, Evans said. “We understand that for legal reasons Brown had to step back … But for us to continue the exhibition we need to find the dollars to cover several of the things which were planned.”
Partnering with the University provided money for chair rentals, speaker rentals, insurance, security and more, according to Evans.
According to Mendoza, the University asked for the house to be removed from the WaterFire Arts Center by March 22nd. The University is committed to paying the house’s disassembly and shipping costs, Clark wrote. The artist will decide where the house will be placed, Clark wrote.
The University paid for the house’s passage from Berlin, where Mendoza lives, to the U.S., with a $45,000 grant from the Nash Family Foundation. The money was offered with the understanding that the house would be shown at an exhibition in Providence.
Nash Family Foundation board member James Nash said that he feels “betrayed” by the University. “I did not give Brown $45,000 so that the Rosa Parks house could have an all-expenses-paid round trip vacation in Providence,” he said, adding that he intends to fight the exhibit’s cancellation.
The University was “working with each of the generous donors who had committed to funding the project,” Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.
“It’s a complete betrayal of the Rosa Parks legacy,” Nash added. “Rosa Parks risked her life for justice, even though the law was on the wrong side of justice. What more perfect betrayal can you have?"
“If this thing gets sent out of the country, that’s embarrassing,” said Peter Mello, managing director of the WaterFire Arts Center.
Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that James Nash was not contacted by the University before the cancellation decision was made. In fact, Nash was contacted by the University before the cancellation decision was made. The article has also been updated to include the University's offer to allow the artist to decide where the house will be placed. It has also been updated to include the University's claim that the artist and all donors were contacted before the decision was announced. The article also stated that according to Mendoza, the University was asking for the house to be removed from Providence as soon as possible. In fact, Mendoza received a letter from the University stating that house would have to be removed from the WaterFire Arts Center by March 22nd. The article has also been updated to remove the quote, "Brown, because of their pusillanimous fear of a cease and desist order, is demanding the house go back to Germany before any Americans can see it" from James Nash. In fact, the University did not demand the house return to Germany. The Herald regrets the errors.