Brown University Cancels Rosa Parks House Exhibit in RI

Friday, March 09, 2018


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Rosa Parks House in Berlin, copyright Fabia Mendoza

Rosa Parks' home is not going to be an ongoing display, Brown University announced on Thursday.

The surprise announcement reverses the announced in February “that final preparation" was underway to bring a house belonging to the family of civil rights pioneer and American icon Rosa Parks to the University from Berlin as part of an exhibition on Parks and the Civil Rights Movement.

Presently, the house is owned by American artist Ryan Mendoza, but a legal dispute is emerging. The University issued the following statement regarding a decision to cancel the display of the house.

Statement from Brown University and its Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice:

Brown University deeply regrets that it must cancel the display of the house that was to be a central focus for a planned exhibition dedicated to Civil Rights Movement pioneer and American icon Rosa Parks, which was scheduled to open in early April.

The University recently learned from the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development that the Detroit house that was to be the focal point of the programming and an exhibition celebrating Rosa Parks and civil rights is the source of a current dispute. Brown does not speak on behalf of the family of Rosa Parks, the institute or the artist who owns the house. It is out of deep respect for the legacy of Rosa Parks and what it represents for America that the University feels it cannot responsibly move forward with the exhibit of the house, previously set to open April 3.

Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), which was organizing the three-month programming and exhibition associated with the house, will continue making preparations for a separate exhibition on the Civil Rights Movement and the African American political organizing tradition. This distinct exhibit was being planned to take place at the same time as the display of the house. The Civil Rights Movement exhibit will be hosted on Brown’s College Hill campus.

The canceled exhibition that centered on displaying the Detroit house would have taken place in an exhibit space Brown was preparing at a renovated factory building that is the headquarters of the nonprofit arts organization WaterFire Providence. The house arrived in Providence at the end of February, and assembly had just begun. Artist Ryan Mendoza owns the Detroit home and had displayed it in Berlin before it journeyed to the U.S. in preparation for the Brown exhibition. Brown will immediately begin repackaging the house and arranging to ship it to its next destination, to be determined by Mr. Mendoza.

The separate CSSJ exhibition, titled “The Civil Rights Movement: Unfinished Business,” will advance many of the same goals of the exhibition previously planned for the display of the house — to have a conversation around critical issues of race in America, and to educate about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Brown remains committed to its work convening difficult conversations on the legacy of slavery. 

The CSSJ was established in 2012 as an outgrowth of Brown’s groundbreaking examination of its historic role in the global slave trade and assessment of what responsibilities it imposes on the University today. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the CSSJ supports scholarship on the legacy of slavery and sponsors public education programs that engage communities in learning about the black experience, as part of the American story. 

Brown University is appreciative of the generous support offered by various foundations and sponsors for the formerly planned Rosa Parks exhibition. CSSJ also is appreciative of the outpouring of attention in Rhode Island, across the country and around the world to its efforts to celebrate Rosa Parks and her extensive work for racial and social justice.


Related Slideshow: Legacy of Racism in New England

Institutions around the country are currently addressing whether to acknowledge -- or not -- individuals whose past racist views are now being subject to present political pressure, whether it's Woodrow Wilson Hall at Princeton University, renaming Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland, to renaming Jefferson-Davis Highway in Virginia.  

In New England, a number of once prominent figures in the region's history are causing members of the community to revisit how a racist history plays a part in having a role in today's society.  

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Tom Yawkey

The legacy of the former owner of the Boston Red Sox, who passed away in 1976, is currently in the media glare for his views and actions while head of the club. 

“It’s time to banish the racist legacy of Tom Yawkey,” wrote Adrian Walker for the Boston Globe on Monday, of the former owner of the Sox for 44 years, starting in 1933.  

Wrote Walker, “All this history raises an uncomfortable, current-day question. Why on earth does Boston have a street called Yawkey Way? Or a Yawkey MBTA station? At a time when activists, especially on college campuses, are clamoring for renaming monuments to racist history, it’s long past time for Boston to think long and hard about the official Yawkey legacy. That the Red Sox are so central to the city’s psyche makes it even more urgent for Boston to act now to banish this legacy of racism.”

Last year, the Globe’s Robert Burgess posed,"Was Tom Yawkey Boston's Donald Sterling," making a comparison to the now former LA Clippers owner who was banned by the NBA for making racist remarks. 

“Unfortunately, Boston knows a thing or two about racism in sports," wrote Burgess. "While Sterling’s alleged words are offensive to many, let’s not sit too proud on our high horse.”

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Brown University

“In 2003, Brown University president Ruth Simmons opened an investigation into the school’s role in the slave trade. The findings exhumed unsettling accounts of the many ways in which important founders of the institution participated in and benefited from slavery, including the use of slave labor to construct the oldest and most iconic building on campus, University Hall,” wrote Northwestern Professor Jennifer Richeson in a piece entitled "What Ivy League Ties to Slavery Teach About Redemption."

As part of its recognition of its past ties to the slave trade, Brown unveiled its slavery memorial last year, which reads, “Rhode Islanders dominated the North American share of the African slave trade, launching over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1808, and scores of illegal voyages thereafter. Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”

A Manhattan Institute Fellow broached the issue of Brown changing its name when it took up renaming Columbus Day to "Fall Weekend", but the idea got little traction. 

"If you're going to get rid of the day honoring Columbus because he was involved in slavery, I don't see how you can bypass the Brown problem," said John Leo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "They have to be consistent with their message on slavery. And if they’re not willing to do that, then there's no reason to take them seriously."

Now, Brown just announced it is investing $100 million to "promote diversity and inclusion" on the campus, in light of pressures from the students and community to address ongoing racial issues on campus.  

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H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft, one of Providence’s most famous authors, known for “The Call of Cthulhu” and other works of horror fiction, is also known for a fair degree of controversy about racially-charged aspects of his writing. 

“It’s OK to admit that H.P. Lovecraft was racist,” wrote Laura Miller for Salon in 2014. Meanwhile, numerous literary analyses and blog posts, including “The ’N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of HP Lovecraft” and “Lovecraft, Racism, and the ‘Man of his Time’ Defense" give the author much less of pass. 

Lovecraft and his work where heralded with much fanfare this past summer in Providence for NecronomiCon, “celebrating 125 years of weird in the heart of Lovecraft’s city.”  Meanwhile, much more quietly, the Atlantic Cities reported that starting next year, the World Fantasy Award trophy will no longer be modeled after the massively influential horror-fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft. "Small, corrective steps matter, not for the past, but for the future," wrote Lenika Cruz. 

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John Winthrop

“John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, kept American Indians as slaves and helped to write the first law in the US officially sanctioning the practice of keeping African slaves,” wrote C.S. Manegold for the Boston Globe in “New England’s scarlet ‘S’ for slavery” in 2010. 

In terms of legacy, Winthrop is one of a number of historic figures that is subject to the “latest call by students at Harvard University for the school to purge terms or symbols deemed offensive by a vocal minority raises [in] what could be a confounding issue: How far will the 379-year-old school go to distance itself from historic figures whose actions and social values we would not approve today?” wrote Evan Lips for the NewBostonPost on December 4, as Harvard's Winthrop House” is one of a number at the school named for for a prominent Massachusetts leader who profited from slavery. 

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Ralph Papitto

In 2007, the then 80-year-old Ralph Papitto — “a big time donor to [Roger Williams University] and a longtime chairman of its board — expressed deep regret for uttering a racist slur about black people at a board meeting,” the Wall Street Journal reported

“I take full responsibility for this matter and ask for understanding from the community,” Papitto said in the statement. “I do not want this controversy, which at present is running out of control, to further the damage already caused to the university.”

The law school had opened at the Bristol, Rhode Island institution in 1993 and was named for Papitto in 1996, but just over 10 years later saw his name removed -- at his request -- in light of the scrutiny for the racist remarks.

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Harvard Law School

“A group of Harvard Law students called Royall Must Fall, is taking issue with the law school’s seal, parts of which come from the Royall family crest. Isaac Royall, Jr. was a slave owner and son of a slavetrader who played a key role in creating Harvard Law School,” wrote WBUR on December 2. 

Following an outcry from students, officials from the school are "examining the continued use of the seal, in what is the latest controversy over race and historic injustices on US college campuses in recent weeks."

“Symbols are important,” Martha Minow, dean of the law school, said this week to the Boston Globe. “They become even more important when people care about them and focus on them.”

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James DeWolf

"James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island (1764-1837) was a United States senator and a wealthy merchant who, at the time of his death, was reported to be the second richest person in the country. He was also the leading slave trader in the history of the United States,” wrote the Tracing Center.

“Over fifty years and three generations, from 1769 to 1820, James DeWolf and his extended family brought approximately 12,000 enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage, making the DeWolf family our nation’s most successful slave-trading family.”

And the mission of the Tracing Centre?  

“To create greater awareness of the full extent of the nation’s complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and to inspire acknowledgement, dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies.”

DeWolf is featured prominently in a 2008 documentary" Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North" co-produced and directed by Katrina Browne, a DeWolf descendant.


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