Celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th on Avenue Rosa Parks in Yaounde, Cameroon

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This morning, I had a meeting at the US Embassy in Yaounde to discuss human rights in Cameroon.  The US Embassy, it turns out, is located on Avenue Rosa Parks.  Past security, in the lobby where visitors wait for their escort, the walls were hung with photos and text documenting the life of Rosa Parks, a true American hero.

I realized later in the day that today is Rosa Parks birthday.  If she were alive, she would be 100 years old today.  Could she have imagined the impact – wide and deep – that her actions would have, not only in her country but around the world?  Or that one day there would be streets named after her in places like Yaounde?

I met Rosa Parks once, on the Ellis Island ferry.  I wrote about it last February and am reposting it here in celebration of her 100th birthday.

Me and Rosa Parks on the Ellis Island Ferry

(Image source)

My oldest son is studying the life of Rosa Parks in his 6th grade history class.  “I actually met Ms. Rosa Parks once,” I say.  He’s already halfway up the stairs, heading back to the sanctuary of his room. “Did I ever tell you about that?”  On the cusp of his teens, he has no interest in being trapped by a pontificating mother.  “Yes,” he replies.  He pauses, half-turned towards me, left leg on a higher step, poised for flight.  I see my opening and I take it.

***

In 1986, my grandfather Orville Prestholdt was recognized with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his contributions as a “Norwegian activist”.  I was a sophomore in college and I took a Metro North train down to New York to meet my grandparents the night before for the gala event.   The honorees were staying at a fancy hotel, one those midtown landmarks that is long on history but short on space in the guestrooms.  As I entered the lobby, I walked straight into the sonic boom of Lee Iaccoca (chair of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, honorary medal recipient).  If I remember correctly, I next walked straight into the back of Donald Trump (Scottish-German).  Fortunately, “The Donald” was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Iacocca and didn’t notice my faux pas.

Established in 1986 by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor “pay tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic”.   Walter Cronkite (Dutch), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (French-Irish), Joe DiMaggio (Italian) – the Ellis Island medalists were a veritable Who’s Who of American immigration.  Of course, this was back in the Reagan era when Americans still celebrated the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.   The 80 inaugural Ellis Island Award winners had been selected from more than 15,000 nominations following the controversy over the Medals of Liberty. Announced in the spring of 1986, the Medals of Liberty had honored 12 naturalized citizens, including  Bob Hope (English), I.M. Pei (Chinese), Irving Berlin (Russian) and Elie Wiesel (Romanian).   Numerous ethnic groups had objected that they were not represented among the winners of the Medals of Liberty, however, and had threatened protests during the “Liberty Weekend” (July 4, 1986) award festivities.  So the Ellis Island Medals were created more or less as a compromise.

That’s when they went looking for the lesser-knowns with more obscure national origins.  People  like my grandfather, who had changed his name from Olaf to Orville when he immigrated from Norway in order to “be more American”.  My grandfather had charted a successful political career in the Sons of Norway, from lodge president to International Board of Directors.  He got his Ellis Island Medal for his “contributions in preserving  Norwegian- American culture”.  Too late for “Liberty Weekend”, the Ellis Island awards were to be presented on the actual 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in late October of 1986.  That date fell on a Monday, but I figured it was worth skipping one day of classes to be a small part of history.

Having finally located my grandparents among the honorees at the reception, we headed to the elevator to go up to their room to drop off my bag and change for dinner.  Muhammad Ali (African) was in the elevator with some family members; they held the elevator door for us.  Mr. Ali tapped me on the shoulder and, when I turned, began performing a magic trick with a polka-dot silk scarf.  At the time, I didn’t know that he had Parkinson’s.  Or maybe I had heard he had Parkinson’s, but I didn’t really know what that meant.  In any event, I watched in horror as the man – who had been such an icon in the 70s when I was a kid – struggled, with trembling hands, to slowly stuff the scarf into a fake plastic thumb.  That’s how I found out how they do that disappearing scarf trick.  No kidding – Muhammad Ali!  The fake plastic thumb was several shades different from the color of his skin and looked dangerously close to falling off his real thumb, but he was focused like a laser on making that scarf disappear.  I remembered playing chase at recess on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.  The one who was  “it” would yell,  “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I am the mighty Muhammed Ali!”  As “The Greatest” slowly performed his magic trick for me, I watched the single, crystalline drop of drool that hung suspended from the corner of his mouth.   I thought for sure I was going to cry.

My grandfather handled the whole thing much better than I did.  Maybe he was just feeling pretty good after a couple of highballs and a chat with Victor Borge (Danish), but he clapped his hands when the scarf finally disappeared and chortled with glee. “Woo-hee-hoo-hoo!!!”  He may have danced a little jig in that elevator, too – he was that kind of guy. But I can’t be sure because I had gotten really good at ignoring him when he did that kind of thing in public.  At 19, I saw only the weaknesses, the frailties, the embarrassments of my elders in that elevator.  Now I see that I missed the courage, the determination, the encouragement, the shared joy in the accomplishment of a difficult task.

That night, as I lay in my narrow rollaway bed listening to my grandparents snore a few feet away from me, I thought about who I might meet the next day.  I hoped to see  John Denver (German) and Cesar Chavez (Mexican).  Maybe also Gregory Peck (English) and Andy Williams (Welsh).  Bob Hope was going to be there, too, as his wife Dolores (Irish-Italian) was receiving an award.  But the person I most wanted to meet was Ms. Rosa Parks (African-American).

Rosa Parks had been a larger than life figure for me growing up in the post-Jim Crow South.  The East Baton Rouge Parish school system underwent court-ordered desegregation when I was in high school, so I had some sense of the courage it must have taken her to do what she did.  I thought she was an American hero.

(Image source)

The awards ceremony was to take place on Ellis Island, so in the morning we were all bussed down to Battery Park and the chartered ferry.  Most people stayed up on deck for the short ferry ride, cameras at the ready to take photos of the Statue of Liberty.  About halfway through the ride, I went inside to look around.  And there she was!  A tiny, birdlike woman with large glasses sitting alone on a bench by the window.  In my mind’s eye, she is wearing a hat, coat and gloves but I can’t be sure I haven’t borrowed that memory from other images.  She sat prim and erect, her hands folded on her purse in her lap, looking straight ahead. It is exactly how I always pictured her on the bus. I walked over and asked, “Can I sit here?”  She looked up at me and nodded briefly and I sat down.  Then my courage failed me.  I can’t think of what to say next.  As we approached the Statue of Liberty, she turned for a better view out the window so, of course, I did, too.  “She’s smaller than she looks in pictures,” remarked Rosa Parks to me. Or maybe just to herself, but I smiled and nodded anyway.  Then we approached Ellis Island and her family came to collect her.  I went back up on deck to look for my grandparents.

***

“Maybe a famous person like Rosa Parks didn’t really want to talk to you.  You were a stranger,” my son speculates.

“Maybe,” I say.  “But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just sitting there, trying to think of what to say to her and how I was wasting my one chance to talk to her.  It was like I was frozen.  I never did say anything else to her, other than ‘Can I sit here’?”

“So what would you have wanted to ask her on the ferry?”  my son wonders.

“Well, I guess I would have asked what it was like to ride that bus.”

Twenty-five years later, I realize that Rosa Parks was probably asked some variation of that question nearly every day of her long and beautiful life.  She was probably asked it more times than she could count.  Asked and answered; you can google it.

“I don’t recall that I felt anything great about it,” Ms. Parks remembered in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. “It didn’t feel like a victory, actually. There still had to be a great deal to do.”

This conversation with my son made me realize that I didn’t need to ask her anything that one time I met her.  I didn’t waste my one chance to talk to Ms. Rosa Parks.  It was enough to be able  to sit quietly in her presence for a few minutes. An African-American and a Norwegian-American, sitting side by side on the ferry and gazing together at the Statue of Liberty.

***

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14 thoughts on “Celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th on Avenue Rosa Parks in Yaounde, Cameroon

  1. What a wonderful memory and a great observation by your son. I am not very familiar with the South, but was pleased on a recent road trip from Indiana to Florida to see several roads, bridges and buildings (including the bus station in Pensacola) named in honor of Ms. Parks. My son, who ended up with an even quirkier sense of humor than me, laughed when I pointed out the bus station. After living there for a year he had not noticed it – a dead giveaway that he didn’t exactly know where he was driving. But it lead to a great discussion on Parks as well as the President’s reference to “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall” in his inaugural address. I was amazed that he didn’t understand the Senecca Falls or Stonewall references, despite several history classes in both high school and college. Makes me ponder how many heros we “recognize” by naming structures but we don’t tell their stories.

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    1. Very interesting, Anne Camille, and something to ponder. Memorials are often used in transitional justice, too. Even if a country has no money, it can rename a bridge or a park after a human rights hero. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. I’m blown away. First of all, your telling of the story put me right into that elevator and onto that ferry with you. You are an excellent writer. Also, I got to meet Muhammed Ali briefly when he came to my son’s middle school to talk to the students. He was so himself, with none of his attention on his disabilities. I think this was around 1994. Then we saw him at the opening of the Atlanta Summer Olympics and it was heart-wrenching and wonderful all at the same time. He was so loved! Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your post and I’m going to share it with some friends.

    I was wondering . . . what is the human rights situation in Cameroon? I can’t imagine that human rights have taken much hold there. Would love to read more about that. P.S. Your son asked a very bright question!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing my story about Rosa Parks and Muhammed Ali! As for Cameroon, the human rights situation is better than many other countries in Africa but there are some very serious problems – especially related to the rights of women. Also, detention conditions are terrible, combined with the fact that pre-trial detention can be extremely long. We’ve been hearing about many cases of people who have been detained for more than 5 years without a hearing – much less a conviction. Sometimes the pre-trial detention can last longer than their maximum sentence would be if convicted! We’ve been meeting with a lot of inspirational people and organizations doing great work, so I’ll be writing more about that when I am back home and have more time and better internet access. Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks, Sue Ann! My daughter is a big fan of Rosa Parks, too. I think her bravery and her quiet action make her one of the most real figures of the US civil rights movement. Maybe that’s why we find her so easy to relate to. Thanks for your comment!

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Everyone has the right to an opinion and I'd love to hear yours! While comments are very welcome, they will be moderated. My kids read this blog, too!

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