From her self-imposed Paris exile, Marlene Dietrich sang wistfully about her suitcase in Berlin. Rosa Parks can now do one better.
Some 12 years after the civil rights activist died, her former house has found a new home in the German capital.
Last year, number 2672 South Deacon Street in Detroit, a shabby three-bedroom house with peeling white wooden slats, was facing the wrecking ball. A niece of Rosa Parks, Rhea McCauley, bought the ruin from the city for $500, but was unable to finance a restoration herself or find a donor to pay for the work. Eventually she agreed to an usual proposal by Berlin-based US artist Ryan Mendoza.
In a six-month labour of love, he disassembled the house into 2,000 pieces in Detroit and paid the $13,000 shipping costs to Berlin, rebuilding it beside his own atelier.
Parks was born in 1913 in Alabama and became an unlikely heroine aged 42, when she was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. It was an act of defiance that later made her the mother of the US civil rights movement, marching alongside Rev Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
In 1957, though, Rosa Parks was a scared woman, living on the run. Facing threats in Alabama, and struggling to make ends meet, she moved to Detroit to find work and live with her brother Sylvester. In Detroit, home for the rest of her life, she became involved in the 1960s campaign to halt demolition of city housing that was 70 per cent occupied by African Americans.
Ironically, Parks’s former Detroit house was itself earmarked for demolition last year as part of the city’s urban renewal campaign.
Though it was not her aunt’s last home in the city, Ms McCauley has many happy memories in the house with her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and up to 12 children.
“This house represents love for me,” she said, “Even if the US is not interested in my aunt’s legacy, I know the whole world loves her.”
While the house remains closed, the windows are illuminated and visitors can listen to an audio collage of sounds from the Parks’s time in Detroit.
Berlin is just a temporary home, according Mendoza, a chance to give the house back its dignity before finding a permanent home elsewhere, ideally in the US. Mendoza hopes to secure a boost for that effort next month, when he plans to attract former US president Barack Obama to the house during his visit to the German capital.
Until then, the spirit of Rosa Parks lives on, far from Montgomery and Detroit, as an incongruous Easter resurrection story: a house shunned by a country building a wall and embraced by a city that tore down its wall.
“This house had to go so far away to be missed,” said Mendoza. “Sometimes it’s only when you lose something that you value it.”