Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Cash-strapped heirs mine rich legacies of civil rights icons

Nine years after Rosa Parks’ death, her memorabilia finally lands at the Library of Congress

It is becoming a familiar, unfortunate spectacle in the years and decades after the death of a major civil rights figure: Heirs squabble over whether memorabilia left behind should be donated to a library or museum in the interest of securing the deceased’s place in history or sold to the highest bidder in an increasingly lucrative collectors’ market.

The case of Rosa Parks was resolved last week when the nonprofit Buffett Foundation paid $4.5 million for warehouses full of the icon’s papers and memorabilia and then donated them for at least the next 10 years to the Library of Congress in Washington. Yet that came nine years after Parks’ death and after a probate court’s solution to disputes among her survivors — even though Parks’ will clearly outlined her wishes.

“Heirs can often disagree, which is unfortunate,” said Adrienne Cannon, the curator of the Library of Congress’ Civil Rights History Project who is assigned to process the Parks material. “If a collection is jointly owned by a number of heirs and they don’t agree where the collection should be placed or whether it should be donated or sold, then the collection is often left in limbo. We don’t proceed with finalizing a gift with the donors unless there is an accord.”

A pair of eyeglasses and and a typing textbook that belonged to Rosa Parks at Guernsey’s auction house in New York in March 2014.
Richard Drew / AP

Historians and archivists view the Parks case as an extreme example — one that both impedes historical research and has the potential to sully the image of the historical figure — of a story that has repeated itself in other cases involving major figures of the mid–20th century.

Aside from the internecine battle among the Parks kin, the children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are also — more than three decades after his assassination — fighting over the disposition of certain items, most notably his Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize. Some children of Malcolm X, slain almost 40 years ago, sued last year to stop one of their sisters from permitting the publication of his diary.

“It’s a really sad commentary on these legacies,” said Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums and director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. “It’s starting to be what we talk about more when we talk about Martin Luther King. It’s hard to talk about him without talking about this sidebar thing with his children.”

In the case of Parks, who died in Detroit at 92 in 2005, she left instructions that her materials be owned by her foundation, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, and managed by a close friend who would receive 90 percent of the royalties. Her nieces and nephews, who were to receive 10 percent of the royalties, disputed the will and aimed to sell off her items in private sales. A probate court eventually ordered an auction, but there were no bidders for the material in the $8 million to $10 million price range set by Guernsey’s auction house in New York.

‘When [Martin Luther King] died, nobody passed the hat. There was no effort to take care of the family. Malcolm [X]’s items were stored somewhere, and nobody paid the bill because the family couldn’t afford it.’

Bob Adelman

civil-rights-era photographer

In late August, Howard Buffett, a son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, ended the dispute by buying the material — which includes Parks’ Presidential Medal of Freedom, a postcard from Martin Luther King Jr. and a pillbox hat she may have worn on the historic day in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus — for $4.5 million.

Last week he lent it to the Library of Congress for a decade. “I’m only trying to do one thing: preserve what’s there for the public’s benefit,” Howard Buffett said in a statement. “I thought about doing what Rosa Parks would want. I doubt that she would want to have her stuff sitting in a box with people fighting over them.”

While nasty familial disputes aren’t exclusive to the families of black historical figures, historians say they pop up with particular frequency in this realm in part because the families tend to be far less affluent than the heirs of white icons of significance. When King died, for instance, he left behind little for his family to live on, said noted civil-rights-era photographer Bob Adelman, recently appointed as the Library of Congress’ photographer in residence.

“When [King] died, nobody passed the hat. There was no effort to take care of the family,” Adelman said. “Malcolm’s items were stored somewhere, and nobody paid the bill because the family couldn’t afford it. These people are victims, and we should be very charitable in thinking about them and their trying to survive in various ways.”

Rosa Parks' Presidential Medal of Freedom, left, and her Congressional Gold Medal will have a home at the Library of Congress for the next 10 years.
Richard Drew / AP

Also, Black said, the civil rights era is receding — and major figures are dying — at a time when there is both an unprecedented interest in the collections and artifacts of famous black leaders as well as a heightened awareness, thanks to eBay and PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” that such items could have monetary value. The Parks collection may have been overvalued by the auction house, he said, but it was eventually sold for millions. “If Rosa Parks had died 20 years earlier, there probably would have been fewer people interested in her material,” he said.

The profit motive has, in fact, become a bigger issue not only after icons die but also in later years when those around them realize the potential value. In the case of late civil rights attorney Florynce Kennedy, who died in 2000, her sisters sued to regain important materials they believed opportunists had taken from the home of an increasingly senile Kennedy, said University of Michigan historian Sherie Randolph, whose biography of Kennedy is due out next year. Randolph helped the family organize Kennedy’s materials and donate them to a library at Harvard University. Yet she’s confident some conspicuously missing items — notably Kennedy’s files from her work as an attorney for the jazz great Billie Holiday — are still at large.

“After Flo’s sister dies, we’ll see the Holiday papers on eBay, I bet,” Randolph said. “So many people could have had access to her house, but none of those papers are there. None of Flo’s notes, nothing like that.”

Black and others hope that other aging legends — the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actors Sydney Poitier and Bill Cosby, singer Harry Belafonte — take heed from these messy, embarrassing disputes and be mindful of how their possessions can assist in providing evidence of their historical activities.

“You can’t foresee if there’s going to be an issue, but you have to put it out there and say there’s a possibility this will happen,” Black said.

If not for Buffett’s philanthropy, he noted, the postcard between Parks and King could have ended up “framed and mounted on a collector’s mantel somewhere in Rome or something.”

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