The Rosa Parks Bus
A Tangible Way to Preserve Civil Rights History
It’s a story of midnight bids and destroyed documents. It’s a story of meticulous research and tough questions with no clear answers. It’s a story of awe and hope. It’s the story of the Rosa Parks bus—bus number 2857.
The story of how the bus got from a factory in Pontiac, Michigan, to the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, to a mechanic’s field outside of Montgomery, and finally to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has some surprising twists and turns. If you aren’t familiar with it, stop reading now and go to the excellent article in American Heritage magazine by William S. Pretzer, who was the curator at the Henry Ford Museum responsible for the research, acquisition, restoration, and interpretation of the Rosa Parks bus between 2001 and 2006. Then click back here, because there’s more.
Forum staff interviewed Pretzer and his colleague Malcolm Collum, who was the senior conservator at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in 2001 when the bus came up for auction. The conservators' task was daunting. They had to determine if the bus, which had been rusting in an Alabama field for 30 years and was now for sale, was truly bus 2857. They had to figure out how to restore, display, and interpret the bus. They had to answer to critics who felt the bus should be exhibited in a civil rights museum in Alabama.
They persevered, and today the bus has been restored and is part of “With Liberty and Justice for All,” an exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village that explores America’s fight for freedom, from the Revolutionary War through the struggle for civil rights.
Collum explains that it was a challenge for him to come to “the realization that this artifact was going to be ‘used and experienced,’ because with that comes wear and tear.” He says: “We needed to find replacement seats, we replaced the rubberized flooring and needed to repaint most surfaces, so these components were considered expendable, and we just needed to repair and replace as needed.”
But this overhaul actually turned out to be a good thing. Today, visitors to the Henry Ford museum can actually board the bus and sit in the seats—it is not simply an exhibit behind glass. Collum says, “It would have been much more of a challenge if the bus was primarily original, since we would have preferred to keep all the materials preserved and this would have forced us to prohibit visitors from getting inside.”
As museum administrators today strive to make artifacts and spaces more accessible, they have to account for everyday wear and tear, and even vandalism. But the rewards of “opening up” history are immense. Collum says: “I’m still struck by the emotional response that people had when they were able to go inside and sit in the same place where Parks was back in 1955. Perfectly composed people just broke down into tears once they sat down and reflected on the event.”
He explains: “Usually we never allow visitors to enter the vehicles in the museum but we decided that going into the bus was going to be essential if we want people to be able to have such a strong emotional response to this artifact.”
“There are no good reasons not to interpret ‘difficult’ or unpleasant aspects of history. Indeed, it is often in those moments that we see the best and learn the most.”William S. Pretzer
Bus 2857 is a bus—a 1950s version of the standard metro bus that many Americans ride every day. But the history and emotions that surround this ordinary bus are powerful, personal, controversial, painful, and still close to the surface.
Pretzer, who is now senior history curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says that “if you explore why these sites evoke such strong emotions, then you can find methods of presentation that acknowledge complexity and differences of perspective, but also illuminate the interests at stake and the motives that drive human action.”
He explains that you need to “analyze the issues not as who won and who lost, but what values or principles were at stake and whether or not the outcome promotes human dignity or not."
"There are no good reasons not to interpret ‘difficult’ or unpleasant aspects of history," Pretzer says. "Indeed, it is often in those moments that we see the best and learn the most.”
Collum reflects on the “what ifs” of the story. What if the bus had ended up in the scrap yard? Collum says: “If lost, it would mean thousands, if not millions, of people would never be able to have that emotional connection with history. There’s nothing that comes close to the experience people get when they are literally immersed in an artifact. It’s a tangible and real experience that only happens when we can make that physical connection.”
The remarkable story of how this bus was saved is a reminder of the fragility of our material culture. Pretzer says: “[An] interesting question is how many other powerful, but less known stories of courage and defiance in the quest for freedom and equality are destroyed or left to decay. Those stories are too often lost because there is little documentation other than the material remains and oral history.”
This article originally appeared in the Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. It has been edited for length and clarity.