Rosa Parks the Activist and Seamstress
Mrs. Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. She was taught to read and write at an early age by her mother and did well academically. Rosa also received her first sewing lessons from her mother and maternal grandmother, who made quilts. Rosa was forced to leave school in her junior year due to the ailing health of these two women, but she made the best of things. Instead, she accepted a job as a seamstress in a shirt factory and sewing became her daily life. Rosa eventually earned her high school diploma, with the support of her husband, at the age of 20.
Most of us are taught about Rosa Parks in our Civil Rights lesson in school. She is known for having inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott after not giving up her seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. Rosa took a seat that day in the colored section as she always had before. The bus driver ordered her to surrender her seat and stand in the back when a white man took her seat. You may remember that she was known to have said she was tired after a long day of working at the Montgomery Fair Department store. She refused the order to move with full knowledge that she might lose her job as seamstress. The police were called by the bus driver. Rosa was removed from the bus and arrested for disturbing the peace. She was given a $10.00 fine and a $4.00 court fee, and she did end up losing her job.
Rosa did work long hours, possibly 10 to 12 hours a day. She would have been understandably tired after her shift, but her actual statement of being tired says, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because, I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then, I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
In addition to working at the department store, Rosa also sewed at home for private clients, family members, and herself. In fact, she was sewing a dress for herself the day of the bus incident. The delicate rayon georgette dress she was sewing became an icon of that day. The yellow and grey material of the floral print dress is now held in the National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Conservation interns have repaired the small tears due to the passing of time, using dyed chiffon and a fine silk thread called ‘hair silk’, also dyed to match, in a couching stitch to follow the grain of the weave.
We can remember Rosa Parks as one of the most influential women of the 20th century. But truly she was a woman who believed in a better life for herself and her community and was willing to make a peaceful stand that famous day. Her community connection from her sewing business allowed her to continue with her civil rights work. She worked with youth and voter registration drives just to name a few areas. Unfortunately, after her arrest she received months of threats and harassment. She eventually moved and was living in Detroit, Michigan. After a full life she passed at age 92 on October 24, 2005. She has been an integral partner in the civil rights movement and continues to inspire to this day.
Sewing has been an outlet for many women over the year to express themselves and promote the ideals of their hearts. I hope that someday I will have the opportunity to make a statement with my art and help make my community a better place.
Photos curtesy of pixaby.com
Oxford African American Studies Center
National Women’s History Museum
Library of Congress
Whipstitch, Modern Sewing