Press Release


Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus

December 1, 2022
By HH Leonards Times

In my mind's eye, every day should be Rosa Parks Day because of who she was, what she stood for, what she believed in, and how she treated people. From the day that I met her, she was always more than people remember her for, yet she remained grateful for all she had until the day that she passed.

I was privileged to spend the better part of a decade with Mrs. Parks as her "host" at my residence, The O Museum in the Mansion, in Washington, D.C., and as her traveling companion. There was never a day during that time that I didn't learn something about life and resilience from her.

Mrs. Parks came into my life following a phone call in 1994 from someone who identified himself as Brother Willis Edwards, the head of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP. His request was simple, but I could tell from the tenor and urgency in his voice, heartfelt. Could his friend, Mrs. Parks, stay with us at the Mansion and Museum for a few days, he asked.

He explained that she had been hospitalized in Detroit after a severe assault at her home, and she needed to recuperate out of the public eye. He had heard of our Heroes in Residence program—where we provided free accommodation to those who had served others—and hoped that we could host her, at no charge, as part of the program. I said "yes" immediately, without knowing who Mrs. Parks was.

I grew up in Indiana in the 1960s, where a discussion of "civil rights" was not part of any curriculum. Yet being a poor student most of my life was in some ways a blessing. If I had known more about Mrs. Parks while she was here, I would not have become her close friend. I would have thought I was not important enough to spend time with her.

My friendship with Mrs. Rosa Parks

For the first few years that Mrs. Parks was here, I felt her heart and soul but I did not know what she had accomplished. When I found out who she was, about three years later, I was embarrassed by my ignorance. But even then, I didn't stop to do any research about who she was, or what she had done.

H. H. Leonards with Rosa Parks. The pair were friends for almost 10 years, when Parks moved in to Leonards' residence in Washington.

When I apologized to Mrs. Parks for not knowing who she was, she smiled ever-so-sweetly and patted my hand. "Lady H," she replied, "this is a great trait. It shows your purity and is the very reason we became such great friends. You know who I really am, not who people make me out to be."

My deep friendship with Mrs. Parks came from our conversations about family and God. We discussed how to honor God, the importance of extended family, her love of children, and how children are the truth of tomorrow. Her focus was on the power of unity, bringing people together.

I never asked her any questions about her past and we did not talk specifically about civil rights, women's rights, or human rights, unless our conversations were about how family and God played into these movements. Those conversations came about when we were in meetings with others. And at those meetings, I seldom spoke. I just listened and learned.

Traveling with Mrs. Parks

I used to own a little yellow school bus. It was my only vehicle. I would drive Mrs. Parks in the bus when she had important meetings in D.C. She always sat in the front seat, close to me. The irony was not lost on us. Imagine Mrs. Parks, Elaine Steele, and Brother Willis Edwards—with a white woman driving—pulling up to places like the White House, as we sometimes did, in a little yellow school bus!

H. H. Leonards

H. H. Leonards in the driving seat of her yellow school bus. Leonards would take Rosa Parks to engagements, including at the White House.

Mrs. Parks was allowed to stay on the bus, but for security purposes, everyone else had to get off to pass security. With Mrs. Parks on board, we were always allowed to drive right to the front door of the White House after we were "checked out." Mrs. Parks was treated with respect and understanding when we visited presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. The Secret Service told us very few people were allowed the privilege of driving to the front steps of the White House.

I would drive her to church every Sunday, and I would also pick her up at the airport when she returned from one of the many events she attended. What was great about the school bus was that when I got to the airport, I could just park out front and go right to the gate to get her.

What I learned from her

I believe that I knew Mrs. Parks on a deeper level than many others ever experienced. And I was in the position to chronicle that she was more than "the bus lady." Mrs. Parks was a humble, straightforward person. What she accomplished, she did without rancor, and with humility and a kind, loving heart.

During her lifetime, she encountered many who either persecuted her or who took advantage and even disregarded who she was. Yet, every day she woke up, committed to her mission of service, determined to teach love, forgiveness, and compassion at every event and private meeting she attended.
She accepted any and all invitations to speak because she believed this was a big way to rid the world of prejudice, which she always said was brought about by fear. "If people shake my hand, they will not fear me," she would always say.

And, of course, whenever she could, she told people of every age, "Get an education. Continue to educate yourself." She did not just preach this thought. In her late 80s, she learned how to swim.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks stands next to H. H. Leonards. The pair enjoyed discussing faith and family, according to Leonards, but rarely talked about Parks' history.

Mrs. Parks taught me that the beauty of great friends is that you can be quiet in their presence. During our best moments together, we would just sit next to each other, saying nothing, simply feeling the moment.

Other times, actually most times, when someone talked or I would ask her a question, she would not answer right away. She measured the few words she spoke. I believe that this characteristic of choosing words carefully, ensuring that the message was truly heard, was what made her most endearing. I also think, on a deeper level, that this is why she has lovingly endured as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," when at the time other people may have been more famous.

On May 13, 2019, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser dedicated a permanent plaque outside the O Museum in The Mansion, commemorating how Mrs. Parks made us her home-away-from-home and designating the building as an important historic site for the African American Heritage Trail. Around the same time, the Library of Congress asked us to partner with them on her exhibition and to help with a year of programming. Mrs. Parks' story, legacy, and connection to our city is little known, and yet critical to the work she did.
With the #MeToo movement in full force and racial tensions currently plaguing our country, Mrs. Park's story is even more germane. She challenged boundaries her entire life, and I believe she should be remembered for more than just one incident—even though it was pivotal. Mrs. Parks was always respectful, but she was a warrior against an unjust social order. As President Clinton aptly said at her funeral, "She made America a better place to live, but she did not make America good." That's up to us.

H.H. Leonards is the author of Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership and founder of O Museum in The Mansion in Washington, DC, which was established in 1980 to provide a safe haven and sanctuary where guests could learn from one another and foster the development of diversity, creativity and the human spirit.
All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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