Restorers of Rosa Parks bus step back into civil rights era

Rare perspective gained on campaign's origins

February 02, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DETROIT - The smell knocked the men back before anything else, a blast of old rubber and rotting horsehair and Alabama-baked red clay.

For days, the mold and mildew from Montgomery City Lines' bus No. 2857 filled their sinuses as the men dug cobwebs and wasp's nests from under the driver's seat and behind the dashboard.

Sometimes, history is left to decay. Sometimes, it's recovered in the most unlikely place.

The bus believed to be the one Rosa Parks made famous Dec. 1, 1955, has sat in the back of MSX International, an automotive engineering company in Auburn Hills, Mich., since early September. The Henry Ford Museum bought the bus in 2001 after it was discovered in a field in Alabama and sent it to MSX for restoration.

At 6 o'clock Monday morning, a trailer hauled the 36-seat, wheeled symbol of the civil rights movement to the museum, leaving a group of MSX painters, metal workers, mechanics and machinists - all white - with a new perspective.

"This is a piece of history," said Bruce Danks, 49, a painter and metal worker at MSX who spent most of the fall smoothing out the dents and scrapes on the bus's aluminum skin.

Danks, a Kentucky native, remembers walking down the street in Elizabethtown, Ky., and black men stepping aside as he approached.

"You never thought much of it as a child," he said.

Yet there he was, last week, wearing a paint suit and mask, spraying a fine mist of yellow and green onto a bus he had previously seen only in black-and-white photos.

Danks and the restoration crew knew Parks' story. They knew that she had refused to give up her middle-row seat to a white rider, that she was subsequently arrested, that the arrest sparked a citywide bus boycott and crystallized the civil rights movement.

As the project evolved, the workers at MSX contemplated the details of that moment. They wondered what Parks saw from the fourth-row seat, what the bus driver's eyes looked like as he told her to move, what the police sounded like as they arrested her.

For the workers, having grown up in Michigan towns such as Clawson and Pontiac - without the South's Jim Crow laws - Parks' moment seemed unfathomable, until the men sandblasted the bus, leaving it stripped and bare. "That," said project manager David Ashley, "is when I felt it."

Jesse Daniels felt it, too, in 1955 as a black teen-ager when he sat in the back of the bus every time he stepped onto Montgomery City Lines. Daniels was 19 then. He is 67 today.

"I'm sure I rode that bus a time or two," he said.

Even if he didn't, he rode dozens that looked just like it, painted in citrus green and yellow, with rear doors for blacks and front doors for whites.

Daniels moved north to Detroit, worked, retired and landed at Henry Ford Museum, where he takes kids on tours through the past. In September, he was asked to help take the curators and the guys at MSX there, too. When researchers needed someone to authenticate the color, Daniels provided it.

He became part of the team, along with Malcolm Collum, a senior conservator; Susan Steele, the museum's project manager; Jeff Doran, MSX's paint shop leader; and William Pretzer, the curator of political history, who led the effort to get the bus.

When the museum bought No. 2857 in a national auction for $492,000 in October 2001, it was a rusted shell. It had been used for target practice and was gouged by bullets. It was swept out, roped off and exhibited temporarily - Parks came to a private party to view it.

After debating how to preserve it, curators agreed the bus would best survive fully restored. Federal and private grants picked up the $300,000 tag. In September, a team accustomed to building concept cars and automotive prototypes peered into the hollowed-out, stinking artifact in the back of the Auburn Hills shop.

About a mile away, 55 years earlier, No. 2857 had rolled off the assembly line at GMC Truck & Coach Division of General Motors Corp. in Pontiac. Pretzer, the lead curator, sleuthed around the country in search of details to restore the bus to look as it did then.

He traced the bus route in Montgomery. He tracked down GMC's specifications. He found a coin-fare box in Indiana. He found a license plate on eBay. And he scooped a handful of Alabama's red clay into a small, Tupperware container, which Collum, the conservator, will rub into the wheel wells.

"We are keeping it authentic," said Collum.

The search left a blueprint for the MSX team. Black-and-white photos of Montgomery buses were taped to the walls surrounding the bus, mixed in with snapshots of the crew's families.

The restoration was completed Jan. 25.

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