Johannes Werner: Rosa Parks’ life has been reduced to that one moment on a bus in Alabama in which she refused to give up her seat. Her elevation to an icon of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement has obscured the fact that she had a life before and after, and that she was embedded in an organization and a movement. The Reverend H. H. Leonards is shedding light on the life of Rosa Parks with a new book. And on Monday, she took the stage in Sarasota as a first stop of a tour to promote her “Rosa Parks: Beyond the Bus.” WSLR reporter Dean Gallo was there to tell us about it.
Host: The Reverend H.H. Leonards and her husband, Ted Spero, were standing outside a venue in downtown Sarasota Monday evening, on a street where some of the Sarasota houseless congregate The pair were casually chatting with participants and reporters in the July heat, appearing confident, kind and unassuming with a calming presence, having just kicked off their book tour in the region.
The Fogartyville Community Center was the third stop on their extended weekend in Sarasota after speaking at the Diverse Fest at Harvest House and First Congregational Church. Her book, “Rosa Parks: Beyond the Bus,” is about leadership and life.
At her Fogartyville presentation, Reverend Leonards opened with a video about the O Street Museum. This Washington mansion was the home away from home during a decade for Rosa Parks.
The museum’s marketing materials refer to H.H. Leonards as Lady H, the reverand explained, because this is how Rosa addressed her after not using any proper name during the first six months of their time together. Leonards told Miss Parks that a courtesy title was not needed, but Rosa insisted on giving everyone a title, and so she ended up as Lady H, which Leonards admitted responded to her on unspoken yearning to be a genteel, respected lady since she was young.
Like so many that sacrifice to help others, Parks had an innate ability to see what others need and provided. Leonards first met Rosa Parks when welcoming her into the O House, which Leonards had purchased in 1980. In 1994 after Miss Parks had been brutally assaulted in her Detroit home, dislodging her pacemaker and severely traumatizing her, Leonards took her in. It is a testament to Leonards kindness that she took in Miss Parks, allowing her to recuperate for several years for free, without knowing who she was as a civil rights titan.
Even after the brutal attack, Rosa Parks’ primary concern was still for others. She did not want news of her being assaulted in her home to become public. She was concerned her children of the world would become fearful that they too could be attacked and assaulted in their home for standing up for their rights. Miss Parks refused to even be admitted to the hospital unless every employee signed a nondisclosure agreement, refusing to allow hate and fear even appear a victory if word got out.
Reverand Leonards traveled with Rosa Parks for much of the last decade of her life. Leonards wrote a short letter at Rosa’s request before Parks met Pope John Paul II in 1999. Miss Parks rewrote it in her own handwriting, as she wanted to give him something personal. Despite being told, like all those meeting the pontiff, not to approach him, Rosa Parks again tried to see what the person next to her needed and she acted according to her conscience. Leonards put it this way.
H.H. Leonards: I then learned from the person that gave them to me that the Pope, when he went back to his, I guess you would call it his home, castle? I don’t know what, [Laughter] in Rome, he kept her book and her note on his bedside table, which really shows you the power of the story.
But she walked up to him, and he was so appreciative, he thanked her. He said, no one has ever come up to me. You must have noticed how much pain I was in. I really appreciate it so much. By that action that she was told not to do, he opened his heart. And she ran him from her missive, and the next day they spoke about racism in America to the world.
And what was also interesting is, if you Google the Pope, he never talked about racism before that. But after that, whenever he made a big speech, she always, no matter what country or city he was in, he talked about equality, freedom, and letting go of your fears when it comes to racism.
Host: Leonards also talking about Miss Parks reinvesting most of her honorariums and gifts to disadvantaged children to Detroit and elsewhere. Rosa Parks also played a key role in the foundation of the National Organization for Women, but did not want any attribution or credit.
The author plans to return to speak in Florida with their husband to continue the tradition of excellence and selflessness Rosa Parks personified.
This is Dean Gallo for WSLR News.
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