Berlin gives refuge to Rosa Parks’ Detroit house

Rosa Parks fled the American South for Detroit in the 1950s at the height of her civil rights struggle. Now the house where she sought asylum has itself found refuge in a city an ocean away: Berlin.

Berlin gives refuge to Rosa Parks' Detroit house
Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP.

US artist Ryan Mendoza, who is based in the German capital, helped rescue the dilapidated two-storey structure from the wrecking ball and rebuilt it board by board in his garden. This week he will invite the public to have a look.

Mendoza, 45, says the house's odyssey holds up a mirror to two societies: his bitterly divided homeland grappling with the rise of President Donald Trump, and Germany, where more than a million people fleeing war and misery have sought asylum in the last two years.

“By disregarding this house, the United States has shown a disregard for civil rights,” Mendoza said, as he gave AFP a preview of the reconstructed clapboard structure in the city's ethnically diverse Wedding district.

“Civil rights are not just important for black people but also for white people who want to differentiate themselves from their racist forefathers. The Germans completely understand what this house has to say.”

Having lived in Europe for more than two decades, Mendoza said Berlin's earnest reckoning with its own dark history as well as a mood of “love and tolerance” made it the right haven for the house.

“Maybe it's not a coincidence that the city that is now taking into refuge this house is a city born out of a wall being broken down, and the country that is so intent on building a wall up is the country that has lost this house,” he said.

Forced to flee

Parks, an African-American seamstress, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1st 1955, triggering a wave of ultimately successful protests against racial segregation.

She became a hero of the international civil rights movement but relentless death threats in the South forced her to escape to Detroit, then a booming industrial city and a symbol of the American Dream.

Mendoza said the modest three-bedroom home at 2672 South Deacon Street housed 17 people – her brother's family – at the time Parks lived there, between 1957 and 1959. She never moved back to Alabama, and died in Detroit in 2005 at the age of 92.

Battered by floods and break-ins, the blighted house eventually ended up on the city's long demolition list.

Parks' niece Rhea McCauley, a retired artist, bought it back for $500 but was unable to raise the funds to restore it.

 Enter Mendoza and his wife Fabia, who had already transposed one Detroit house to Europe as part of an art project probing themes of rootlessness and displacement. They said they have become the “foster parents” of the Parks house.

McCauley, 69, said she is grateful to the Mendozas and is sure Parks herself would have approved of the move to Berlin.

“I love them for what they're doing for my aunt. Not very many people would have stepped up to the plate and, trust me, nobody did here in the United States,” she told AFP by telephone from Michigan.

'Not ready for Rosa'

Mendoza said he used the proceeds of paintings he sold to foot the $33,000-bill to deconstruct and transport the house.

Getting it across the Atlantic was a “very dangerous project”, he said.

“The chimney was listing and the back wall was very damaged and the floors were sagging,” he said.

Mendoza took the house apart over 18 days last August, packed it in shipping containers and gradually pieced it back together on a foundation he poured between his contemporary home and his studio.

He will showcase it for guests on Saturday, and again on the city's Gallery Weekend art festival April 28th-30th.

McCauley will fly to Germany for the open house and the premiere of a documentary about the project by Fabia, a Berlin native.

Visitors will not be able to enter the house but Mendoza will illuminate it from the inside and play 1950s-era music and news clips that Parks might have heard.

He has consciously left the traces of its long neglect, including its peeling paint. He said he is holding the house “hostage” until it can return to its rightful place in Detroit, with its “dignity restored”.

Mendoza has sought help from public and private US institutions as well as former first lady Michelle Obama, thus far without success.

“Here we have a house that is priceless, worth more than any waterfront villa that you can imagine,” Mendoza said.

“I would like to see it here for as short a time as possible. I totally love this house but this is not my house. I'm trying to give back as much as possible.”

However McCauley, who said she is alarmed and angered by the direction her country is taking under Trump, prefers the house stay in Berlin for a bit longer.

“The United States itself with the politicking and the disregard for human life – they're not ready for Auntie Rosa. I would have to wait until this country grows up.”

By Deborah Cole


Travel: Germany downgrades Covid-19 risk status of USA

The United States is no longer classed as a "high incidence area" by Germany - it has returned to being a "risk area".

Travel: Germany downgrades Covid-19 risk status of USA
People walking in New York in May 2020. Photo: DPA

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) changed the risk classification of the United States on March 7th.

The US was previously classed as a “high incidence area” by the RKI. These are regions where the incidence is over 200 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents with a period of seven days.

However, now it’s a “risk area” – which is used by German authorities to describe a region with an increased risk of infection, usually above 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in seven days.

Other factors are also taken into account, such as measures in place.

It means the travel requirements for people coming from the US to Germany have changed.

However, entry from the US is only permitted in a few narrow exceptions. Proof of urgent need to travel is required, German authorities say. You can find more information in the story below.

READ MORE: When are Americans allowed to travel to Germany?

What happens if I need to travel from the US to Germany?

If you are a German resident from the US, or fall into one of the exception categories, you still face strict testing and quarantine measures.

All travellers must have a negative Covid-19 test result at the latest 48 hours after they enter Germany. It must be presented to authorities if they request it.

Some individual airlines may however still say that travellers have to present a coronavirus negative test result before boarding is allowed. You should contact your airline before travel to check.

Both PCR tests as well as rapid anitgen tests are accepted if they meet the quality standards. Testing is still mandatory even if travellers are vaccinated or have recovered from a coronavirus infection. 

People returning from “risk zones” are required to self-isolate for 10 days after they arrive.

The quarantine can usually be ended with a negative coronavirus test result taken at the earliest five days after arriving in Germany.

However, states can differ on their travel regulations so check with your local authority before travelling.

Everyone entering Germany is also required to register online.

New “high incidence areas”

In the RKI’s latest travel classification list, Sweden, Hungary and Jordan are now classed as “high incidence areas” which means stricter testing and quarantine rules apply.

Areas of “variant concern” include Austria’s Tyrol region, the UK, Brazil, Portugal and Ireland. Even stricter rules apply for these regions.

You can find out more information about travel rules in our story below.

READ MORE: What you need to know about Germany’s latest rules on foreign travel