Happy Birthday to Rosa Parks, a pivotal and significant icon of the Civil Rights Movement. But not many know that Mrs. Parks was also a dressmaker, so today, in addition to her birthday, we celebrate her for 28 Days of Black Fashion.
I think sometimes we forget that all of the participants of the Civil Rights demonstrations (including more high profile faces and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz/Malcolm X) are all people who had lives, families, interests, and jobs outside of being a revolutionary or civil rights activist. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to know who these people were, only what they represented.
Rosa, initially, was going to school to be a teacher. However, she had to leave the Alabama State Teachers’ College to take care of her ailing grandmother and was never able to return. She then became a seamstress in a shirt factory, and sewing became part of her daily life.
It can be said that her work as a seamstress was interestingly intertwined with her awakening as an activist. In the 1940s she briefly worked for the Maxwell Air Force Base as a housekeeper and seamstress for a politically liberal couple, Clifford and Virginia Durr. The two encouraged her to attend the Highlander Folk School where she was mentored by Septima Clark, another civil rights activist.
Rosa Parks was an assistant tailor at the Montgomery Fair department store the day that she refused to move for a white customer on the bus (who apparently had a seat to sit in but did not want to sit in the same row as Rosa). She was carrying a dress that she was working on in her carryall when she was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus. The dress is now in the the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Although there isn’t much more known about Rosa Parks’ work as a seamstress, we do know that clothing and dress played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement, as much as any other revolutionary or defiant act and helped reframe the narrative of who was a ‘radical’ or a ‘law breaker’ and who ‘deserved’ equality. The simple and modest yellow and brown floral dress wasn’t any spectacular design or detailed garment. But it was respectable and feminine and gave the wearer an appearance that was quite the opposite of the story that was being told about Black activists (or Black people for that matter). This dress was meant to tell the story of a woman, like anyone else regardless of race, who was strong, dignified and deserved the same rights as anyone else.