When Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in December 1955, she would go down in history as the symbolic "mother" of the civil rights movement.
Parks was also a beloved mother figure to her large extended family. Her 13 nieces and nephews describe their "Auntie Rosa" as a wise, fearless, and religious woman, who spent a lifetime advocating for equality and justice. Along the way, she nurtured loved ones with warmth, sage counsel — and home cooking.
"I can still smell the Sunday dinners that Auntie Rosa and grandma prepared when we were kids," recalls Sheila McCauley-Keys, 56, a niece who collaborated with journalist Eddie B. Allen Jr. on the new book "Our Auntie Rosa: The Family of Rosa Parks Remembers Her Life and Lessons," published by Tarcher/Penguin. "She was a true Southern cook, often making dishes that had been passed down for generations."
The book is a compilation of intimate cards, letters, rare photos and recipes that meld family memories with American history. It arrives in the same month that the Library of Congress unveiled the Rosa Parks Collection on her birthday, Feb. 4. Both shed renewed light on the public and private life of Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92.
The archives, on loan from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, contain some 2,500 photographs and 7,500 manuscripts with personal correspondence, letters from U.S. presidents, drafts of her writings related to her arrest and the resulting Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, art sent to her from schoolchildren, and hundreds of cards from admirers.
There's even a handwritten recipe for "featherlite" pancakes made with peanut butter.
The inclusion of the recipe among Parks' important papers doesn't surprise African-American history expert Clara Small.
"Food and cooking has always been exceptionally important to the history of black families in America," says Small, professor emeritus of history at Salisbury University in Maryland.
"Supper, as it was called, was more than just nourishment," she says. "It was a uniter, a way to connect the family. Coming to the table was about sharing one's day, what happened — good and bad. Black women in the South, especially in the era of Rosa Parks, cooked. It was one of the elements that helped sustain the family, the church and the community."
While often described in perfunctory terms as a seamstress, Parks was an assistant tailor at a Montgomery department store and a local NAACP branch secretary. She and her husband, Raymond, were activists who had championed the rights of African-Americans long before the famous bus incident.
While Parks was not the first person to be arrested for civil disobedience on Montgomery's public buses, she would become, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most recognizable faces of the movement. She traveled the country and the world articulating the fight for freedom, making a memorable stop in Baltimore in the 1950s.
"It was the week after the bus boycott had started," remembers the Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood, 94, longtime pastor of Providence Baptist Church in West Baltimore. "She came to speak at the NAACP Freedom Rally, to tell the people in Baltimore what had happened to her."
Wood, who attended Crozier Theological Seminary with King and became friends with the future Nobel Peace Prize winner, was an activist in his own right. But Parks — with her quiet dignity and firm resolve — exemplified courage, he says.
"She was a brave woman, and was determined to try the whole system," says Wood, who still possesses a snapshot of Parks posing with him and his family during that long-ago visit. "She paid the price," he says referring to death threats, harassment and loss of employment that Parks and her husband faced, which eventually led them to relocate to Detroit in 1957, where her only brother and his large family lived.
"But we are enjoying freedoms because she remained seated on the bus that day," Wood says.
While she weathered many storms, McCauley-Keys says her aunt was not one to complain. "She never spoke ill of whites or anyone," she says. "She believed in the golden rule and treating everyone with respect."
She also enjoyed eating, says her niece. One of her favorite dishes was chicken and dumplings, which she made from scratch.
"Auntie Rosa wouldn't use a bowl," she says of Parks, who didn't have children of her own. "She used the same board she rolled the dough on, and would place the flour and salt mixture down, make a well in the center, add water, and mix with her fingers until a ball formed."
Collard greens, succotash, ham and cabbage, as well as salmon croquettes and cornbread griddlecakes "tiny and the size of silver dollars" were also family favorites.
"She and my grandmother were Southern ladies, so they'd tie clean, starched aprons around their dresses. They'd sift flour, fry and bake," recalls McCauley. "They'd throw in a little salt and go by taste. Meals were simple and delicious."
McCauley-Keys said she and her siblings (and their offspring) want the book to give the public a more richly drawn portrait of Rosa Parks, whose act of courage inspired marches, sit-ins and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Beyond food, they have many fond memories of their Auntie Rosa: She was a voracious reader, and modestly wore long sleeves even in the summer heat. She had a charismatic smile, and kept her waist-length hair pinned up, only letting it down at bedtime.
Far from diminishing her formidable legacy, McCauley believes sharing intimate moments in which her aunt's full humanity is on display upholds them.
When she closes her eyes, an image of Parks cooking or making a pitcher of fresh lemonade in the kitchen brings a smile.
"It took her about a half-hour because she boiled the lemons, then strained them by hand," she says. "Auntie Rosa did everything with patience and love."
Sift together yellow cornmeal, flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Add egg, buttermilk, and vegetable oil, and stir to combine.
Heat a cast-iron griddle to medium heat. Using a tablespoon, spoon batter onto the hot griddle to about the size of silver dollars. Cook for a few minutes until bubbles start to form, flip over the griddlecakes and cook a few more minutes before removing to a plate.
Chicken and dumplings
1 large onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons butter
1 (2- or 3-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Water, to cover
4 bouillon cubes
About 2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 or 3 tablespoons cornstarch
In a large skillet over medium heat, saute onion, celery and garlic in butter. Add chicken, water and bouillon cubes. Reduce heat to medium, and cook for 1 hour.
Remove from heat, and let cool. Meanwhile, prepare dumplings. In a large bowl, combine flour and 1 teaspoon salt. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture, gradually add ice water, and stir, working from the inside out until a ball of dough forms. Set dough aside to rest.
Remove skin bones from the chicken.
Thicken liquid in the pot with cornstarch, and return chicken to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Set over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Do not let liquid thicken too much. Dust your counter or work surface with a little flour, and roll out dough to 1/8-inch thick. Cut into 1/2 -inch-wide strips, pinch off 1-inch pieces from each strip, and add to the hot liquid. Do not stir. Do this as quickly as possible. Dumplings are done when they float to the top of the pot.
Auntie Rosa's lemonade
Lemons (any quantity you desire)
Sugar to taste
Cut lemons, place in a saucepan, cover with water, and set over medium high heat. Bring to boil, and boil until lemons break down, rind, oil and all. (This makes the lemon flavor stronger and more concentrated.) Strain out the lemon pieces, add water and sugar to taste to the lemon juice and serve over ice.
The above recipes reprinted from "Our Auntie Rosa" with permission of Tarcher/Penguin, a division of Penguin Random House.
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
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