Rosa Parks is eternally revered as the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” an American icon and a champion for freedom–all titles well-earned by her courageous act of defiance, which initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, bringing the city to its knees and sparking the Civil Rights Movement.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks was on her way home from work when she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus at Court Square. As the bus grew more crowded, a white man boarded. Parks and the other African-Americans seated in the row were told to give up their seats, as was the law. Others moved, but Parks refused and was arrested. As news of the incident spread, a young civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., called for Black people to stop riding the buses. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for more than a year. It ended on Dec. 20, 1956 when the federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to declare Alabama laws requiring segregation on public transportation vehicles to be unconstitutional.
And with that single defining moment, Parks was cast into icon status to be forever cemented in history. But to Jeanette McCauley, Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was simply “Auntie Rosa.”
Parks and McCauley were second cousins; McCauley’s grandfather, Robert McCauley Sr., and Rosa’s father, James McCauley, were brothers. She found out about her relationship to Parks completely by chance. Her parents hadn’t told her about her blood link to the famed civil rights icon for fear of prejudicial backlash. But the more McCauley learned, the more in awe she was of Auntie Rosa.
“I believe I was 13 or 14 years old, in the seventh grade. They asked me to do a report for Black History Month and they gave me Rosa Parks. I went home and was telling my parents what I learned that day and that I had to go to the library and get information. My dad said, ‘No you don’t. Just give her a call.’ I said, “How do you have Rosa Parks’ phone number?” He said, ‘She’s your cousin.’ I was never told this until I was studying her in seventh grade history,” McCauley told the AmNews. “It caused a lot of controversy at school because they swore up and down I was lying,” she said.
McCauley attended the predominantly white Petersburg Middle School. ” We were the only ethnics in the school at the time,” she said, “and Black History Month studies were very minimal.”
“I had this famous lady in my family. I was honored that I had that kind of strength and will power in our bloodline. It was amazing.
“I went back to school very excited. My dad told me that Rosa Parks is my cousin. The teacher said I shouldn’t tell lies like that. I was upset. It hurt my feelings. My dad said to call Rosa back and she could call the school. Rosa did call back and spoke to the class on speakerphone,” McCauley recalled.
McCauley explained her family tree: “[My] great-grandfather, Anderson McCauley, was 100 percent Cherokee. Anderson’s tribe was slaughtered by a Col. McCauley and his troops. Anderson’s mother told him to run, but Col. McCauley spotted him. He liked him and raised him as his son. Anderson McCauley was Rosa’s grandfather and my great grandfather.
“Anderson was betrothed to a woman named Louisa Collins. Louisa had been raised by her aunt, Reba Clendenon, who was the wife of a plantation owner. From what we know, Reba’s brother was the father of Louisa. Louisa’s mother was a slave. The Clendenon clan and Col. McCauley decided they would get Louisa and Anderson together. They had 13 children, according to the 1910 census. Their son, James, was Rosa’s father. James was 50 percent Cherokee, 25 percent white and 25 percent Black.
“During my first conversation with Rosa, I was very nervous. I was starstruck. As the conversation went on, I relaxed. She said, ‘You don’t have to be scared. You can ask me anything.’ You could feel that quiet strength in that soft-spoken voice she had. I asked her to repeat herself. She was so soft spoken that I couldn’t hear her. I actually received more history from her than from the history books in Stephentown, N.Y.
“I was always under the impression from the history books that Rosa was tired from her day of work. I asked her was she that tired that she wasn’t willing to give up the seat? Rosa said, ‘You know we have to straighten this out. My boss let me go home early and I wanted to make a nice dinner for my mother and my husband. I was sitting in the first seat in the colored section and I paid the same amount of money for that seat as everyone else paid, and I was tired of being treated unfairly.’ I asked her, ‘Wasn’t it the law?’ She said, ‘Yes, it was the law.’
“‘More whites had gotten onto the bus and there were no seats left in the white section. So the driver got up and took the colored sign and moved it back and told us to give up the seats.’ Rosa said that she asked the driver, ‘Why do you treat us so unfairly? I paid the same amount of money as everyone else.’ The driver said, ‘I don’t know,’ but it was the law and she had to obey the law.
“The gentleman sitting next to her got up and moved. Rosa got up and let him move and he said, ‘Ma’am, you have to give up your seat.’ Rosa said, ‘No. I’m tired of being pushed around.’ The driver replied, ‘I’ll have to have you arrested,’ and Rosa responded, ‘You may do that.’ And, as you know, she was arrested,” McCauley said.
Parks was fingerprinted and had her photo taken. She was detained a few hours before being released.
McCauley continued, “I asked her if she was scared, and she said that up until that moment, she hadn’t really thought about it. But yes, she was very scared because she knew the possibility of her life being taken because she wouldn’t give up that seat was right there. But she also knew that she was doing the right thing.
“I asked her how did they treat her after she was arrested. She said that they actually treated her very well. They took her in. She was very cooperative with the pictures and the fingerprints. She called her husband, and then word got out to the NAACP, and they went to Martin Luther King,” she said.
McCauley finally got to meet her famous cousin when Parks came to New York in 1980 to appear on the television show “To Tell the Truth.”
“She arrived in Albany and my father picked her up. She spent the night at our house. My sister and I gave up our room. I met her and she had the biggest smile, larger than life. She said, ‘Come here baby and give me some sugar.’ It was amazing because when she hugged me, the tingle went from head to toe. It was a hug like you were never going to see that person ever again. The emotion was unreal. It was like that whenever you were in her presence. That spirit and power–and you would never guess that it came from such a soft-spoken woman.
“Rosa was completely family oriented. She asked, ‘How are you doing in school? Show me what you’re learning. What kind of things do you like?’ It was neat because we were getting to know each other. She always had that smile. She was a very happy person. In all the time I had to spend with her, I never remember her saying anything negative.
“In my adulthood, when I spent time with Rosa, I found out that her brother, Sylvester McCauley Sr., and my father were the best of friends as children. Rosa and my father were first cousins and were pretty close. My grandfather, Robert, had stayed with Rosa for a while in Abbeville, Ala. They were carpenters and masons,” McCauley said.
“Rosa was living in Detroit. I saw her again when we went to Stamford, Conn. She wanted my father to come visit before she went back to home. After that, my dad kept in touch with her.
“We had a family reunion in 1987 in Wallingford, Conn., and I was able to spend three days with her. I had a Luther Vandross CD and she just loved it. I gave it to her. I was now a young adult with my first child. It was our first big family reunion with family from all over the country,” she said.
“My dad passed in 1991. Before he passed, Rosa had come to Albany to visit a friend. She knew that my father was ill and she made a point to go to the Albany VA [Medical Center] to visit him. The news got out that she was in the building and there was a line of people out the front door of people waiting to come in and meet her. She said, ‘Sure.’ She would say ‘hi’ and shake their hands. The administrator came up and pushed his way into the room and said, ‘I hear Rosa Parks is here and I want to meet her.’ Rosa said, ‘You’re going to have to get in line and wait your turn.’
“She took us out to dinner. Whenever we were together, we always got a hug and that beautiful smile. They would sit around tell jokes and talk about things they did during childhood. It was always a happy time whenever we were in her presence. My dad passed two months later. Rosa came back and spent three days with us.
“In 1992, I got an invitation to ‘American Salutes Rosa Parks.’ Rosa put on a family reunion. I stayed in her house in Detroit. It was nice. I was having some trouble and she was very intuitive and she picked up on that. She said, ‘The best advice is that if you give it to God and let God do his will, you’ll be fine.’ A calm feeling came to me after she said that. The wisdom of our elders is just amazing. It was nice to have an adult family member to speak with. I became much closer with her after that reunion. I made sure I called her two or three times a year. She was always so sweet and loving,” McCauley remembered.
“In 1999, Rosa was in San Diego. During the winter, Rosa would go to get out of the cold. She invited us to see her. We spent two days with her. We went to the movies. The theater was roped off for us. They rolled out a red carpet. A young boy was in line pulling on his mother’s coat saying ‘That’s Rosa Parks.’ The mother smacked him. Rosa went back and told the woman, ‘Your child is right. I am Miss Rosa Parks.’
“After she had the first stroke in 2003, my daughter went to Detroit to help take care of her. The city of Detroit had given her a suite in the Chrysler building so that she would not be subject to someone breaking into her home again. She couldn’t speak, but she would reach out for her hand,” McCauley said.
“She was a great child advocate, though she never had any children. She fought for equality for all people. There was no mention of race when I spoke to her. Race never came into play. It was ‘we are one people. We are all human beings. We’re all the same. The only difference is the color of our skin and our culture,’” McCauley said.
Rosa Parks died on Oct. 24, 2005, at age 92. To the world, she will always be remembered as a courageous civil rights champion, but to Jeanette McCauley, she will always remain Auntie Rosa.