reprint: (Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct 30, 2005)
After reading on Friday that Mrs. Rosa Parks would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, I booked a ticket for Saturday. On Sunday, I was in line to honor this woman who by taking a seat taught us how to stand.
Eventually there were tens of thousands in the line. But, by noon there were only 31. I was number 29. The doors to the Capitol finally opened at 8:40pm.
It wasn’t easy finding the line on the Capitol grounds Sunday morning. Only a non-Black person from a city as white as Austin would assume that two Black women standing near the Washington, D.C. Botanical Gardens were forming the line for Mrs. Parks. Me–I’m guilty. And, only after reflecting on this did I realize why Ruby from the Detroit Free Press hadn’t thought to ask these women if they were the line. I introduced them. Ruby interview them, especially Ms. Joyce Cox who grew up a bike ride away from the Capitol and told me her story of riding her bike on the grounds as Queen Elizabeth’s motorcade drove by.
Eventually, Ruby found the line and called, telling me it was a few hundred yards away, near Third Street. When I arrived (11:30), 28 others had gathered. Once no. 30 and no. 31 arrived, I walked up and down the line talking to each person. It will not surprise my friends that I have lots of notes on index cards.
Not everyone in our cohort got to know each other but most did by staging area number 3 (6:30pm). And, there I met another woman–I call her no. 32–when the elderly in wheel chairs were brought to wait with us at the main security/screening entrance.
Our cohort of 31 came from San Francisco, New York, Texas, Atlanta, Boston and the DC-area.
Nos. 30 and 31, Yafeu and Carol are a mixed-race couple. When Yafeu returned from Vietnam and was assigned to Langley AFB, he had to be reassigned to Washington State–because, in Virginia, interracial marriages were still illegal. They couldn’t rent a home, and they were not safe. He also told me the story of his daughter’s surprise when she moved from Seattle to Howard University two years ago. She wasn’t prepared to be treated special by her classmates simply for being light-skinned.
No. 24 is Sammie Whiting-Ellis. Ms. Whiting-Ellis is a descendant of John Henry Yates, a freed slave who founded Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. Her family was the only Black family to own a steam cotton gin in the 1880s. Ms. Whiting-Ellis said she grew up “somewhat sheltered” in Houston but still “in a southern city.” She left Houston in 1957. And, she told me how when the school system was integrated, her mother, a gifted science teacher, was moved to Robert E. Lee High School, from which she retired as chair of the science department. “They moved all the good black teachers to the white schools and the bad white teachers to our schools.” Sammie Whiting-Ellis became a middle school teacher in Chicago; she’s now an education publisher in D.C. When she retires, she wants to return to teaching 7th grade.
No. 32, Mrs. Marion Schickel is 83 years old and lives outside of Ithaca, N.Y. We met because she was in a wheel chair and couldn’t turn around to see what the commotion was about–just another motorcade coming onto the Capitol grounds. Mrs. Schickel is mother to 13 children. She told me nearly all had married spouses of different races and/or nationalities. When her son, Bruno, came over to check on her, she pointed to her African American grandchildren. In 1968, her husband published a plea for “Negro” rights in the New York Times. She mentioned that “it was expensive to purchase a full page ad,” but it was the right thing to do.
As the grand doors to the Capitol opened before us, Ms. Whiting-Ellis reminded us, “Respect people. We must enter with respect!”
We walked up to the landing. When the doors of the Rotunda were opened, we marched up the marble steps, my arm serving as support for Ms. Whiting-Ellis. The highly-polished, cherry-wood coffin was in the center of the Rotunda. Number 21, another proud Black woman, circled one side, silently repeating “thank you,” hands clasped together in prayer, bowing each time she gave thanks to and for Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Even in death Mrs. Rosa Parks reminds us how to stand.
Respect People. We must honor her with respect.