An enduring monument to Rosa Parks in Michigan

An ice skating rink by winter and reminder of civil rights year-round

While visiting Cathlin’s family in Western Michigan for Christmas this year, we had lofty plans to see and do a lot in downtown Grand Rapids. Since one of her favorite winter activities is ice skating, we planned an afternoon date at the outdoor rink set up annually at Rosa Parks Circle.

Unfortunately, our intentions to arrive early were derailed by the timing of Eliza’s nap. When we finally reached the rink, the lines were too long due to the school holidays. While we’ll have to wait until next winter to try again, it was wonderful to see so many people gathered. As we walked around watching everybody enjoy themselves, we paused as we often do at the monument to Rosa Parks, reading aloud from the inscription to our warmly bundled baby.

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The location is a special one for us as a couple; we hosted our wedding reception directly across the street from Rosa Parks Circle, at the McKay Tower Ballroom. The McKay Tower is an interesting story in and of itself: an old bank called the Grand Rapids National Bank ended up being repurposed into a stunning event space that wows with original marble columns and chandeliers. As many of our out-of-town friends and family came to Grand Rapids for the first time on account of our wedding, it was important to us that they were able to explore downtown Grand Rapids, with Rosa Parks Circle at the heart of it.

These dedications to a civil-rights icon are relatively recent additions to Grand Rapids. Cathlin grew up on the outskirts of the city, and every so often while she was young, her family visited the area that was once the Monroe Mall Amphitheater. When she was in high school, the city’s downtown was transformed and the new space was named in dedication of Rosa Parks. Several years later, in 2010, this prominent statue was erected at the corner of the park. In 2017, Rosa Parks Circle was named one of the “Great Places in America” by the American Planning Foundation for many reasons, including how vibrant the surrounding area has become.

For nearly 50 years, Rosa Parks lived in Detroit, Michigan, about a 2.5-hour drive east from Grand Rapids. According to the inscription on the monument, Parks regularly visited Grand Rapids; however, other sources claim she never actually made it to the city at all, only that the act of resistance for which she was best known as well as her fight in the struggle for civil rights should serve as an example. Whether she graced the city with her physical presence or only in bronze, she made an outsized impact.

And digging deeper, the story behind the monument is also inspiring: The decision to portray Rosa Parks as taking a stand instead of remaining seated was an intentional one by sculptor Ed Dwight, whose life is a remarkable testament as well. Not only was Dwight the first African-American astronaut, but he has also built striking memorials to display black heroes across the country. The Guardian did an excellent write up on him that leaves us wanting to see and pay respect to his other works. We’ve often reflected on why so few women and people of color are reflected in the many statues and park names across the country, and it’s encouraging to see Dwight so actively and beautifully doing something to highlight people whose contributions have too often been overlooked or underrecognized.

No matter where you are, whether you’re close to home or traveling far and wide, local monuments can act as prompts to dig deeper into history to understand the reasons why they’re there. In this case, they serve as reminders of the civil-rights struggle that shouldn’t be seen only as history but also as timely and relevant for our country and our local communities today. Rosa Parks’s belief in equality and her efforts to resist and change society’s wrongs continue to extend beyond the small yet powerful act she’s best known for—and they’re reminders of what we should all strive toward.

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If you’re interested in visiting other places that honor the life of Rosa Parks, we’ve made note of the following for our future travels:

 

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