Hampton University And Mrs. Rosa Parks:
A Little Known History Fact

Dr. William R. Harvey

Dr. William R. Harvey

By Dr. William R. Harvey

Throughout its history, Hampton University has hosted many iconic figures, including 10 United States Presidents. Among them were Democratic and Republican Presidents such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, George H. W. Bush and, most recently, Barack Obama. The long list of great men and women who have visited the campus also include significant historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. Many, however, do not know that civil rights icon Mrs. Rosa Parks can be counted on that list.  As the month of February has been designated Black History Month, and February 5th would have marked the 100th birthday of Mrs. Parks, I thought it fitting to share the details of this little known fact with the Hampton Roads community.

In the 1950’s in my home state of Alabama, as was the case in Virginia and other Southern states, African Americans were not allowed to stay overnight in a hotel which catered to the public; eat in a restaurant or at a lunch counter which served the public; nor sit in the front of white citizens on any kind of public transportation. It was against this backdrop that one day in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus.

She refused to move and was subsequently removed from the bus and arrested. Mrs. Parks’ arrest for not giving up her seat on the bus triggered the local NAACP chapter to organize a boycott of the city bus system. This action brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the forefront of history because he was selected to lead the successful movement that became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

During the period of the boycott and following, Mrs. Parks and her family experienced constant harassment. She and her husband were fired from their jobs and unable to secure other employment. As a result, they returned to her home in Detroit. A mere 9 months after the boycott officially ended on December 20, 1956, Mrs. Parks (mother of the Civil Rights Movement) was offered and accepted employment at Hampton University. On September 5, 1957, then President of Hampton Institute Alonzo G. Moron wrote to Mrs. Parks, “…I would like very much to have you come to work for us at Hampton as hostess at the Holly Tree Inn.”  He further shared with her, “…in this job you have an opportunity to meet many interesting people, for we always have visitors at Hampton.”  A few days later, Mrs. Parks responded, “If your offer of the job is still open, I would like to hear more about it, and will come to Hampton when you are ready for me to begin.  She concluded the letter stating, “Thank you for considering me as Holly Tree Inn’s hostess.” On September 23, 1957, she arrived on campus to assume the aforementioned position. In that position, she demonstrated grace, competence, and courtesy. Mrs. Parks remained employed at the University for 1 year, after which she returned to Detroit where she lived the remainder of her life.  Mrs. Parks desired “to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free...so other people would be also free.”

I have often said that Hampton University is no ordinary place. Its history is filled with exciting tidbits of information about extraordinary individuals, such as Mrs. Rosa Parks, who have visited, studied, and worked at this great institution since its founding in 1868. General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, our founder, dreamed no small dreams. He was an outstanding advocate for the education of African Americans, Native Americans, and women during a time when this was very unpopular. His founding of Hampton was a result of his refusal to accept the ordinary belief that these groups were not worthy to be educated. The University has built upon General Armstrong’s vision in each of its 145 years of existence. It is because of his vision, courage, toughness, and determination that Hampton University stands today. Upon his legacy, we continue to build as we advance our institution and serve our community by impacting the lives of others.