I don't remember the moment I learned my late grandfather was Rosa Parks' paperboy, but the factoid added to the near-mythical ideation (and idolization) I had for the man — and his Blackness — as a brown girl trying to carve out a sense of self while growing up in a predominantly white region of upstate New York.
My grandfather, William, was about 10 or 11 years old when he delivered the local newspaper to Parks and her husband in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1940s. There was only so much a little boy and Parks had to talk about. Still, maybe it was his reverential charm or his bookish nature that led the Civil Rights icon to declare him “the best paperboy I’ve ever had.”
Over the years, and long after Parks left Alabama, she remembered my grandfather, the diligent little boy from around the block who brought the news to her home. And she stayed in contact with my family, even sending my grandmother, Constance, a gift and heartfelt letter after my grandfather’s death in 1991 (one year before I was born). In the letter, she recalled meeting my grandfather years after his paperboy job, asked for a funeral program, and vowed to stay in touch with my grandmother.
Maxine Yarborough, who lived just houses away from Parks in Montgomery, remembered my grandfather as a book-lover.
"He was very studious. I think he was always smart," Yarborough says. As for her relationship with Parks, Yarborough says the civil rights icon was a "gentle, quiet woman" who'd often stop by Yarborough's home to greet her grandmother.
Although the friendship began long before I was born, my own grandmother, Constance, never failed to tell me about our special connection with Parks. As I grew, I held my grandfather’s relationship with the activist near to my heart as I struggled to find my place as a girl with a white mother and Black father living in a primarily white, rural area. My familial connection to Parks helped my childhood self understand my heritage and fit into the Black community I was so eager to feel a part of.
When I was a child, the only Black people in my personal life were my relatives, most prominently my father, grandmother and my aunt Jennifer. What I knew of the Black world came from them (and representations of Blackness in pop culture). In an environment where whiteness was the norm, my family made sure I knew who I was and where I came from. To me, Parks and my grandfather’s story was one of the most impactful elements of those lessons.
Attending mostly-white public schools, the paperboy fact was something I proudly offered up each February when we studied the Civil Rights movement (the Black history deemed most digestible for a group of young white students). I dreaded hearing these self-serving history lessons alongside students who could probably count the number of Black people they’d ever met on one hand. It wasn’t the subject matter, but my fear that the white kids were staring at me, waiting for me to react as we heard about the cruelties inflicted on Black Americans during the movement.
"My grandpa was Rosa Parks' paperboy!" was what I offered when I was too confused or scared to say anything else, but felt a responsibility to speak up — or at least a desire to break the awkward tension of being the sole Black person in the room.
Now, as a 27-year-old Black women whose life is filled with people who look like me, I’m grateful for the moments I boldly declared my family’s connection to Parks. To my classmates, discrimination was something endured by far off people from a distant time, but to me, it was a devastating reality of my loved ones’ lives. I hope my small connection with Parks helped my fellow students to comprehend that the horrors of segregation were not just chapters in their textbooks, but very real forces that dictated the lives of people just like them.
This past Thanksgiving, I asked my grandmother to bring along the sympathy card Parks sent when my grandfather died. The letter was the lone piece of physical evidence turning the family paperboy legend to fact. Years before, I first caught a glimpse of it while helping her clear out the hoards of papers — receipts from 1975, books that probably hadn't been cracked open since she left Howard University — that fill her home in Vermont. Back then, seeing it was a novelty. This time, I was prepared to remember every word.
My grandmother brought the entire bag of sympathy cards she had saved from '91 for us to sift through while the turkey cooked. Eventually, we found a blue envelope with a Detroit, Michigan, return address, signed Rosa L. Parks.
I was disappointed that my grandma didn't remember the time she and my grandfather reunited with Parks, nor recall what "gift" had been enclosed with her sympathy card. But I understood, as a woman in her 80s who’d already experienced a vast lifetime, meeting an icon could become just another foggy blip in an abundance of memories. And, of course, at the time she received the letter, she was in the beginning stages of a grief that has stayed with her to this day.
Long after both Parks and my grandfather passed, I still think about all she did for our nation and all he did for me. I cherish the fact that before Parks became the mother of the Civil Rights movement, and before my grandfather continued our family line, he was simply the best paperboy Rosa Parks had ever had.