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Sheila Gaye Keys Headshot

My Aunt, Rosa Parks: The Heroine That Only We Knew

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My older sister Deborah tells the story of a moment between her and our Aunt Rosa that she'll always remember.

It was the 1950s and the horrific, racist lynching of teenager Emmett Till was still in the conscience of black America more than a year after he'd been shot and dumped into a Mississippi river, supposedly for flirting with a white woman.

Deb found herself in the midst of adult family members who were discussing the murder one day, and while she doesn't recall all of the circumstances, what sticks out in her mind all these years later is how our aunt suddenly noticed and reacted to her presence. This hadn't been a conversation for children, but Deb, just a few years younger than Emmett had been, and drawn in by all the emotion, couldn't resist eavesdropping.

Deb became frightened by the dangers of the world and some of the coldness in it beyond her block on Detroit's southwest side. Soon, she was relating this fear to her aunt, along with overwhelming confusion about why her skin was coated in a complexion that drew unearned resentment. Her salvation at the moment was her aunt's words.

"Just remember you are as good as anybody," Deborah was told as she stood, now face-to-face with our aunt on the family's porch, the two of them alone after the group had dispersed. She would never forget those words.

That aunt, who I shared with Deb and 12 other siblings, was Rosa Parks. As the world remembers her this year, which would have marked her 100th birthday, her family recalls her as our beloved matriarch and role model. We think of our dear "Auntie Rosa" in ways that let us cherish who she was as a person, apart from being the symbol of bravery and determination that she most often brings to mind.

Among other loving and admirable traits, Auntie Rosa was devoted. When she, her husband and our grandmother joined our family in Detroit after the historic Montgomery bus boycott ended, it was a beautiful reunion. Our father had left Alabama and gone to the military, swearing he would never again live in the segregated South. Reconnecting with our grandmother and aunt was one of his happiest occasions. I was only 8 or 9 years old but I recall the joy in the house whenever our aunt was present, or when, eventually, we would go to visit her at her own home, enjoying ice cream or sitting in her favorite chair. Auntie Rosa embraced all of us like her own sons and daughters; she couldn't have children but she was another parent figure and source of support to our little clan, which rapidly expanded with each of our mom's new pregnancies.

She lived with us during the first few years of her move to Michigan, so it became normal for us to see her in the kitchen and at the dinner table. Sometimes she gave the girls sewing lessons or told all of us stories about our family's history. The one thing she seldom ever did was talk about the civil rights movement, preferring instead to focus on being a source of extended support for us.

What most people don't know is how much of an avid reader she was, subscribing to newspapers and magazines from around the country, stockpiling them in her house to build a personal library. Reading was probably her favorite hobby, and she shared with us how she used to walk great distances to get to a book, since there was never a library where she grew up in some of Alabama's most segregated areas.

But I believe that the most important thing people who never had the chance to know Auntie Rosa must understand is that she didn't want to be thought of as an extraordinary woman. If she were alive today to see the recent postal stamp issued in her honor, and the statue that I had the privilege of helping President Obama unveil in Washington, D.C. this week, she would be grateful, but a bit overwhelmed. She believed that everybody had value and that everybody had something to contribute to society.

When it came to personal recognition, she wasn't really a seeker. Auntie Rosa didn't want to be elevated above anyone else.

So, as one of a relative few who were close to her for most of her life, I hope that Americans who buy her stamp and tourists visiting her new monument will fight any urges toward hero worship. Even while meeting world leaders and famed historians she never saw herself as a hero.

Auntie Rosa would only hope that her image reminds us that we all have the power and responsibility to challenge injustice.

Sheila Gaye Keys, the seventh niece of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, is co-authoring with her siblings an inspirational book about their aunt. Sheila has been employed with Phillips Service Industries corporate world headquarters in Michigan for 27 years. She was featured in PBS Television's live broadcast of the "National Day of Courage" activities in celebration of Rosa Parks 100th birthday anniversary on Feb. 4.