Claire Hamner Matturro interviews H. H. Leonards, author of “Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership”

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was a Southern Black woman born into the Jim Crow South who became an icon of the civil rights movement after her refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. Author and friend, H. H. Leonards, writes that with that “one simple act, Mrs. Rosa Parks changed the trajectory of our world.” The year was 1955, and her valiant act sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and led to the rise of a young Montgomery minister, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

H. H. Leonards was a much younger White woman, by her own admission raised “sheltered” in the Midwest, with seemingly little or nothing in common with Parks. Perhaps ironically, Leonards had never heard of Rosa Parks when a representative of the NAACP called her in 1994. The man on the other end of the phone line asked Leonards if a frail, wounded Parks could come and stay with her while she recovered from a vicious beating that occurred in her home in Detroit.

This was the beginning of a deep, ten-year friendship between the two women, so deep in fact that Parks would call Leonards “Daughter.” Now, nearly seventeen years after Rosa Parks’s death, Leonards’ book on this extraordinary woman and their relationship, Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership (R.H. Boyd, June 2022), is being published. The book is a heartfelt memoir of that friendship based upon what Leonards calls “memories, anecdotes, incidents, vignettes, aphorisms and observations.”

“These vignettes and the gems of wisdom [Parks] deposited in the author offer us a deeply personal look into the heart of such a powerful, yet humble spirit,” said Dr. LaDonna Boyd, president and CEO of the book’s historic and legendary publisher, R.H. Boyd Publishing.

While it contains many historical and biographical specifics, it reaches well beyond cold facts to share the woman Rosa Parks was in the last decade of her life. It is a fine and moving tribute not only to Parks, but also to Leonards, and a book anyone should enjoy reading and contemplating.

CHM: H. H. Leonard, first, thank you for sharing your time and insights with readers of Southern Literary Review. And thank you for writing such a compelling and moving book. Now if I may ask you a few questions.

 Though I encourage everyone reading this interview to definitely also read your book, I wonder if we could explain a tad bit before the next questions. You describe a phone call in August of 1994 from Brother Edward Willis of the Beverly Hills NAACP, in which he asks if Parks could come and stay in the Mansion on O. Street in Washington D.C. Can you explain briefly about the Mansion on O. Street and the O. Street Museum and your role in both.

HHL: I started the O Museum in The Mansion with no money, no business background, and no art or design background. When I had the vision to create The Mansion and our Museum, I abandoned all outside influence and focused solely on the steady “heart work” of seeing God, one day and one night at a time. And over the past forty-plus years, regardless of what has happened, I always get up after I fall down. Always, I get up.

With this philosophy as our cornerstone, The Mansion is a way of life, not a business. As a museum, small luxury hotel and conference center, we combine art, music, sports, architecture, science, literature and inspiration to craft an exhilarating entertainment experience.

My role here has been the same since we opened our doors February 14, 1980. I am simply the caretaker. Although I conceived and created this magical place, The Mansion and O Museum’s power exists well beyond me and will survive long after me. While I live and work at The Mansion, most people don’t know who I am – I might park their car, serve their meal or bus their table after dinner. Why do I still do this? It is the only way to get a true pulse of the business. The O Museum in the Mansion is not about me; it is about those who seek refuge here.

Life is not about those things you have lost along the way, the spare change, pieces of paper with people’s names and numbers, jewelry, scarves, umbrellas, coats, buttons and keys. It’s about the very real friends you meet, just around the corner. O Museum in The Mansion offers people the opportunity to connect with the world and others around them in meaningful ways that can’t be found elsewhere. We are a sanctuary.

For me, life is simple. The future is predicated on all of us, who create it.

Today, it is enormously important to constantly remind ourselves that we are all here together, whether we are famous or anonymous, creators at some moments, receivers at others. We share this world.

I don’t believe in miracles; I rely on them.

CHM: So, then let us go back to that crucial day in August 1994. Brother Willis calls and asks if Rosa Parks can stay in the Mansion on O. Street after she was brutally beaten in her home in Detroit and she needed a safe, restorative place to recover. In your book, you wrote, “It’s embarrassing to admit, but at the time I genuinely did not know the pivotal role Mrs. Parks had played in civil rights history.” You explain that you were a “sheltered Midwest child” at the time Parks instigated the modern civil rights movement by refusing to surrender her seat. How and when did you learn about her and the civil rights movement? Do you think it would have made a difference in any way had you known who she was and what role she had played?

HHL: I did not know who she was for approximately three years. My ignorance turned out to be a blessing because it allowed us to bond on what matters: family, God, respect and Love. If I had known who Mrs. Parks was, I would have been intimidated by her, and I would have shied away, not wanting to impose on her personal space.

After I was told who she was – not by her staff or friends – but by a guest, I was humiliated and asked her to forgive me. She said not knowing who she was had been “a gift from God.”  After I discovered who she was, I got to travel with her and I began to learn about civil rights by simply listening to others that asked her questions, wherever we went.

What many people don’t realize is that Mrs. Parks never felt like she was part of any one group—she was Black, Native American, White—she was an amalgam of them all. It was through that lens that she was able to clearly understand that freedom for one group is freedom for all people. The work she did for civil rights, women’s rights, veterans and children—in her mind—were really all about human rights. She always told me the laws can change but if you don’t change people’s hearts, nothing changes.

CHM: In the book, you mention several times about Parks’s “fictive relationships.” You called her “Mother Parks,” and she called you “daughter.” Parks had no biological children of her own, and so her “fictive” relationships were no doubt very important to her. But you also explain that notion in the book as a notable aspect of Black life in the South in Parks’s era, and before. Could you explain a bit more about this?

HHL: While Mrs. Parks was a dear friend and mentor, she was more of a mother figure than my own mother. It was an honor that she sometimes called me daughter. She didn’t judge, she didn’t manipulate, she didn’t lecture. I could hold her hand and see the way the world could be, not the way it was.

The book adds a personal context to what Mrs. Parks accomplished—a context many people don’t know about. The book is about an extraordinary figure in history, her soul and heart—and what she taught me. It’s also about the legacy that she left for those who knew her and those learning about her through this book. Hence the title, Rosa Parks: Beyond The Bus Life, Lessons and Leadership.   

Beyond the Bus is about having faith in yourself to do the hard work to change hearts and minds. To have the courage to fight for the rights of others—all others –– Black, White, religious, non-religious, men, women and children. This is the story of how creativity and spirituality meet––and why I continually say: take that leap of faith, always.

CHM: Throughout the book, you mention Parks’s hands and how extraordinary they were. You also mention she wore gloves. Might you address why her hands were so extraordinary?

HHL: Mrs. Parks’ had “creator hands.” If you look at the photographs in Beyond The Bus, their power and gentle strength are evident. She loved holding hands. When she held mine, I could feel her heart and soul. Afterward, I would always write, the words flowing from my unconscious. I did not know then that she was channeling through me until years later when I began to write this book.

I remember vividly when Mrs. Parks told me (several years after we bonded) that the only other person she met who had hands like hers were mine. She never liked her hands and always tried to cover them up with gloves. But after we met, she didn’t wear them as often.

CHM: Rosa Parks died in 2005, and your book is just now coming to life with its publication by historic Nashville-based R. H. Boyd Publishing. This printing and publishing company is 125 years old and was founded by a former slave, Dr. Richard Henry Boyd. It seems to be quite the fitting publisher for such a book as yours, and I wonder if you might share how you came to know of R. H. Boyd. And, how did you approach the current publisher, president and CEO of R.H. Boyd Publishing, Dr. LaDonna Boyd, who represents the fifth generation of the Boyd family to run the company.

HHL: When I started to look for a publisher, I had a vague notion of what it should be. When I found R.H. Boyd, the oldest African American Publisher in the United States, it became immediately evident that this was the one. The founder was a kindred spirit of Mrs. Parks. I knew immediately that he would have spent hours sharing stories. Tragically, as a former slave, he did not know how to read or write when he was freed from bondage. He learned when he was twenty-eight years old and went on to form a publishing company!  His great-great granddaughter, Dr. LaDonna Boyd, now runs this 125-year-old publishing company.

Dr. Boyd’s vision, mission and values are in keeping with what Mrs. Parks taught. Mrs. Parks never discriminated against anyone. This is also at the core of R. H. Boyd Publishing Company.

I was so confident that the match was literally made in heaven, it was the only company that I contacted. I know our partnership was meant to be.

CHM: Beyond the Bus is a very loving tribute to a woman you call a “perfect example of authenticity.” To me, this book is a memoir of a friendship and reaches far deeper than a historical biography. How would you categorize the book? And how long did it take you to write it?

HHL: I am not a historian. But more than half of my life has been spent watching history being made first-hand, as my business is located in the heart of Washington, D.C. We have been fortunate to be the site of many critical private meetings between politicians of both parties, religious leaders, business people, the media, movie and music industry icons.

I believe Mrs. Parks channeled the book through me, allowing me to simply recount the stories she told me and the lessons I learned from her.

Beyond The Bus tells the stories of how she did this and it offers a way of life. Knowing Mrs. Parks has made me a better person. I hope that reading these stories will teach others the way she taught me. Mrs. Parks’ messages are as urgent today as they were in 1955.

I am forever grateful to have shared an intimate decade with her. I would not have understood how important equality for all is without watching her in action. She lived a life where love is all that matters. She (as do I) believed that if you love, hate cannot rule.

There was never anything perplexing about Mrs. Parks. You never wondered where you stood or what she stood for. Nothing was gray in Mrs. Parks’s behavior, words, teachings and gestures.

To answer your question about how long the book took to write, even though the publishing date is Juneteenth, in a sense, I am forever working on it. There is so much more to tell. So stay tuned. There is another book inside me.

CHM: Beyond the Bus definitely reads like writing it was a labor of love, but writing is nonetheless still labor. Might you describe your work habits while writing this book?

HHL: I am so happy you noticed how much a labor of love this book is. Thank you!

Writing this book was easy at points, but very difficult and emotionally taxing at others. It was difficult to remember unpleasant things, particularly when someone you love encountered so much hate and disrespect during her life. At one point during writing this book, I “lost” the book. It was not on my computer and not saved in the cloud. I was not angry, but I was upset.

Spiritually, Mrs. Parks came to the rescue. I realized that I needed to write things that happened to her that she would have written about if she had lived when the Me-Too Movement began. And thus, the real lessons and journey of this book.

Another question you ask is how I write. Another great question because my answer might help others to write their stories. I write every day, but never at a specific time. Writing helps to anchor my inner self. It lets me understand what my unconscious is trying to get out. When I write I let the words simply come from that gut place, that mystery that only appears on the page, when my fingers fly across the keys.

I began keeping diaries when I was in fifth grade. They kept my sanity and helped me discover who I wanted to become––not the shy, geeky, gangly athlete that I was.

I rarely write when I am alone. I need noise to write. So all genres of music are cranked up, and I prefer when there are lots of people around me––not talking to me necessarily, just everything busy around me. Only then can I let go and hear silence around me. That’s when the words flow.

I write for 3-4 hours every day. I have so much inside me waiting to come out.

CHM: You mention so many lessons Rosa Parks had to teach, including:

  •  “Keep it simple.” 
  • “Measure your words with grace.” 
  • “Live an exemplary life” (so no one can use the past against you).
  • “Love is all that matters.”  
  • “Economic freedom ends racism.” 
  • “Education is the path to a better life. But education takes on different forms for different people.”
  • “Measure your words through faith.”

 Given these teachings, if Rosa Parks were alive today, what message do you think she would give us in light of the multitude of crises and issues facing us? 

HHL: Mrs. Parks was a humble, straightforward person. During her life, she encountered many who either persecuted her, who took advantage and even disregarded who she was—for reasons only known to themselves. Even though her life was threatened many times over her ninety-two years, she was determined to teach love, forgiveness and compassion everywhere at all times. And, of course, whenever she could, she told people of every age, “Get an education. Continue to educate yourself.” She also taught that the laws could change, but nothing would change if you didn’t change people’s hearts.

That’s the real work we must embrace today. You can see our laws are being pushed backward because we forgot to focus on education that promotes respecting your neighbor and those who are different.

Most important, she lived what she taught. When she went to bed each night, she forgave everyone, everything. And when she woke up, she forgave herself.

She understood better than anyone I have met that “The struggle continues.” But you must stand up after you have been knocked down. You must help others spread the words, “Love is all that matters.”  Forgiveness is a gift. Just never forget.

CHM: You engage in some myth-busting in your book, and even quote Parks as saying of the day she refused to relinquish her seat on the bus, “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving up.” What do you think was the most troubling myth about this woman, and what would you say was the truth?

HHL: I wrote this book to share with the world the heart and soul of Mrs. Parks. She is much more than someone who refused to get up from her bus seat in 1955. She was more than an icon in history. She was a survivor and the ultimate “influencer” of generations to come.

This book is about the many things that Mrs. Parks stood for and accomplished that most people don’t know about. It’s not just about an extraordinary and revered figure in history –– but about her soul and heart.

By profession, Mrs. Rosa Parks was a seamstress. Her stitching was delicate and precise; she made beautiful clothes. But in the bigger picture, she sewed pieces of people’s lives together throughout the world and lifted them up with tenacity, hope, and pure love.

Did you know Mrs. Parks documented rape victims (both men and women) in Alabama in the 1930s (twenty-five years before “the bus”? Did you know Mrs. Parks was a member of the Black Panthers? Did you know Mrs. Parks was assaulted three times in her lifetime, and each time she came back stronger and more resolute to help others? Did you know Mrs. Parks was a vegetarian? Did you know Mrs. Parks was a founding member of NOW? Did you know that following her own assault, she better understood her brother’s PTSD from WWII and spent the last ten years of her life meeting with soldiers? Did you know that her husband’s barbershop was burned during the Detroit Riots, not by the rioters, but by the police?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The book is a collection of memories, anecdotes, incidents, vignettes, aphorisms and observations––many recorded in a daily journal that I kept. But most dear to my heart are the important lessons I learned during the decade while Mother Parks lived with me, when I traveled with her and when she asked me to sit on the founding board of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery.

In many ways, her story reflects the history of all black women who have suffered rape and other untold indignities––enduring discrimination in employment, age and gender. And many managed to survive, despite a system that seemed determined to keep them in poverty. They carved a way where there was none. She is the seminal point in the history of civil, human and women’s rights.

Her time is now.

 CHM: Thank you again, both for this lovely, personal, and eloquent book and for taking the time to share additional thoughts through this interview. Southern Literary Review wishes you and your book much success and all the best.

HHL: I am so honored to have been interviewed by you. I look forward to meeting you in person.

Bio: H.H. Leonards is a wife, mother of three, founder of O Museum in The Mansion, and co-founder of Mrs. Rosa Parks and her friends and business associates lived with her, at no cost, as part of The Mansion and O Museum’s heroes-in-residence program. O Museum in the Mansion is now an historic 20th century civil rights site on the African American Heritage Trail.


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