Today marks what would have been Rosa Parks’ 106th birthday. This being a food history blog, you might not expect her to make an appearance here, and you might not expect any particular recipe to be associated with this iconic figure of American history. However, in 2015, Rosa Parks’ personal papers were released by the Library of Congress, and found among her papers was a recipe, written in her own hand on the back of a Detroit bank envelope, for “featherlite” peanut butter pancakes. This was alongside notes from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks’ own journals from the time of the famous Montgomery bus boycott, but this tiny slice of her story gives a glimpse of the real person behind the historic figure we all know today, who had to work hard and feed her family.
She was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, the daughter of Leona and James McCauley, a teacher and a carpenter, respectively. As a child, Parks was constantly confronted with racism: She was bullied by white children; the Ku Klux Klan marched through her town, while her grandfather stood watch at their front door with a shotgun; and, at one point, she was left standing in the rain by the same bus driver who would later have her arrested years later.
In 1932, McCauley married Raymond Parks, who was involved with the NAACP. She finished her high school studies (at the time, only 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma), and began working a variety of jobs to make ends meet. By 1943, Parks herself became involved with the NAACP and, being the only woman present, was asked to become the secretary to Edgar Nixon, the Montgomery chapter’s leader. Just a year into her time as secretary, she investigated the kidnapping and brutal gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Alabama, who was attacked as she was leaving church. Parks and others organized The Committee for Equal Justice after Taylor identified her rapists, but an all-white jury dismissed her case. In addition to bringing national attention to Ms. Taylor’s case, the group helped to shine a light on the prevalence of sexual assault against black women, as well as help them report any abuse directly to the NAACP.
Throughout the 40’s and into the 50’s, Parks continued her work with the NAACP to end segregation and help register black voters. In 1955, Parks attended the Highlander Folk School, an education center dedicated to training emerging leaders in social justice and labor and civil rights. The same year, Emmett Till was murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. Till’s murder was discussed during Mass at Parks’ church. The white men accused of Till’s brutal murder had been acquitted, and this deeply upset Parks. Four days later, Parks changed history by refusing to stand up and move to the back of a public bus when a white man boarded. The act was not violent (and technically not illegal; Parks had been sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, but was expected to stand if white people boarded and there was no room for them to sit), but the driver of the bus notified the authorities and Parks was arrested. Contrary to the common belief that Parks was simply tired after a hard day’s work, she was not a meek seamstress. Explaining the act herself, she once said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” It was a deliberate peaceful protest of an unjust system. In response to her arrest, Parks later said, “I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long.”
Parks was bailed out of jail that evening by her former boss Edgar Nixon, now the leader of the NAACP in Alabama and the President of the Pullman Porters Union. Nixon, along with Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College and a member of the Women’s Political Council, came up with the idea of a bus boycott as a way of using the publicity of Parks’ arrest. Three days after Parks was arrested, the Montgomery bus boycott was announced. Four days later, the boycott began. Pamphlets asked African Americans to avoid taking buses, and find another means of transportation, if possible. The call was heard and, as the Montgomery public transportation network consisted primarily of African American riders, the system was crippled. The boycott continued for an astounding 381 days, until on December 21, 1956, Montgomery public transportation was integrated.
While this was a triumph, Parks did not escape unscathed. Shortly after refusing to give up her seat, she was fired from her job as a seamstress. Her husband eventually lost his job as well, and her family regularly received death threats. In 1957, they left Alabama for Virginia, in hopes of finding work. Shortly afterward, the Parks family moved again, this time to Detroit, where Rosa lived the rest of her life. She died in 2005, at the age of 92. She received many honors in the last years of her life, including the Presidential Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. She also became the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol rotunda after her death.
In honor of Parks’ birthday, and her contributions to our country–and also as a reminder that she was a regular person, who needed to feed herself and her family–I made her recipe for “featherlite” peanut butter pancakes.
“Featherlite” Peanut Butter Pancakes
Makes approximately 12 4-inch pancakes.
1 cup flour
2 tbsp baking powder
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tbsp shortening or oil
Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a small bowl.
In a larger bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, and peanut butter. (The peanut butter will take some time to combine. You want to eliminate large clumps, but small ribbons are fine.)
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir together, just until flour disappears. Stop stirring when you see no more ribbons of flour. The mixture will still be lumpy.
Melt shortening or oil in a large flat skillet or griddle. Heat until a drop of water sizzles when added to pan.
Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup, not quite filled to the top, to scoop batter. Drop into the hot skillet and flip after about 1 minute. Continue until batter is gone. Serve warm.
Obviously this pancake recipe is a tiny part of Rosa Parks’ story, but the neat thing about history is that it was all created by real people. Parks’ contribution to the civil rights movement was monumental, but while her name is now a by-word for the successful boycott and a type of heroism rarely seen, we can perhaps appreciate that heroism even more by remembering how she and her family privately suffered for years as a result of the stand that she took. I hope that this small piece of her personal history, a humble pancake recipe, can shine a light on the real life of an American icon.
(Photo of Rosa Parks from Wikimedia Commons)