Breathing life into the pages of history

Lucy Hackney shares memories of her family’s friendship with Rosa Parks.

Lucy Hackney, at home in Vineyard Haven. — Michael Cummo

For most of us, history is relegated to dusty books and museum walls, to school lessons and hazy tales retold by our grandparents; so when we find an Island neighbor who has woven a few threads in the collective reality we call our own, she must be counted as a true treasure, and as a reminder that individual lives can impact the world. This Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven, Lucy Hackney will share her treasury of memories with the public, bringing to life the revolutionary legacy of the Montgomery bus boycott and her lifelong friendship with the heroic Rosa Parks.

Ms. Hackney has forged a life enveloped by momentous events –– one of four daughters of civil rights icons Cliff and Virginia Foster Durr, her own law career was groundbreaking in both children’s rights and mental-disabilities advocacy. Ms. Hackney’s story lassos history, breathing life into the myth. Growing up between Washington, D.C., where Lucy’s father served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appointed by President Roosevelt, and Jim Crow Alabama, where her parents’ involvement in desegregation led to death threats and harassment, Ms. Hackney’s social consciousness and idealism were bred from the cradle.

Family life for the Durr children was marked by the often difficult consequences of having activist parents. Ms. Hackney’s mother, Virginia Foster Durr, wrote in her autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle, that her children would run into the kitchen, unfazed at announcing, “Mama, the laundry man is here, Mama, the milkman is here, Mama, the FBI men are here … good God, what a family we were.” Ms. Hackney said she always knew they lived a unique life; threats came not only from authorities who were terrified of outspoken citizens bent on upsetting the rigid establishment of the ’50s and ’60s (the Durrs were among the innocent citizens strategically hunted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities), but from other white Southern families, afraid of losing their monopoly on civil rights and power.

Long before Rosa Parks earned her mythic place in American history, Virginia Foster Durr was friends with the talented, literary, soft-spoken seamstress from a Montgomery, Ala., department store. Ms. Hackney, always referring to the hero of the bus boycott as “Mrs. Parks,” said, “She was just a lovely, elegant woman. She was such a fine lady, so humble, but strong as well. Not many people know how educated she was; this was because as a child she had been tutored by white women bent on educating black girls in Alabama. Mother always told me how this underground tutoring of black girls by white women began because they were disgusted with the poor quality of education at that time. … I think this added to Mrs. Parks’s courage against segregation; she had been around white people since childhood.”

Ms. Hackney’s family become intimately and legally entwined with Rosa Parks the fateful night of Dec. 1, 1955, when Ms. Hackney’s father, then practicing law in Montgomery, got a call from a colleague alerting him to an arrest involving a friend. The Montgomery municipality had charged Rosa Parks with violating an ordinance by refusing to give up her seat in a “whites only” section of a town bus. Ms. Hackney explained how Rosa Parks was on her way home after a long day and said, “You know, she was simply tired. Too tired to get up for that white man who wanted the seat. And she just decided, then and there, now was the time.” That beautiful and peaceful act of revolution started a firestorm, but before the sparks spread, it was Lucy’s father who went down to the jailhouse and posted bail for Mrs. Parks.

“My father,” Ms. Hackney said, “quickly suggested that Mrs. Parks obtain African-American representation … he thought it would be better in the long run for the cause, but yes, he stayed involved in the case for the duration.” In an article published last summer in Alabama Heritage, biographer Thomas E. Reidy wrote, “The Durrs’ involvement with Rosa Parks, and efforts to integrate the buses, would have surprised no one in Montgomery. For most of their adult lives … they stood up to criticism and charges that their ideas were subversive. Over time those ‘subversive ideas’ –– like educational television, broader access to voting, and extended civil liberties –– have become the status quo.” Ms. Hackney was a teenager then, but already gathering the gravity of this bipolar world, and the valor of trying to change it. “It wasn’t always easy,” she said, “but it was an amazing life, and I was proud of my family … my parents doing what they did and my sisters answering the phone with death threats on the other end.”

Standing now, decades later, in her Vineyard Haven kitchen, aglow with winter’s white light, Lucy remarks that “the Island is my home, mainly because my family has made it their home. My husband and I followed our children here, first in the glorious summers, but immediately after Sheldon’s retirement from his presidency at the University of Pennsylvania, we came full-time. The thing that has always been the most value to us is having our family near, being near our roots.” Ms. Hackney fans out photos of herself, her mother, and Rosa Parks sitting together sharing tea, years after the tumultuous era of segregation. She holds her gaze on the photo, saying, “Mrs. Parks was an incredibly talented seamstress; in fact, she did the alterations on my wedding dress, would you like to see?”

Upstairs in the family photo gallery, a portrait of the young bride draped in satin hangs prominently. Ms. Hackney quietly says, “You know, she wasn’t even allowed to come to my wedding. Well, she was allowed, but according to the church in Montgomery, she could come only if she sat up near the organ, or wore a ridiculous nurse’s outfit, pretending to be my childhood nanny, you know, pretending to be my servant.” Ms. Hackney, like her mother before her, abhorred the segregated South, and still speaks with raw emotion of the injustice. “So I fully supported,” she continued, “Mrs. Parks’ decision not to come at all. She told me, ‘Lucy, you know I want nothing more than to be there for you and Sheldon, but I just can’t do it.’”

It takes great imagination for anyone under the age of 40 to grasp the reality of the ugliness of Jim Crow laws in America and the subsequent necessity of revolution for our nation’s soul and sanity. In Outside the Magic Circle, Virginia Durr unabashedly writes, “Actually the whole idea of segregation was based on the idea that blacks were diseased. … You couldn’t drink from the same water fountain or use the same bathroom because they were diseased. You couldn’t sit by them on the bus because they smelled bad. You couldn’t eat with them in the drugstore or restaurant because they were offensive, smelled bad, and were diseased. The Negroes had to suffer under the most painful thing in the world –– the feeling of being unattractive. … The white people were telling the black people in their own person they were ugly and black. … That’s a terrible burden for a people to bear.”

To usher in Black History Month, the Unitarian Universalist Church will host three readings from Outside the Magic Circle, anchored by Lucy’s own reflections on the era and her experiences as a white girl growing up with freedom-fighting parents. There will be music by Dan Waters, Peter McClain, and Monica Van Horn, and local guest readers who personally share in the legacy of civil rights and the fight for equality: Esther Hopkins, Nancy Cox, and Roger and Jane Thayer.

Peter Palches, worship coordinator, invites the public to attend, saying, “Lucy is our neighbor, and through her sharing we will be able to relive this incredible moment of time, in this unending river of progress, to hear how through peaceful means an individual’s courage can bring change. It’s one of the great American stories. To have a person like Lucy stand before us will truly bring history to life.”

The public is welcome to attend; the service begins at 11 am.

238 Main Street, Vineyard Haven, ½ block from the Vineyard Haven library.

For more information, call 508-693-8982, or visit uusmv.org.