Howard Buffett is the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. / Todd Plitt, USA TODAY
DETROIT - Hundreds of items that belonged to civil rights icon Rosa Parks that have been sitting unseen for years in two warehouses - in Detroit and New York City - have been sold to a foundation run by the son of billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett, the younger Buffett said Thursday.
Howard Buffett said his foundation will make sure that the items, which include Parks' Presidential Medal of Freedom, will be put on public display because they belong to all Americans.
"I'm only trying to do one thing: preserve what's there for the public's benefit," he said. "I thought about doing what Rosa Parks would want. I doubt that she would want to have her stuff sitting in a box with people fighting over them."
A years-long legal fight between Parks' heirs and her friends led to the memorabilia being removed from her Detroit home and offered up to the highest bidder, said Farmington Hills lawyer Steve Cohen, who represented the educational institute that Parks founded and that lives on in modest offices in downtown Detroit.
"These artifacts were things that Mrs. Parks had originally given to her institute. She started this institute 30 years ago and she gave her entire modest estate to the institute," as directed by her will, Cohen said. Court challenges have tied up the artifacts ever since, he said.
But now, proceeds of the sale will flow back to Detroit, which will allow the institute to ramp up its civil rights education efforts, he said.
Also poised to benefit from the sale are 13 nieces and nephews of Rosa Parks, who sued the estate within months of her death, demanding a share. As a group, they were awarded 20% to divide among them. But none of them stands to get as much as a six-figure amount, said a lawyer close to the settlement.
Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92, was one of the most beloved women in U.S. history. She became an enduring symbol of the civil rights movement when she refused to cede her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man. That triggered a yearlong bus boycott that helped to dismantle officially sanctioned segregation and helped lift Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.
Because of the fight over Parks' will, historians, students of the movement and the general public have had no access to items such as her photographs with presidents, her Congressional Gold Medal, a pillbox hat that she may have worn on the Montgomery bus, a signed postcard from King, decades of documents from civil rights meetings and her ruminations about life in the South as a black woman.
The impetus for the sale came earlier this year when Buffett saw a televised news report about how Guernsey's Auctioneers has kept Parks' valuables in a New York warehouse since 2006.
"I could not imagine having her artifacts sitting in a box in a warehouse somewhere," Buffett said.
So he directed the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to make an offer, which was accepted. A purchase agreement was signed over the summer, and the transaction was officially closed last week.
In addition to medals and letters, the lot includes lamps and articles of clothing. Guernsey's years ago put together a complete inventory, which is 70 pages long and includes more than 1,000 items.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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