News & Politics

How Rosa Parks Befriended a DC Hotel Owner

Planned as a short stay, it led to a long friendship.

Rosa Parks and H.H. Leonards at the Mansion on O Street. Photograph courtesy of R.H. Boyd Publishing.

In 1994, Rosa Parks was assaulted in her Detroit home by a man who broke in and stole $53. The civil-rights pioneer, 81 at the time, wanted privacy while she recuperated, and a friend found her a room at DC’s Mansion on O Street, which has a “hero-in-residence” program that sometimes provides free rooms to people who serve others.

Parks arrived at the Dupont Circle inn frail and in a wheelchair, accompanied by a small entourage. Still in pain but with a smile on her face, she reached out her hand to thank her host, H.H. Leonards, who owns the quirky hotel and museum. It was the beginning of a decade-long friendship, Leonards recalls: “Two soulmates meeting. I felt that, and she felt it, too.” Parks was supposed to stay only a few days, but that turned into months, and she continued to live there on and off over the next ten years.

Now Leonards is telling the story of their friendship in a new book, Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership. Leonards remained close to Parks until her death in 2005. Though they traveled to speaking engagements together and went on other trips, much of their relationship unfolded in private at the DC inn. They would drink tea and chat about baseball, or Leonards might braid Parks’s hair. Sometimes they just sat together in silence. “That was one of the biggest lessons she taught,” Leonards recalls. “That love accepts all and you don’t have to entertain people to truly love them. You can be in the same room with somebody and just sit and appreciate the fact that the two of you are together.”

Parks’s last visit was about a year before her death. Today, Parks’s room on the third floor is the same as when she stayed there: The bed she slept in still sits beneath the chandelier she loved to stare up at. But now guests no longer spend the night there; the room has been transformed into an homage to Parks, with photos and information about her life. Of course, if visitors want to know more, they can go downstairs and talk to her friend. “I just loved being with her,” Leonards says. “There are so few people in life that you have that sense of peace with, and that’s what she emanated for me.”

This article appears in the June 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Tori Bergel
Editorial Fellow