Americans in the Furniture City: The
Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids
Many of the stories that have been collected that relate to African-American history detail life from much larger cities — Detroit, Mich., and Chicago, Ill., to name a few.
“Their stories are a lot different than those from Grand Rapids,” said Randal Jelks, author of African Americans in the Furniture City. “I wanted to see how people in a much smaller urban area looked at the world. That is a part of the larger urban history, but it’s a much different part.”
Jelks began his work by studying a 1920s civil rights case in the area. That work resulted in an “accidental dissertation” on the history of African-Americans in Grand Rapids for just over 100 years, 1850-1954. (The dissertation was then “turned into a readable book,” he said.)
“I also visit schools and talk to children, particularly African-American kids in the public school system,” he said. “They have the feeling that they don’t have a history here. That gave me some extra impetus for my research; I was making a difference in the place that I live.”
Jelks discovered big differences between the histories of the large urban areas and Grand Rapids, he said. “In Chicago, African-Americans were the labor force for the meatpacking and railroad industries, and in Detroit, the auto industry. In Grand Rapids, they weren’t included in the furniture industry because the cheap laborers were the Polish and the Dutch.”
The Dutch community, in fact, heavily influenced the African-American community in Grand Rapids, he added, particularly their religion.
“Religion didn’t prevent racism,” he said, “but it modified it, made it more polite.”
The goal that both ethnic groups shared, as all do, was to move from a working-class to a middle-class community. That resulted in both some shared values and conflicts.
Jelks hopes that his book encourages discussion and more empathy toward incoming ethnic groups.
“Many of these same issues are current,” he said. “We saw a population explosion through the 1950s. The same thing is happening with young Hispanic families today. By delving into our own histories and that of others, hopefully we can see the commonalities and be more understanding.”
Jelks is also hopeful that by having many written histories of the city, which all intersect with one another, we can better understand the past and better inform the future.
“In our national and even global history, it’s important to remember the home stories,” he said. “History becomes more real when you tell a smaller-town home story.”
Jelks is grateful to many previous history students at Calvin, from whose papers he was able to garner many important sources for his research (and are credited for such in his bibliography). “I would like them to know that they made an important contribution to the history of this community.”
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