African Americans in the Furniture City book coverAfrican Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids
by Randal Jelks, Calvin history professor, Urbana and Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2006, 217 pp., including notes and index.

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.

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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.”

Minds and Gods book coverMinds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion
by Todd Tremlin ’88, New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2006, 256 pp.

This book explains the origins and persistence of religious ideas by looking through the lens of science at the common structures and functions of human thought. Todd Tremlin details how belief in gods and the social formation of religion have their genesis in biology, in powerful cognitive processes that all humans share. In the course of illuminating the nature of religion, this book also sheds light on human nature: why we think we do the things we do and how the reasons for these things are so often hidden from view.

'n fonnie bisnis book cover’n Fonnie Bisnis
by Dirk Nieland, foreword and CD reading by George Harper ’49, Calvin English professor emeritus, additional reading by Henry Baron ’60, Calvin English professor emeritus, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005, 150 pp., (audio CD included).

This work is a celebration of “Yankee Dutch,” the language adopted by thousands of Hollanders after immigrating to America. Written in a peculiar English with Dutch spellings, Dirk Nieland recounts the humorous adventures of Loe Verlak, the prototypical Dutch immigrant, as he gets into all sorts of “funny business.” The book’s 14 vignettes touch on a wide variety of Dutch life, from Sunday school picnics to everyday jobs to the joys and trials of marriage. The accompanying CD and vocabulary chart aid in translating “dis boek.”

Sweet Freedom book coverSweet Freedom: Breaking the Bondage of Maurice Carter
by Doug Tjapkes ex’56, Grand Haven, Mich.: FaithWalk Publishing, 2006, 224 pp.

Sweet Freedom is the true story of an unlikely friendship between a white, middle-class broadcast journalist and an African-American serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Doug Tjapkes inspires readers with a vivid and personal account of the friendship that blossomed between him and Maurice Carter in their joint effort for justice.