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Facing racism: The lasting effects of discrimination in GR's southeast community

Since last year we have been working on sharing empowering narratives informed by our neighbors, residents, entrepreneurs, and organizers of the Garfield Park, South Division and Burton Heights neighborhoods. As we continue our On The Ground program and begin to move south into the Madison Square neighborhood and southeast communities, we are kicking off the second OTG series by providing a closer look at how the history of the area shapes life for its modern day residents.

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Alice Johnson


Marked by a history of racism and segregation, members of Grand Rapids' southeast communities share the ways this has blocked access to fostering sustainable neighborhoods -- and how they are working to overcome these barriers.
“I love my community, and my community is a very poor community, and it could do so much better if it had greater access," says Alice Johnson, a resident of the Madison Square neighborhood.  In 1976, while residing in Arkansas, Johnson made the decision to pack up her bags and move to Grand Rapids. Her husband at the time had managed to get a job in town, and she decided to move in hopes of finding better opportunities for work.
 
“Coming from Arkansas, this community was predominantly black and looked very big and pleasant,” Johnson explains, referring to the Madison Square neighborhood. 
 
After moving here and separating from her husband, the single mother of three was working tirelessly as a certified nurse at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, trying to save up enough money to purchase the home she was renting on 1441 Lafayette Ave. SE.

 “I didn’t have good credit, and I had three little children, making it very difficult,” says Johnson.

According to Johnson, a German family in the area decided to advocate for her with Union Bank & Trust, a local bank banking institution of the time, and she was able to receive a loan amounting to $3,000, the down payment for the house.  Since then, she has been able to provide a secure home environment to all eight of her children, seven of whom she fostered and eventually adopted.
 
“My children have grown up to be very good in spite of the difficult circumstances we have faced,” says Johnson.

There is no ally-ship in colorblindness

Johnson's story is emblematic of thousands of others who left the southern U.S. for Grand Rapids, many of whom moved to the city's southeast communities. In the decades following the Civil War, black Americans hoping to escape racist policies and institutions in the southern states and find more opportunities, from education to careers, moved to the north during the Great Migration in the early 20th century, including to Grand Rapids. The city's black community grew from a population of 665 in 1910 to 2,795 in 1930, according to federal statistics. However, once black Americans arrived in northern cities, including in Grand Rapids, they faced much of the same oppression they experienced in the south, with author and historian Todd Robinson pointing out in his book, “A City Within A City,” that “Michigan’s Jim Crow customs were often disguised in arguments about free enterprise and the freedom of association.”

For example, the price of everything from beverages to rent was often far higher for black Grand Rapidians than their white neighbors. “Even a basic commodity, such as coffee, routinely cost black customers five times as much: They paid 50 cents, while whites only paid 10 cents,” writes Robinson.

Nearly 8,000 black residents moved to the city between 1950 and 1960, according to government statistics, but, as in years prior, almost all of them discovered they were aggressively excluded from most of the city when it came to renting or owning homes: no one would consider renting them housing unless it was in a neighborhood that often had decaying housing stock (such as in the city's southeast). And as far as owning a place? That proved far more difficult than renting, with banks routinely turning down black residents.

As black Grand Rapidians were paying more for everything from rent to restaurant meals and were being paid less than their white counterparts at their jobs, they also were being forced to shell out more for housing in “the oldest section of a racially divided city,” Robinson writes of the mid-20th century.

By the time Johnson moved to the city in the 1970s, things were, little by little, changing, with some black residents accessing loans and purchasing property. But, as Johnson explains, access to financial opportunities were limited, and continue to be so. To understand the struggles that members of the southeast communities continue to face, it is imperative to take a closer look at the history.

Historical segregation and racism in Grand Rapids

It was 1872 when the former mayor of Grand Rapids, Charles Comstock, began recruiting black residents from Tennessee and Mississippi to come work for his new barrel-making plant, as is detailed in the account, “African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids,”  by historian and Grand Rapidian Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks. The deal Comstock offered these citizens included housing arrangements, and with this assurance many packed up their belongings and moved into “the Hon. C.C. Comstock’s Hotel de Afrique.” This apartment complex was built to accommodate up to 20 black families and later became known as Comstock’s Row.
 
“This was a way of controlling workers and preventing workers from organizing,” Jelks says of the tenement building located on what was then North Canal Street and is now Monroe Avenue, near Leonard Street, during an interview with Rapid Growth. 
 
It was not only black citizens who were being recruited to work in these low paying jobs, but Dutch and Polish immigrants also agreed to this type of work. Even though Dutch and Polish families were also experiencing disadvantages, they had no interest in forming alliances with the black working class.
 
Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks“Though free from physical bondage, racial segregation surfaced as a tool to minimize competition between African Americans and immigration groups,” Jelks says. 
 
As a result, black people were on their own in the fight against inequitable Jim Crow practices following the Civil War, says Jelks. On the one hand, white elites thought their anti-slavery sentiments and charity towards black individuals was a sign of ally-ship, yet they continued to exclude black residents from being a part of the rising manufacturing industry. And the white working class attempted to achieve economic capital at the expense of the black working class.
 
As the number of Dutch immigrants began to increase throughout the city of Grand Rapids, black residents were confronted were the harsh reality that employers preferred to hire these individuals over them. With the increase of negative sentiments, treatment and false stereotypes of black Americans came the further separation and segregation between the white working class and black citizens, as evidenced by the formation in the 1920s of the first Klu Klux Klan “club” in Grand Rapids South High School, located at Hall Street and Jefferson Avenue. At the time, many poor working class whites studied alongside black students. But as the white working and middle class gained economic capital, they took the opportunity to flee south of the railroad tracks, where blackAmericans were prohibited from settling until 1970.
 
By the mid-1950s, many white residents had fled to the suburbs in search of more homogeneous communities, and, as a result of the distance between downtown and the suburbs, found it increasingly difficult to access the city proper. To help address the issue, the former city planning director, Keith Honey, proposed the expansion of U.S. 131 in 1955. The proposal was meant to easily encourage mobility between the suburbs and downtown Grand Rapids, at the expense of physically dividing black and brown neighborhoods in the city's southeast communities.
 
“Urban renewal comes to a neighborhood like Madison Square, turning it from a white, middle-class community into an all black neighborhood,” Jelks says of the neighborhood that faced significant racially motivated disinvestment after the white residents left.
 
For affluent white residents, the development of U.S. 131, and later the 12-mile-long I-96 east to west link, were signs of urban renewal. These developments were later known as the "best urban freeway network in the nation" per Gordon Olson's historical account,"Grand Rapids: A City Renewed." 
 
But, as Olson laters details in his work, the highway development caused the demolition and relocation of more than 1,000 west side families. Despite the displacement, many Grand Rapidians saw the development of U.S. 131 and I-96 as a way to advance the industry and increase accessibility to downtown.
 
“As housing developments, commercial centers, and industrial complexes moved outward from Grand Rapids’ core, new roads became essential to the area’s economic well-being,” explains Olson. 
 
In attempts to revitalize and encourage movement to downtown, city leaders sought to use federal government funds, approved by President Dwight Eisenhower,  to provide affordable housing opportunities for low-income families. Initially, 10 percent of these funds were meant to be used on nonresidential projects, but the percentage was later raised to 35 percent. This meant that only 65 percent of the funding would be used to help house families in need, many of whom belonged to the black working class. 
                                                                                                             
According to U.S. Census statistics for 1960, black Americans in Grand Rapids were living in segregated neighborhoods and working low paying jobs. These residents were not only bound by their lack of economic capital, but they also faced physical boundaries, as they were prohibited from purchasing homes outside of Hall Street on the south, Cherry Street on the north, Fuller on the east, and the river to the west.
 
Corner of Madison Avenue and Hall Street


Today, the southeast neighborhoods still holds the city’s greatest concentration of black residents, with 51 percent of Grand Rapids' black population residing within the boundaries of Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, U.S. 131 and Madison Square, per 2013 U.S. Census data obtained from Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. 
 
The second largest demographic of the area are Latinx residents, who make up 27 percent of the area’s overall population. White residents constitute 17 percent. When comparing these numbers to neighborhoods mere blocks away, like the more affluent East Hills and Heritage Hill area, the numbers of black residents in these neighborhoods significantly decrease. In the East Hills and Heritage Hill area, black residents make up 14 percent of the community, while whites represent 72 percent of all residents.
 
“To talk about racial reconciliation, you are talking about economics and structures. Without having a means of gaining capital access – you keep people locked down. And those keeping people locked down are all 'well-meaning' people,” Jelks says.

Looking ahead: attaining a sustainable community

Today residents of the Madison Square neighborhood continue to experience a lack of access to economic capital, education,  housing stability and a healthy home environment. In spite of these factors,  residents of this community are working together with advocates from organizations like Seeds of Promise and LincUp to gain access to spaces of influence and help foster self-sustainable neighborhoods.  

"Our work is informed primarily through our community's neighbors, and through strategic organizing and empowerment we are creating our own platforms to make change" explains Ronald Jimmerson Sr., executive director and co-founder of Seeds of Promise. 

For Johnson, believing in the power of her community means she is willing to call out a history of oppression and deep-seated problems she and her neighbors face living in the Madison Square neighborhood.

Alice Johnson“I don’t have access to a whole lot of things in our community. We have to go outside of our community to obtain them,” Johnson says of the lack of affordable grocery shops, clothing stores and pharmacies in the neighborhood.

Looking to the future, Johnson hopes her advocacy encourages others to invest their economic capital into the southeast communities.

“We have some really good people who could do so much good if they had easily available resources," Johnson says.

On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.
 
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
 
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
 
On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee the livability of all children.

Photography by Dreams by Bella
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