11 ways to honor Black History Month in West Michigan

Learn about African American leaders who championed racial justice in Grand Rapids and partake in meaningful discussions regarding today's racism in West Michigan.
When African Americans began to move to West Michigan after the Civil War, with many individuals heading to the area after fleeing the Southern United States during the Great Migration, between World War I and II, they did so in search of a better life. African American residents have since become an integral part of the Grand Rapids community, contributing major accomplishments in the area, from the arts to business and much more.

But, it has not been easy here for many in the city's African American community, and the racism from which people wanted to escape in the south continued in the north. Currently, the median income for residents who are black is less than half of the median for white individuals, people of color report numerous forms of racial discrimination, from the workplace to housing, and more. That said, Grand Rapidians who are African American are making the city's neighborhoods better every day, including owning and operating stores that are the backbone of the city: about one-seventh of all business owners in the community are African American. Additionally, African American leaders are spearheading the charge for justice throughout the community, whether that's working to decrease infant mortality rates, create affordable housing, improve the environment, and so much more.

This Black History Month, you have the chance to learn about race relations in Grand Rapids' past, as well as partake in meaningful discussions regarding the present and the future of racial justice in West Michigan.

1. Take a free interactive tour of Grand Rapids’ Civil Rights history. Recently created by Kent Innovation High students, the tour includes 12 stops that provide insight into both incredible achievements by our city’s African American residents and organizations, including Helen Claytor, who fought tirelessly for racial justice and was the first black woman to serve as President of the Grand Rapids YWCA. The tour also delves into the horrors of racism and prejudice in Grand Rapids, such as the KKK march that took place down Bridge Street in 1925. At each stop, tour goers can listen to accompanying podcasts read by Kent Innovation High students.

2. Grand Valley State University has an incredible lineup of Black History Month events this year, from a February 11 event that honors black women who have made notable contributions to our society but have been intentionally overlooked or left out, to a February 16 discussion of how the black experience is represented on television. Other events include the February 19 Taste of Soul, when you’ll get a chance to eat and learn about this style of cooking that originated when enslaved Africans turned leftover scraps into amazing meals, and a February 24 performance titled Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement. For the entire roster of events, and when and where they will take place, you can go here. All of the events are free and open to the public.

Lila Cabbil and Barbara Roos will be the featured speakers at an Our Kitchen Table event.3. Our Kitchen Table, a nonprofit organization working for social justice in Grand Rapids, will host “Women of Color Cook, Eat & Talk: How White Allies Can Help Undo Racism” on Thursday, February 11 from 6-8pm at Sherman Street Church (1000 Sherman St. SE). The empowering evening program will feature two veterans of the Civil Rights era, including Lila Cabbil, who worked alongside Rosa Parks as the program director that Parks founded to honor her husband, The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute. Raised in Detroit, Cabbil continues to work for racial, environmental and food justice, as well as water rights. Also featured will be Barbara Roos, who traveled to the south in the 1960s to stand with African Americans working for civil rights. A documentary filmmaker who has had an award-winning career in public broadcasting, Roos founded GVSU’s Film & Video Program and now facilitates a script writing workshop through the WKTV Digital Cinema Guild. The event is free and open to the public, thanks to a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

4. Today, more African American men are entangled in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850 — an astounding statistic that the former president of the NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, will discuss on February 17. As part of the Grand Rapids Community College Lecture Series, Jealous  will present his speech, “Mass Incarceration and Justice in America” at Fountain Street Church at 7pm. The program is free and open to the public.

5. Part of honoring history is understanding how the past influences the present. At an upcoming free event, Women of Color in the Workplace: Building a Career, at the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Main Library on February 18 from 7-8:30pm, you can do just that, and much more. The interactive panel discussion will feature women of color from our community who will talk about what it means to be a woman of color in the workplace. They will discuss a broad range of issues, from finding mentors to facing barriers and how the community can better support women of color. Panelists include: Sonia Dalmia, a GVSU economics professor; Mary Hartfield, a program manager at GROW; Mindy Ysasi, the executive director at The SOURCE; and Jeanessa Fenderson, the branch manager at the GRPL who will moderate. For more information, please go here.

Nola Ade will perform at the Grand Rapids Public Library's Taste of Soul Sunday.6. Join the Grand Rapids Public Library for their annual (and free) Taste of Soul Sunday on February 21 from 1-4:30pm. The festivities, which are sponsored by the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., will celebrate African American history and culture with everything from live jazz and blues music to poetry and a talk on a 1950s black barbershop, and a whole lot more. Plus, you’ll be able to chow down on some seriously amazing food from Daddy Pete’s, TaDOW! BBQ, LINC Up Soul Food Cafe, and Malamiah Juice Bar. You can see the day’s entire lineup here.

7. Support the opening of the first African American history museum, the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, otherwise known as GRAAMA — an acronym meant to evoke the modern-day griot, or storyteller: grandma. The museum is set to land a brick and mortar space by late 2016, but, prior to that, the group has launched an extensive multimedia oral history project called Grandma’s Voice, thanks to a $25,000 grant from The Michigan Humanities Council, through funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. With the project, GRAAMA is collecting the oral histories of older African Americans in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. As part of this, museum representatives will be at the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Taste of Soul event on February 21 to record interviews with families, starting with the eldest members of the community. If you would like to participate, schedule a future interview, or learn about supporting the museum in other ways, please call George Bayard, the executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives at 616-540-2943.

8. Most people (and hopefully, someday, everyone) do not want to be racist, but are you being hurtful without even realizing it? A Calvin College event on February 23 from 3:30-5pm, Unmasking Micro-Aggressions and Their Impact, will discuss this. As stated in the group’s writeup of the program, “micro-agrressions are brief exchanges that send denigrating messages to marginalized groups… Often time, micro-aggressions are unintended or come from a place of good intentions. This workshop will explore several variations of micro-aggressions and provide participants with tools for responding in ways that interrupt and educate.” The event is free, but you need to RSVP by February 15 to attend.

9. Attend the West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s Women and the Environment Symposium at GVSU’s Loosemore Auditorium on February 24 from 2-8pm. The day is packed with acclaimed speakers who will focus on the intersection of gender, race and the environment, including keynote speaker Jacqui Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program who has been a leading voice on the water crisis in Flint. Other speakers include: Lee Ann Walters, a mother from Flint who has long worked to publicize the city’s water crisis; Cle Jackson, the president of NAACP Grand Rapids; Johannah Jelks, the marketing manager of She Rides Her Own Way, a campaign that aims to empower a diverse group of women with awareness of health and social issues;  and others. You can find out more information about the symposium here, and to purchase tickets, go here.

10. Don your fanciest attire and head to the 2016 Grand Rapids Legacy Ball, a February 26 event that celebrates Black History Month and raises money for local scholarships. The gala will take place from 5:30-11:30pm at the J.W. Marriott downtown. Tickets are $100 and include music, dinner and more. They may be purchased here. For more information, you can call 616-570-2010.

11. Learn about the work being done by the NAACP Grand Rapids at the organization’s “Cutting Edge Barbershop & Salon,” which will include discussion on Black Lives Matter, the 2016 elections, the Flint water crisis, and more. The free event, which is open to the public, will take place at the Cutting Edge Barbershop at 1153 Giddings Ave. SE on Saturday, February 27 at 11am.

Know of another Black History Month event that's not to be missed? Let us know in the comments below.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her via email ([email protected]) and on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.
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