African Americans in Grand Rapids

Few African Americans came to West Michigan until after the Civil War, fleeing Jim Crow discrimination in the southern states. Even then, the numbers were relatively small. It wasn't until the Great Migration from the rural south, in the years between World Wars I and II, that our African-American population swelled. Well-paying factory work beckoned families, who settled primarily in the southeast section of the city.

In 1967, riots erupted in these neighborhoods, just as they did in African-American enclaves across the country. It was a wake-up call to the city, forcing the majority white population to confront the inhumanity of racial discrimination and segregation. In response, Grand Rapids elected its first African-American city commissioner, Lyman Parks, in 1968. In 1971, Parks was voted in as the city's first African-American mayor.

Since then, the African-American community has become more tightly woven into the fabric of the city while still maintaining its own unique identity. According to the 2010 census, one out of every five Grand Rapids residents is an African American, and one in every seven area businesses is owned by an African American.

Community Highlights

Rosa Parks Circle, downtown's unique combination of park, sculpture, amphitheater and ice-skating rink, is fronted by a statue of the Civil Rights pioneer.

• The Grand Rapids Times, published since 1957, is one of several media organizations serving the African-American community.

• This "City of Churches" boasts a variety of predominately African-American churches across different denominations.

• The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute promotes health care parity through advocacy, education and research.

• Native son Marvin Sapp conducts a Grammy-wining gospel singing career while serving as founder and senior pastor at Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids.

• Popular community festivals include Soul of the City and Taste of Soul.