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. The community has also embraced new residents who may identify as Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, Black, BIPOC, and many other races and identities.
According to the 2010 census, one out of every five Grand Rapids residents was Black/African American, and one in every seven area businesses was owned by an African American. However, the Black population of GR fell by 3.7% over the next decade, a trend also seen in our closest big cities, Detroit and Chicago. Census data indicates that Black residents who departed the city may not have gone far: the African American population of southeast suburb Kentwood grew by 4% and southwest suburbs Grandville and Wyoming both saw 2% increases in their Black population.
Narrated by City Commissioner Joe Jones, the Black History Tour of Downtown Grand Rapids starts in Lyon Square continues 2 miles around Downtown stopping at 11 points of interest that feature historical information about local African American leadership, culture and community.
- Urban League of West Michigan works to empower African Americans and other minorities to achieve economic self-reliance, parity and civil rights.
- NAACP Grand Rapids is part of a worldwide network of 2,200+ local branches dedicated to eradicating racial discrimination.
- The Black Impact Collective is a group of organizations formed to identify and illuminate the needs of Black people in Greater Grand Rapids.
- Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses is an economic development and business entity that works to expand opportunities for Black businesses and supports the revitalization of predominately Black neighborhoods.
- The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute seeks to ensure that all people have optimal health care and benefit from health systems, without race being an impediment.
- NIA Centre GR supports, celebrates and shares African America culture by exploring the intersections of art, health, wealth and education.
- The Justice 4 All Juneteenth Jam (June) is a downtown GR festival showcasing African American culture, history, art and entertainment, all to commemorate the 1865 emancipation of African American citizens. It’s one of several ways to observe Juneteenth in Grand Rapids.
- A Glimpse of Africa Festival (August) highlights the diversity of African cultures through fashion, art, crafts, food, dance, music and interactive activities for both kids and adults.
- The African American Arts and Music Festival (September) celebrates the outstanding contributions of African American artists through the visual and performing arts.
Points of Interests
- Grand Rapids is a sister city to Ga District, Ghana in West Africa.
- The Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives (GRAAMA) is a fascinating exploration of the history, culture and contributions of the local community.
- A statue of civil rights activist Rosa Parks stands outside downtown’s Rosa Park’s Circle, a unique combination of public gathering space, sculpture, amphitheater and ice skating rink.
- Other downtown statues pay tribute to Lyman Parks, GR’s first African American mayor, and Helen Claytor, a GR resident who became the first African American president of the national YWCA.
- The 49507 Murals Project enlists local Black and Brown artists and businesses to raise awareness about underinvestment in southeast and southwest GR.
- A mural on the northwest corner of downtown’s Grand Rapids Police Department commemorates Harriet Woods Hill, who became the city’s first African American female officer in 1955.
- Franklin Street, which runs through a historic African American section of GR, was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Street in 2022 to honor the renowned civil rights hero.
- 30+ Black-owned restaurants include relatively recent additions Forty Acres Soul Kitchen, GRNoir Wine & Jazz, Mizizi and MotherLand Food.
- Michigan’s first Black-owned brewery, Black Calder Brewing Company, launched in Grand Rapids in 2020.
- The Grand Rapids Times, published since 1957, is one of several media organizations serving the local African American community.