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.

Please enjoy this video designed to highlight the many events and attractions that Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority (CAA) have supported recently that demonstrate their ongoing commitment to our African-American community.

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 healthcare parity through advocacy, education and research.
  • Native son, Marvin Sapp, conducts a Grammy-winning 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.

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.