Boarding Schools In Michigan: An Interview with Dee Sherwood

Dr. Dee Sherwood is a member of the social work faculty at Western Michigan University. She teaches courses on the American Indian Boarding Schools and intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities.  She is a mixed blood descendant of Paiute, French and English Nations.

Dr. Sherwood has helped to organize community events in the Grand Rapids Urban Indian community including film screenings, marches and educational forums, including events featuring Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement. She served as the advisor to the Native American Student Association at a local university. She also co-authored a curriculum guide  published by the Ziibiwing Center for Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways.

In this seven part interview, Dee talks about the origins of boarding schools in the US, how the history of boarding schools was a form of genocide against indigenous people, how boarding schools impacted indigenous communities, where some of them were located in Michigan, how this history is rarely taught even at the university level and how indigenous people have dealt with the consequences of boarding schools.

 

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The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part II

Last week, we posted Part I of a look at the Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s. In Part II, we want to look at the racial tensions that was known to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids, once again using the documentation in Clingman’s book, which is linked here.

Prior to the 1967 race riot, the head of the Human Relations Commission, Alfred Cowles, gave a speech to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, where is said that he didn’t think that things were bad in the black community. Cowles also stated at the time, “that the local minority situation in housing, employment and public accommodations was generally good but some problems still existed in the field of education. Cowles made similar comments on WOOD TV 8 in 1964.

In addition, Cowles felt that the most dangerous group in town was the Black Muslims and even compared them to the KKK. Other members of the Human Relations Commission did not share Cowles concerns about the Black Muslim and no formal action was taken.

After the Watts riot in 1965, WOOD TV 8 produced an hour long documentary that mostly included interviews with the Black community and asking them if the conditions were similar in Grand Rapids as it was to Watts before the riot in Los Angeles. Those interviewed expressed complaints about housing, employment and police brutality, but Cowles generally refused to acknowledge these complaints. Here is what Cowles said after the 1965 WOOD TV 8 documentary:

Aflred Cowles was replaced by Eugene Sparrow near the beginning of 1966, but Sparrow was not prepared to say that racial tensions would lead to a race riot.

At a meeting on July 12, 1967, the head of the Grand Rapids Urban League, Paul I Phillips, communicated to Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police that according to the national Urban League office, Grand Rapids was on a “dangerous list” of cities with racial tensions. Despite the comments from the Urban League, Mayor Sonneveldt, the City Manager and the Chief of Police “positively denied that riots were possible in the city.”

Two weeks later, at 11pm on July 24th, 1967, the black community rose up against the injustices they had been facing for decades in Grand Rapids, and began to riot.

Clingman doesn’t provide a great deal of new information that we haven’t already shared about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. He does mention that there was a meeting during the riot at the House of Styles between City leaders, older members of the Black leadership and a few young African Americans who Clingman refers to as “young militants.”

One result of that meeting was the creation of the Negro Leadership Council (later renamed the Black Unity Council) that did include some of the “young militants.” Three days later the riot was over.

Clingman ends the chapter on 1967 with these observations:

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The Human Relations Commission and the racial tensions of the 1960s in Grand Rapids: Part I

The Human Relations Commission (HRC) in Grand Rapids was created based on a study that was called for by then Grand Rapids Mayor Paul Goebel. This commission was established to, “foster mutual understanding and respect among all racial, religious and nationality groups in the City of Grand Rapids, and discouraging and preventing discriminatory practices among any such groups or any of its members.

The HRC was eliminated in 1968 and replaced by what is now called the Community Relations Commission (CRC). The HRC was founded right after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and was changed in 1968, just one year after the 1967 race riot in Grand Rapids.

The HRC, like the Community Relations Commission does some of its own investigation into policies and practices within the city and then makes recommendations based on their own findings or the prompting of other community-based groups.

For instance, in the early 1980s, people in Grand Rapids who were working on an South African Anti-Apartheid campaign, pressured the CRC to propose a resolution for the City Commission to divest from any holdings they had with companies doing business with South Africa. That proposal was adopted and beginning in 1984, the City of Grand Rapids began divesting from South Africa.

During the 1960s, the HRC was tested, as various movements, particularly the Freedom Movement (often referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) swept the country, including Grand Rapids. In 1976, a book was written by Lewis Clingman, entitled, The History of the Grand Rapids Human Relations Commission. What follows is a summary of one of the chapters from that book that dealt with the 1960s, particularly the Mustache incident, linked here

The head of the Human Relations Commission in 1966 was Mr. Eugene Sparrow. One thing that Sparrow was attempting to do was to have joint meetings between the HRC and the Grand Rapids City Commission. Mayor Sonneveldt was not a fan of this initiative and at the first joint meeting, the Mayor of Grand Rapids accused the HRC of attacking the local chapter of the John Birch Society, instead of preparing for the scheduled visit by former SNCC member and Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael.

Such a comment from the Mayor of Grand Rapids was instructive, since the John Birch Society believed that the civil rights movement was a Communist plot to overthrow the US government. Some members of the HRC did object to Sonneveldt’s accusation saying that it was the function of the HRC to combat extremism from all political sectors, whether it was from the left or the right. Clingman goes on to note that while there was police assigned to the Carmichael visit, there was no plan in place to deal with any potential violence coming from the John Birch Society, which had 2 chapters in Grand Rapids. 

In the summer of 1966, the Human Relations Commission decided to host a meeting in the community in an attempt to provide a more neutral environment for people in the community to speak freely about their concerns. A meeting was held at Campau School on August 22nd. People from the Black community were mostly upset with the student that was expelled because of facial hair.

Clingman goes on to discuss the growing tension at South High over what became known as the Mustache Affair. One interesting note in Clingman’s chapter, which referred to an article in the Grand Rapids Times, stated:

“the real issue was that the white majority, and many self-styled Negro leaders simply have not been in contact with the mass of the people in the Ghetto area.”

Clingman later makes the following observation:

In Part II of our look at Clingman’s book on the history of the HRC, we will explore his observations and documentation about the months leading up to, and including, the 1967 race riot.

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #21: The First Pride Celebration 1988

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

The following print is from Michael Morey and celebrates the first Pride celebration in Grand Rapids in 1988. After activists from the LGBT community had traveled to DC to participate in a national march, they returned to Grand Rapids and created the first openly gay organization called The Network.

The Network had as some of its initial goals the first celebration of Pride in Grand Rapids and getting the city to pass an ordinance, which included sexual orientation as part of their anti-discrimination ordinance.

The video at this link is 90 minutes of the first ever Pride celebration in Grand Rapids, which includes comments from the stage, interviews with organizations tabling at the event, music and even footage of the spiritual violence that was perpetrated against those in attendance by a group of self-proclaimed Christians who tried to disrupt the event.

 

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #20: Ecological consequences of logging and the furniture industry

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

The following print is from Katie Spence, which depicts one of the consequences of logging that was tied to the furniture industry in Grand Rapids in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The quote on the print is from former City Historian Gordon Olsen, from his book A Grand Rapids Sampler.

Jeffrey Kleiman, in his book on the 1911 Furniture Workers strike in Grand Rapids, entitled Strike!, cites Mayor Ellis who was frustrated by the wealthy developers who were buying up property along the Grand River.

“Encroachment of the river channel by factory owners, carelessly at best and unlawfully at worst, was only the most visible sign of the power of the special interests, according to Ellis. “The rich men have stolen property on both sides of the river,” he argued, making the channel too narrow, so that flooding could occur any time. “The men who have stolen this land should give it back to the city.”

For more on the 1883 log jam, see our post The Grand River: Flooding, Forests and Factories.

 

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #19: 21st Century Animal Rights Movement

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

The following 2 prints are from Kelsey Wittenbach (right) and Taylor Zagrzebski (below). Both of these prints are based on the organized through the group Grand Rapids for Animals

Grand Rapids for Animals is a more recent attempt by people in West Michigan to organize in support of animal rights or animal liberation. Grand Rapids for Animals has focused primarily on doing educational work and awareness building by protesting the circus when it comes to GR and sometimes around puppy mills and other animal welfare activism.

In the late 1980s and part of the 1990s, there was a group called West Michigan for Animals, which also focus on education, awareness building, but also more direct action at fur stores, slaughter houses and rodeos. West Michigan for Animals used street theater and other non-violent tactics to get their message across. In the early 1990s, some members of the group wanted to do more direct action, especially around animal liberation, but these tensions eventually led to the group disbanding by the late 1990s. 

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #18: Anarchist and Feminist Voltairine De Cleyre

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by TJ Mathieu, honors the legacy of Feminist and Anarchist writer, Voltairine De Cleyre. De Cleyre lived in Grand Rapids for several decades from the late 19th century through the early 20th century.

Her writings, both essays and poetry, focused heaving on anarchist themes and the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago. For at least 15 years, she would travel and give speeches on May 1st, the anniversary of the Haymarket Riot, throughout the country.

In the speech she delivered in 1906 in Chicago, De Cleyre shared these eloquent words:

Voltairine De Cleyre was an astute observer of the world. She wrote about anarchism and the particularly anarchism in America. She wrote about Direct Action, Crime & Punishment and the Paris Commune. In 1911, the year before she died, she also wrote about the Mexican Revolution.

 

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