Just after the Depression years, the Grand Rapids City Government provided direct relief and created a public works project for those unemployed

The great depression that began in 1929, happened all across the globe. Grand Rapids was not immune to the devastation brought about because of the economic catastrophe.

However, during the depression years, there was one elected official who implemented New Deal-like policies, policies that provided relief to hundreds of families in Grand Rapids.

George Welsh was Mayor in Grand Rapids when the country was just coming out of the “Great Depression. According to Z.Z. Lydens book, The Story of Grand Rapids, Mayor Welsh wanted to do something to address the growing unemployment problem in the city. According to Lydens:

There were ominous moments when masses of men milled in front of City Hall, men who were seeking rescue from their jobless plight and the unmet needs of their families. Communist instigation was suspected, but the need was too obvious to call for instigation beyond need itself. To help the hungry, the unsheltered, and the unclothed, Welsh, supported by the City Commission, created all manner of public works. He adopted the philosophy that a man had a right to save his honor by working for his keep. Welsh instituted a script system of wage payment and set up a municipal food store, scrounging food where he could.

Lydens goes on to say that the city was taking care of 20,000 men, women and children through this New Deal-like program.

According to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission

Instead of money each laborer was paid about fifty cents per hour in scrip coupons which could be used at stores set up by the city. Scrip labor was not unique to Grand Rapids, but the extent to which it was used was unprecedented. The projects included snow removal, Grand River bank cleanups and dredging, demolition of old city buildings, cleaning and salvaging of materials from demolished buildings, the building of the Civic Auditorium, painting City Hall, shoe repair, canning foods, and the building of Richmond Park Pool and Bath House.

The photo above shows workers who participated in this script system that Welsh had set up. (Photo care of Grand Rapids Historical Commission)

This example of what the City of Grand Rapids did during the depression is rather instructive. First, it demonstrates that the city can and did use government resources to provide material relief for thousands of families, putting people to work that would ultimately benefit the city as a whole. It also demonstrates that in times of crisis, social charity is not the only form of relief and that municipalities can play a significant role in making sure that those who are the most vulnerable and most marginalized deserve support beyond social services.

Imagine what the City of Grand Rapids could be doing right now, if it implemented a public works project so that families could get their basic needs met. What would the city look like if there was an equal amount of funding utilized for public works projects as is provided as subsidies and tax breaks for developers?

Posted in Anti-Capitalism/Labor | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Some examples of the conditions for blacks in Grand Rapids and what types of discrimination blacks faced on a daily basis in the early part of the 20th Century

Over the past month, we have been posting articles based on archives from the Grand Rapids Public Library of Paul I. Phillips. In January, we posted a piece from a document by Phillips, where he lists all of the black soldiers from Grand Rapids who enlisted in the Civil War

Two weeks ago, we posted a second article from the Paul I. Phillips archives, something written in the mid-1970s, where Phillips was sharing notes about the economic, political and social conditions of blacks in Grand Rapids

Today, we want to look at some examples from 1913, where black people were featured in news stories from the Grand Rapids Evening Press. The first article, headlined, Rev. S. Henri Browne Tells Church Class of Conditions of Negroes. The article does share some of Rev. Browne’s thoughts about the condition of blacks in Grand Rapids, like substandard housing, landlords who were demanding high rent for “old ramshackle buildings,” and lack of employment.

In a second article, also from the Grand Rapids Evening Press, Rev. S. Henri Browne talked about being denied the purchase of shoes from a shoe store owner in downtown Grand Rapids.

“I submit to you it is shameful that in your city, on Monroe Avenue, is a shoe store where Rev. S. H. Browne, a college graduate, who addressed you today so ably, cannot buy a pair of shoes because he is black.”

This comment was from Sherman N. Furr, president of the Newport News, Virginia.

Both of these articles provide a small window into the realities that African Americans faced in Grand Rapids in the early part of the 20th Century. It is always instructive to see how Black people were represented in the local news media and what the news media chose to tell us about blacks in Grand Rapids.

Posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Maybe America has forgotten how smoke smells”: The state of Black Grand Rapids from the perspective of Paul I Phillips in the mid-1970s

(As always, we are grateful for the assistance of the staff at the Grand Rapids Public Library, particularly those on 4th floor.)

Our last post referred to a document from former Urban League members Paul I Phillips, where he documented the number of African Americans from Grand Rapids that enlisted in the US Civil War in 1863. 

In today’s post, we continue to look at some of the archival documents from Paul I Phillips, specifically a document he wrote in 1976 about the state of black people in Grand Rapids.

The document is only 2 pages long and is more a list of notes/observations that the former Urban League member wrote. Phillips says under the heading of unemployment:

For Whites, a recession, for Blacks, a depression. Unemployment among blacks is double that among whites.

Phillips goes on to note that median income for black families in 1974 was $7,802 and for white families $13,830, nearly double.

The next observation is rather instructive, since he refers to the 1970s policies as “benign neglect,” with the depression of 1974-75 as “effectively undermining the economic gains made by blacks in the 1960’s. In response to this dynamic, Phillips writes that “an increasing number of black families are doubling up and pooling meager resources.”

He ends his notes with the statement, “this preferential treatment of blacks and other minorities must not be permitted to continue.”

Earlier in the document Phillips cites an unemployed black person who says, “Maybe America has forgotten how smoke smells. Maybe we need a refresher course.” This comment is particularly instructive, since Phillips did not cite anyone else in the 2-page document. Also, it must be said that Paul I Phillips was not a radical or a militant. By all accounts, Phillips was fairly conciliatory in terms of his assessment of institutional racism, yet in this document he makes some strong statements about the state of the black community in Grand Rapids in the mid-70s.

Phillips may not have been advocating that blacks engage in another uprising like they did in 1967, but it is interesting the only person he cites in the document makes reference to the burning of buildings in the 1967 Grand Rapids riot, buildings that were primarily white-owned.

Another thing worth noting is that the data that Phillips provides in this document from the mid-1970s, is consistent with the documentation that the Grand Rapids Urban League had been presenting in reports that looked at the 1930s and 1940s.

With all of the recent news about the lack of investment in the southeast part of Grand Rapids and the high levels of poverty, it is clear that these same issues of structural racism have plagued the African American community for nearly a century in this community.

Posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

African Americans from Grand Rapids who were part of the US Civil War

(As always, we are grateful for the assistance of the staff at the Grand Rapids Public Library, particularly those on 4th floor.)

In reading the book, African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids (Randal Maurice Jelks), one realizes that the number of black people living in Grand Rapids was very small in the 19th century.

We recently came across a document from the archives of Paul I Phillips at the Grand Rapids Library. One document is headlined, The Negro in Grand Rapids 1840 – 1956. That document offers some census data on the number of African Americans living in Grand Rapids in the 19th century. It states that there were 9 in 1854 and 48 in 1870.

While we don’t have an exact number of African Americans living in Grand Rapids during the US Civil War, it is astounding to note that, based on the document from the Paul I Phillips archive, that the Michigan Governor (Austin Blair) was asked to enlist black soldiers for the Union Army in 1863. At total of 1600 volunteered from Michigan, with 30 coming from Grand Rapids. Again, we don’t have an exact number of African Americans living in Grand Rapids at that time, but if there were only 48 living in this city in 1870, the fact that 30 black men enlisted to fight in the US Civil War is pretty amazing.

Here is a list of those that signed up:

Posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

1970 document sheds light on the housing crisis in Grand Rapids and the lack of political will to solve it

We came across a document at the Grand Rapids Library recent, a document that is included in the William M. Glenn Papers. William Glen was involved with the Grand Rapids Urban League and he also was part of the Housing Committee that was part of the Community Relations Commission.

Glen wrote this 3-page document on January 5, 1970, a document that was addressed to Mayor Christian Sonnevedlt. The document has as its title, Urban Renewal Housing. Early on in the document, Glen writes the following about the housing crisis:

Glen is correct in his assessment of the crisis and that it has been an issue for some time. We know that particularly in the city’s 3rd ward, specifically within the African American community, that the housing crisis was substantial. In a 1940 Urban League report, it states:

“In many instances the two-family houses are converted single family structures. Only one-fifth of the structures are in good conditions, one-third of them need either major repairs or are unfit for use. Nineteen families of the 205 (renters) do not have toilet facilities within their own unit; a greater number of families (84) do not have private baths. Over half of them live in cold water flats where they must furnish heat from small stoves, there being no central heating plant.”

That same 1940 Urban League report also states in the concluding remarks, “conditions in the Negro community are no better, if not worse, than at the time of the 1928 report.”

In 1947, the Urban League conducted another report on the State of the Black community in Grand Rapids. The 1947 report reflected very similar dynamics in terms of housing ownership and housing conditions, as the 1940 report. The reports cites the disparities between white and black residents when looking at housing, particularly at the cost of rent. A great deal of the housing disparities were due to structural racism, often in the practice of Red-Lining that plagued the black community for decades.

Another factor that contributed to the housing crisis in Grand Rapids, particularly for black people, was the construction of the highways through the city (196 & 131). In an interview I did with Fr. Dennis Morrow on this topic, he talked about 1,000 homes being destroyed and the devastation it had on families:

We don’t normally call it devastation, because something was built. It was pushed through by the government and certainly you could say that some people have benefitted from it. However, if the devastation from the riots of the 60’s had been nearly as great as the devastation wrought by the freeway construction they would have called the riots an all out war. The amount of dwellings that were destroyed during the riots were infinitesimal compared to those destroyed during the freeway construction.

The highway construction was part of the larger urban renewal efforts amongst city planners, often with the plan of wiping out or further marginalizing black neighborhoods. William Glen identifies this dynamic in the 1970 document, where he says:

The 1967 riot in Grand Rapids had a great deal to do with the exploitative nature of the housing, particularly white landlords who were renting to African Americans. Many of the properties that were burned or had other forms of property damage were targeted because they were white-owned, but also because black neighborhoods were being ignored by the City.

William Glen goes on to say that it is the City’s responsibility to address the housing crisis by investing massive amounts of money and to appoint someone who would coordinate this effort.

Glen concludes that this effort cannot be done in piecemeal fashion and that the longer we wait the worse it will get.

It is just a few weeks shy of 50 years since William Glen wrote this document. Grand Rapids is still facing a serious housing crisis, especially since the “power structure,” as Glen referred to it as, did not heed his words. One could argue that the power structure continues to ignore the thoughts of William Glen to this very day.


Posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Days of Our Lies: Public Access TV show provided independent news and news analysis in Grand Rapids from 1992 – 1998

For nearly seven years (between 1992 – 1998), if people had access to cable TV in the Grand Rapids area, they might have come across a show on GRTV called, Days of Our Lies.

The show was started by several community activists who had just come back from Central America and were interviewed on GRTV by the station manager. After that interview, the station manager suggested that these activists could have a regular time slot to produce a show about whatever they wanted to.

Beginning in August of 1992, these three activists kicked off an independent news and news analysis show that aired once a week for nearly seven years on GRTV.

The show used a Days of Our Lives intro, but when it got to the word lives, it said Days of Our Lies, with a Nine Inch Nails song that ran over a montage of images of national and international news.

Recently, someone sent us some of those early Days of Our Lies shows that have been uploaded to youtube, so we wanted to share them with people who follow this site. The audio isn’t great, but you get an idea of the show format and why it was important for those doing the show to provide independent news and news analysis at a time where little of that was happening.

Here are two examples from Days of Our Lives. The first one features regular news and news analysis, along with a video of Alfred McCoy talking about the US Drug War, since there was a Racism and the Drug War conference being held in Grand Rapids in September of 1992.

The second examples was from an early November 1992 show, just days before the 1992 election, where Days of Our Lies (DOOL) reporters went to a George Bush Sr rally in downtown Grand Rapids, to interview Bush supporters. These Bush supporters demonstrated the ridiculous and narrow-mindedness, which the DOOL reporters didn’t even need to comment on, since the Bush supporter comments spoke for themselves.

Over the years there were 9 different reporters and show producers. In 1994, Days of Our Lives won the Best Show on GRTV award.

Thanks to Mitchell Szczepanczyk for preserving these tapes of Days of Our Lives and for making some guest appearances on the show!!!

Posted in Indy Media | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

56 years ago what did the GR Press report on Malcolm X’s suspension from the Nation of Islam over comments on President Kennedy’s death?

Fifty six year ago, Malcolm X made comments about President Kennedy’s assassination, comments which got him suspended by Elijah Mohammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Here on the right, you can read what the Grand Rapids Press ran, which was a brief article that was from the Associated Press. The AP story quotes part of what Malcolm X said in regards to the assassination of President Kennedy, specifically the comment about “chickens coming home to roost.”

However, what Malcolm X said included a whole lot more commentary. Unfortunately, there is no full record of what Malcolm X said on December 1st, 1963, in regards to the assassination of Kennedy. We only have bits and pieces of the talk he gave at the Manhattan Center. Here is part of what Malcolm X said that day, as is sourced in Manning Marable’s book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

“God’s Judgment of White America” began with a sophisticated argument about political economies. “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us . . . it was the evil of slavery that caused the downfall and destruction of ancient Egypt and Babylon, and of ancient Greece, as well as ancient Rome,” Malcolm told his audience. In similar fashion, colonialism contributed to “the collapse of the white nations in present-day Europe as world powers.” The exploitation of African Americans will, in turn, “bring white America to her hour of judgment, to her downfall as a respected nation.” Malcolm’s core argument was that America, like the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, was in moral decline. The greatest example of its moral bankruptcy, Malcolm argued, was its hypocrisy. “White America pretends to ask herself, ‘What do these Negroes want?’ White America knows that four hundred years of cruel bondage has made these twenty-two million ex-slaves too (mentally) [Malcolm’s parentheses] blind to see what they really want.”

Therefore, the larger context of “chicken’s coming home to roost,” had to do with White America and the hate that the US government had created around the world and at home.

Eventually, Malcolm X broke his silence. In the video here, a reporter asks Malcolm X about what he said and how it has been interpreted by the news media.


Posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A History of Anarchism in Grand Rapids

Several years ago, Sprout Distro published a 4 part series of zines on the history of Anarchism in Grand Rapids.

These four zines not only are well written and well researched, they make it clear that there has been an anarchist presence in Grand Rapids since the late 19th century.

Volume 1 in the series covers the German anarchists in the 1880s in Grand Rapids and its connection in Chicago to the International Workingpeople’s Association (IWPA), along with the famous Grand Rapids anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre.

Volume 2 covers a number of different topics pertaining to anarchist activity in Grand Rapids in the early 1900s. We look at the Dutch anarchism of Hendrik Meijer who brought the ideas of Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis to West Michigan, recount Emma Goldman’s several visits to Grand Rapids, tell the story of the solider-turned-anarchist William Buwalda, and explore the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and their activity in Grand Rapids in the 1910s, including their role in the famous Furniture Strike of 1911.

In volume 3 , topics include the story of Charles Bergman, an anarchist from the Grand Rapids area who organized talks in Grand Rapids for Emma Goldman and printed anarchist propaganda, the repression that anarchists and other radicals faced during World War I and the years immediately following the War, the efforts to keep anarchist resistance alive during the 1920s through the 1950s, and the resurgence of anarchy in the 1960s. Where activity in Grand Rapids could not be found, Mob Work fills the gaps by looking at anarchist activity on a national level. In terms of “the sixties” movement, the zine presents generally unexplored history of anti-war and counter-cultural resistance in Grand Rapids, including an examination of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), local underground newspapers, and the anti-police riots that took place in the late 1960s.

Volume 4 deals with relatively recent anarchist history is the topic of discussion with the 1980s through the 1990s being explored. In Grand Rapids, as was the case nationally, these years continued a resurgence in anarchist activity that started in the 1960s. Volume Four begins with an overview of what was happening on a national level during these years, looking at efforts around publishing, networking, and organizing. This overview provides an important outline of a history that often goes untold. Following this, the zine explores anarchist activity in Grand Rapids. Topics include anarchist visibility in the punk scene, various groups that were around over the years, organizing against police brutality and white supremacy, and participation in national efforts such as the Anarchist Black Cross and Food Not Bombs.

Posted in Anti-Capitalism/Labor, Indy Media | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Newly archived Labor Press available at the Grand Rapids Public Library

Thanks to longtime local labor historian Michael Johnston, the Grand Rapids Public Library now has both hard copy and digital archives of several different labor press sources from 1955 to the present.

The archived labor press sources are the Grand Rapids CIO News, the Grand Valley AFL – CIO News, Grand Valley Labor News and Work in Progress. All of these labor press archives have been digitized, making it easy for people to view the material online.

As a sample of some of the labor news archives, we found a January 1957 article in the Grand Rapids CIO News that focuses on a union victory at local companies that were attempting to engage in union busting…..posted here above, on the right.

Another, more recent article is from the Grand Valley Labor News, in a June 2000 edition. In this article, there is a story about an anti-World Bank protest held in Grand Rapids, where a World Bank official was meeting with members of the Grand Rapids Econ Club. (seen here on the left) We have written about this same protest in the summer of 2000, utilizing reporting from the indy media source media mouse.

This new labor press archive will provide anyone important insight into news from the perspective of organized labor in Grand Rapids, a perspective that is often ignore by the mainstream press.

A special thanks to the Grand Rapids Public Library for making these archives available and to Michael Johnston for preserving and sharing them with the public.

Posted in Anti-Capitalism/Labor | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How the press reported on an 1891 Labor Strike in Grand Rapids

I was recently reading Sidney Harring’s, Policing A Class Society: The Experience of American Cities 1865 – 1915,  and came across a brief description of a labor strike in Grand Rapids in May of 1891.  I decided to look up how the local newspapers reported on the strike.

Both cable and horse car workers went on strike May 10, 1891, for higher wages and union contracts. The company began hiring scab workers immediately. As the week progressed, workers tried to keep cars from running, first by inducing others not to take their jobs, but later also by blocking the cars.

The Grand Rapids Eagle and the Grand Rapids Democrat newspapers, both reported on the strike. The Grand Rapids Eagle even reprinted the text of a flyer that the striking workers were handing out, which includes information about a labor parade and the role of the local Sheriff’s office, as you can see here on the right.

The strike had the support of several merchants in the area, specifically because of how it impacted sales. Some 65 merchants signed a statement,  pleading with the company to settle the dispute with the striking workers, as is reflected in the headline of the Grand Rapids Democrat.

As the strike continued into several days, there were reported incidents of strikers and sympathizers stopping some of the few cable cars that were running. One report states:

either strikers or sympathizers stopped a South Division street car this morning and threatened the driver and the conductor unless they should stop running the car, and they did stop, the passengers being compelled to leave the car.

At a labor parade, which was organized in support of the strikers, where several thousand people showed up, one speaker shared the comments, which were reported on in the Grand Rapids Eagle, here on the right.

The day after the labor parade, which demonstrated significant public support, the Railway company put out a statement, which was reported on by the Grand Rapids Eagle. The company stated:

The management of the street railway system of Grand Rapids realizes that in the conduct of its business carrying passengers it is held more accountable to public opinion than would be any other corporation or individual.”

As the strike continued, there were other actions taken by striking workers, including marches and attempts to shut down roads, like what happened on South Division one night, where workers placed a large iron bar across the tracks to prevent it from moving.

Just before the strike had ended, other members of the business community decided to hold a meeting, which was chaired by furniture baron Charles Sligh. We include the headline for this meeting and comments by other businessmen here below, which  demonstrated that they would not tolerate disorder in Grand Rapids and that what they prized above all were law abiding citizens and obedient workers.




Posted in Anti-Capitalism/Labor | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments