Housing Segregation as Systemic Racism in Grand Rapids: The Early 20th Century

(The post today was referenced in the book, African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids, by Randal Jelks, for which we are grateful.)

grandrapidsholcmap-medOne of the most contentious issues as it relates to systemic racism and white supremacy is the historical difference between housing for Whites and Blacks. There has always been a disparity in the quality of housing, the ratio of home owners vs renters and the blatant segregation in housing around the country during the 20th Century. Grand Rapids has engaged in the same pattern of housing segregation, which has included several tactics used to perpetuate this aspect of systemic racism.

One tactic that has been used is referenced in Todd Robinson’s important book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Robinson documents the practice of red lining that primarily impacted the Black community as early as the 1920s

Red Lining is a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc., refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods that has been imposed upon African Americans and other communities of color. In Grand Rapids, the practice of Red Lining particularly impacted the Black community.

A second tactic used was white residents from white neighborhoods banning together to publicly oppose the presence of African Americans in their neighborhood, either as home owners or renters.

One example of this was, which is cited in African Americans in the Furniture City, was when white residents voiced their opposition at the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, an opposition to blacks moving into their neighborhood. In 1923, at a meeting on May 10, forty-three white citizens, led by Thane H. Ives stated their opposition to black people moving into their neighborhood during the commission meeting:

A resident of 1101 Thomas St. and 43 others, were protesting the selling to, building by or occupying property by the colored race in the vicinity of Dunham and Thomas St. between Dolbee and Fuller Ave.


You can see from this map, what part of the city is referenced by these white residents in 1923. The City Commission minutes state that the comments were Accepted and Filed. Nothing further was noted and their is no evidence, based on latter city commission meetings, that any action was taken.

However, imagine what people in the black community would do, upon knowing that dozens of white residents in a particular neighborhood publicly voiced their opposition to blacks moving into their neighborhood. Stating this publicly at a city commission meeting was a way of intimidating people in the black community to stay the hell out of white neighborhoods.

A third tactic used to perpetuate housing segregation was outright acts of violence and intimidation against the black community. Again, Jelks writes that the True Light Baptist Church, which was the fastest growing black church in the area, “was attacked by an unidentified arsonist.” The unidentified arsonist used a pop bottle filled with kerosene to set the church on fire, as is mentioned in this May 5th, 1927 article from the Grand Rapids Press.


Related to the third tactic of using violence and intimidation, was the fact that in the mid 1920s the presence of the KKK was at an all time high in Grand Rapids. In the picture here below, one can see the number of KKK members boldly marching in a 4th of July parade in 1925.  The Klan’s July 4 parade certainly sent a message to the Black community, which in the early 1920s numbered less than 3,000. screen-shot-2016-01-12-at-2-06-02-am

The fourth, and last tactic, has been the lack of economic equality. African Americans were denied the same opportunities to secure economic security, based on the discriminating aspects of capitalism in the early part of the 20th century. The denial of entry into higher paying jobs and professions meant that blacks were disproportionately experiencing higher rates of poverty than their counterparts in the white community.

Each of these tactics were employed to promote and perpetuate the racialized housing segregation in Grand Rapids during the 20th century.

This entry was posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Housing Segregation as Systemic Racism in Grand Rapids: The Early 20th Century

  1. Pingback: State of the Black Community in Grand Rapids – 1940 | Grand Rapids People's History Project

  2. Pingback: Housing Justice through a Historic and Intersectional Lens: Looking back, imagining forward and fighting right now | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

  3. Pingback: 50 years after the 1967 Riot in Grand Rapids: What we know and what can we learn? | Grand Rapids People's History Project

  4. Pingback: What we can learn from the 1967 riot/uprising in Grand Rapids and how it compares to what is happening in 2020 | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s