State of the Black Community in Grand Rapids – 1940

n 1940, the Urban League conducted a survey of the black community in Grand Rapids . The survey revealed some interesting trends and dynamics and can be instructive for those of us who want to learn from history.

The report published in 1940, was put together by Warren Banner, in a publication entitled, The Negro Population of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1940: a social study conducted for the Interracial Committee of the Council of Social Agencies by the National Urban League.

According to the introduction of the report, the idea of the survey came about because several African American pastors had been discussing a way to pay off the mortgages of some of the black churches. There is no evidence we could find that this ever came to fruition, but it did lead to the survey conducted by the Urban League and its 160 page report, which can be found at the Grand Rapids Library in the History and Special Collections section on the 4th floor.

The survey is important for a variety of reasons, but mostly because there was a significant increase in the black population between 1920 and 1940. More and more blacks were moving from the south to the north, mostly looking for work and economic opportunities.

Based on the African American families that were surveyed in 1940, many of them came from the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.

Most African Americans moved to the Third Ward in Grand Rapids. The Urban League report notes that, “the trend was away from the First Ward in 1930 insofar as the Negro is concerned.” The Third Ward continues to be the area that is most populated by the black community, even 75 years after the survey was completed. Segregation was prominent then and it is prominent now.

Another section in the 1940 Urban League report looks at what areas of employment African Americans were more likely to obtain. The report notes, “the majority of the Negro population must look to employment in unskilled and domestic jobs.” The report also notes that “making a living” was a significant problem for many in the black community, based on the jobs and wages available, but also because of the systemic racism they faced.

One area of discrimination was the failure of Labor Unions to hire African Americans in various trades. The chart below shows how exclusionary the unions were along racial lines.


Housing Conditions

In addition to lack of economic opportunity and decent wages, housing conditions were a major issue for African Americans in 1940. As we noted in a recent posting, factors that impacted housing for blacks in Grand Rapids were based on red lining from banks and other lending institutions, outright racism by white people who wanted to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods and the ever present threat of violence directed at blacks by White Supremacists. grandrapidsholcmap-med

In 1940, roughly one third of blacks owned their own home, while two thirds were renters. Not surprising, the conditions of the rental units were often poor and in need to significant repair. The Urban League report states on page 49:

“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.”

Many of those surveyed in 1940 said they would rather have lived in better housing conditions, but that “was impossible because the rent was too high” or that landlords would not “rent to Negroes in certain areas.” You can go to this link for a more detailed look at the housing stock in the mid-1930s in Grand Rapids. The map shows the four grades of housing areas in the city, based on color coding. 

The Urban League report also looked at some health and education indicators, but the bulk of the report focused on employment and housing. One notable health indicator dealt with Infant Mortality. For every 1,000 births of a white infant, 46 died. For every 1,000 births of a black infant, 140 died. African American babies were 3.5 times more likely to die at birth that white babies.

Report Conclusion

The summary of the Urban League report begins on page 109 and states the following, shown here:


What is revealing here is that conditions did not get better from the 1920s through 1940 or they became worse. This was in no way due to the efforts of the black community to improve themselves, rather, it was the direct result of structural racism and white supremacist values that dominated Grand Rapids just prior to the US entrance into World War II.

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7 Responses to State of the Black Community in Grand Rapids – 1940

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