“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.

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