Deanna Rolffs has worked in education in West Michigan for over twenty years (18 years as a consultant with the Kent County Intermediate School District, and 5 years with Partners in School Innovation), which made her an excellent choice to educate G-RAP about the history of education-related racial discrimination in Grand Rapids -- to show us how we arrived at the education system we currently have.
Partners commits to 5-7-year partnerships with individual schools, supporting them with curriculum and assessment, as well as with issues of race, glass, and gender inequities. They take the time to help individuals understand not only systemic racism and oppression, but also their own implicit and explicit biases and how those can play out in the classroom. Roloff said, "We help primarily white teachers who primarily serve students of color understand how we, as educators, can perpetuate those biases." Through this work, she says, "We can develop the building blocks to lead them toward a more equitable system in which more of us are together."
She invited the pastors to walk around the room and explore the timeline she'd installed on the walls. The timeline was adapted from Todd Robinson's 2012 work, A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since the pastors in the room and in G-RAP are from different backgrounds, and many are relatively new to Grand Rapids, she wanted us to start from the same position of knowledge: "What we're experiencing now is all of our history, whether we directly experienced it or not."
For reasons of space, we've focused on the directly education-related entries, but there was so much more about lack of job possibilities, racism in entertainment options, and housing discrimination. Here are selected entries from the timeline:
1910-1940 First Great Migration: 1.6 million black southerners moved north. The black community in Grand Rapids grew from 665 in 1910 to 2,795 in 1930.
July 4, 1925, Independence Day: The Junior Order, women of the Klan, and Klansmen marched unmasked throughout the streets of downtown. Grand Rapids. City ordinances placed minimal restrictions on KKK parade demonstrations.
1920s Grand Rapids Social Club (GRSC) provided a place for black women to engage in political discussions and freely express their views, as they were banned from women's organizations in white community and exiled from leadership in the male-dominated GRNAACP. Topics included "The Negro Woman's Contribution to History," and, "The Unpublished History of the Negro Versus the Published."
1949-1950 The number of black children in Campau area schools (Henry, Franklin, Sheldon, and Vandenberg) increased from 280 to 836. By 1950, 91% of all black elementary students in the district were enrolled in these four schools. At Henry School, the addition of 80 black students, combined with the departure of white students to other districts or nonpublic schools, meant that it went from 38% to 80% black. This represents the beginning of the shift from integrated classroom experiences to racially isolated learning environments and fewer resources for "inner city" schools.
Following the Depression and 25 years of no new school construction, the Reavis Study lists Campau Schools as the first building priority, but school board officials decide to build new schools at the periphery of the city. A special school tax raises $10 million, which builds 16 new schools: 14 in the growing suburbs (e.g., Alger Heights), and 2 in the city center.
1950s Grand Rapids School Board establishes selective geographic attendance zones; this allowed white parents near Henry to send their children to Congress and Hillcrest. GRNAACP pressured School Board members to make boundary adjustments: "We believe that 8 years of overcrowding at Franklin and 6 years of overcrowding at Sheldon and Vandenburg means that nearly 2,000 children have been denied an opportunity to gain a sound elementary education in healthy school surroundings." The School Board "studied" the issue for 11 years and continuously voiced a belief in racial equality and equal opportunities, but failed to take any remedial action.
1965 South High, where Gerald R. Ford attended, was the district's elite school in 1957. By 1965, the student population had shifted from predominately white to roughly 1,037 black students and 945 white students -- their reputation shifted to being a "tough school." Parents voiced concerns that the "Board of Education and its staff have failed to make South High School an outstanding example, locally and nationally, of what can be done to make both White and Negro families proud of the school and proud that they live in a community that practices racial tolerance."
White teachers in Kent County routinely requested and were granted transfers out of integrated schools.
November 16, 1966 400 black students from South High walked out to protest the “good grooming” policy that forbade facial hair. The next day, for the first time in Grand Rapids’ history, several black parents quietly protested outside the school with signs that read, “This is Michigan Not Mississippi.” This sparked significant debate in the city (including a WOOD TV editorial calling on protester to control their "animal element"), and on December 1, 1966, the facial hair ban was rescinded.
July 24, 1967 Isolated property damage and police profiling erupted into four days of unrest and violence throughout the city, involving hundreds of young people, resulting in 350 arrests, 44 injuries, and significant property damage. The Grand Rapids Urban League Task Force of 12 black and 3 white young people spent weeks before the unrest, actively engaging young people and connecting them to summer projects and activities. During the "uprising" they prevented splinter groups from organizing into a single force and helped to keep property damage to a minimum.
1968 After decades of neglecting school development needs in the central city, the District enacted a Master Plan in response to issues of racial imbalance among student populations across the district. They closed two high schools in the "inner city" and one-way bussed black students to outlying schools. John Bracey, a concerned South High student asked: "Can't you achieve quality education and integration by busing white students into the inner-city instead of busing black students into the outer city?"
September 13, 1968 Just 8 days after black students began to be bused to outlying schools, students clashed at Union High. School was closed; black students were blamed for the fighting. Their complaints about ongoing racial slurs were ignored by the administration. The schools superintendent resigned.
December 18, 1968 Students, bused to Union from the former South High School recalled the hatred expressed by many white students, including holding signs printed with racial slurs as they arrived each day. At school board meetings, angry white parents yelled racial epithets.
May 27, 1970 Notes signed by the Creston Ku Klux Klan ignited racial controversy between students, leading to a hallway fight and nearly half of the Creston black students walking out. The black students were perceived to be disorderly and told to board buses to return them to their neighborhoods. White parents perceived the problem to be the "invasion" of black students into their suburban schools, not their children's attitudes or behaviors.
1972 The GRNAACP filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 51 students, accusing the G.R. Board of Education of managing a bi-racial, segregated school system. They cited segregated employment practices, budget appropriations, and "racist curriculum." They lost.
1974 Between 1968 and 1974, the number of racially imbalanced schools increased from 9 to 11. With the "voluntary transfer policy," fewer than 1% of children in suburban schools were black, Latino, Native American, or East Asian. The tax base for schools was significantly higher in the suburbs than in the urban center. The GRNAACP appealed the 1973 decision, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled unanimously that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the school board had violated the constitutional rights of black students.
2012 (statistics from The Michigan Department of Education, Center for Educational Performance and Information, 2012) There has been little improvement in living conditions for black residents over the last 20 years. 42% of black families live below the poverty level. Median income for black families is 51% of the median income for white families. Black representation on school board and city commission is little changed over 20 years (1-2 members).
2012 High school graduation rates: black students, 40.59%; Hispanic students, 42.62%, white students, 53.63%.
This was a powerful presentation, made even more so because the pastors were mostly silent as we moved from item to item around the room. During the table talk following the timeline reading, a number of pastors told stories of growing up in Grand Rapids during the 1960s.
One person had gone to South High, and had never felt like it was "tough school." Another person's husband had been one of those students on the Urban League's Task Force in 1967 and was shot. Grace Christian Reformed Church, then a majority black church, was a source of peace and safety during that time. Others had grown up in the "black belt" -- the zone in the city where black families could buy or rent homes. We had all seen the results of redlining (banks refusing to give loans or insurance for houses in neighborhoods with black families) when we drove to our meeting place at Madison Square Church: from high on Heritage Hill down to Madison and Hall. Rev. Nathaniel Moody was, at one time, the only African-American member of the School Board.
When they were asked, "What are the implications for us as faith leaders in Grand Rapids?", Dr. Timothy Harris called on the pastors of all denominations and backgrounds to establish relationships with each other because knowing and trusting one another will change how white pastors see their city, and improve the influence of black and Hispanic pastors. He said, "We could be a model for the nation of working through our divides and working together -- we have so many churches in such a small place."
Thank you to Pastor Dave Beelen of Madison Square and Pastor Brad Knetsch of Madison at The Ford for hosting us.
Join us for our November meeting for another tough but good and necessary conversation. We will meet on November 17 from 11:30 - 1:00 pm at City Life Church, 574 Division Ave S, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.