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African American Michigan: The People v. Jim Crow

Editor’s note: This story is the fourth in a series looking at racial disparity in Michigan.

After Reconstruction comes the Jim Crow era, named for “Jim Crow Laws,” a set of laws on state and local levels designed to press segregation, primarily in the deep South. Jim Crow Laws lasted in some areas until 1965.

The state of Michigan being in the North is not grounds to believe there was not Jim Crow activity. Grand Rapids was a hotbed of racial inequality during the Jim Crow years.

The State Bar of Michigan’s website lists one example. The 1885 Michigan Civil Right Statute stated that “racial discrimination in public places was unlawful.” The statue was little enforced until 1925 when a colored dentist, Emmett Bolden, asked for seating on the main floor of Keith’s Theatre. The theatre’s refusal to seat Dr. Bolden led to a 1927 decision of the Michigan Supreme Court, having been pushed by a small but vocal Black middle class that had been denied “equal rights of access to and use of many public places.”

Dr. Bolden’s attorney was the first African American elected to the Grand Rapids Bar Association, Oliver Meakins Green. Green worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to go after Keith’s Theatre for allowing Blacks to only sit in the balcony.

A lower court had ruled in favor of Keith’s Theatre, but the Michigan Supreme Court was anti-Jim Crow. Chief Justice Nelson Sharpe said, “the public safety and general welfare of our people demand that, when the public are invited to attend places of public accommodation, amusement, and recreation, there shall be no discrimination among those permitted to enter because of race, creed, or color.”

In “Making Opportunity: The Struggle Against Jim Crow in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1890-1927, Randal M. Jelks, Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas, outlines the NAACP’s fight for equality in Grand Rapids. Jelks points out Grand Rapids city legislature and law enforcement implemented their own discrimination regardless of state laws.

Jelks describes how shameless Grand Rapids was in it’s racism by going further into the case of Keith’s Theater, which it referred the balcony as “N***** Heavens,” this blatantly violating Michigan’s Civil Rights statute. Rev. Henri Browne, a Baptist pastor in 1913, mentioned not only public activity discriminations, but also discriminations toward “affordable housing, underemployment, segregation, the small number and growth in the population, and the lack of political organization.” Grand Rapids legislation did everything in their power to make Grand Rapids as white as possible.

Rev. Browne stated that in order for Michigan, particularly Grand Rapids, to see proper equality, African Americans would have to organize themselves and lean on their true values; “their middle-class aspirations and ethics–stable family life, home ownership, and the desire for education.” All of these were things the gentry fought to keep them from. Rev. Browne pleaded with white Grand Rapids residents, “in the spirit of Christian charity to assist the African Americans in the removing of the ‘Chinese Wall (Great Wall of China)’ that barred his people from equal access.”

Despite the reverend’s words, the colors citizenry largely struggled alone.

Seeing the task, African Americans formed their own political action committee in the city, and according to newspaper reports, “protested, cajoled, complained, organized politically, and, in one instance, purportedly rioted to achieve equality, but failed in any significant way to change their standing within the city.” Judicial appeals brought no recourse.

The academic corps was no better than the public/civil sector. In 1908, the Grand Rapids Medical College began refusing re-admittance of students it had once accepted based on color. When the case of two colored students of the College was brought to court, Circuit Court Judge Willis Perkinds ruled in favor of the students, stating that “All citizens according to the court’s findings are entitled to the privilege of education… and the drawing of the color line is an unjust discrimination. Though the case went in favor of desegregation, white students at the College violently protested, 34 of which walked out with shouts of “This is a white man’s school,” and “Lynch ’em if they don’t keep out.” According to “Draw the Color Line” by Grand Rapids Press, “In the College’s lobby the students created an effigy of an African American and carried it out into the streets, doing a ‘lively war dance around’ it.” The College barred the two colored students. The College argued that as a private institution, they could “discriminate as it pleased.” The Supreme Court overturned the Circuit Court’s ruling. In 1909, Felix D. Booker and Wesley McCoy were unable to finish their courses at Grand Rapids Medical College.

Similar cases found hold in Michigan, such as Meisner v. Detroit Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company, this case ruling that “theaters, circuses, racetracks, private parks, and the like were private enterprises.” Anything not government sponsored or funded could discriminate as they pleased.

It would not be until 1927 that discrimination in public accommodations would be amended in favor of equality, the case against Keith’s Theater opening the door. In 1927, Grand Rapids became a major hub of NAACP activity to wrestle other Jim Crow instances out of the northern Midwest. Bolden v. Grand Rapids Operating Corporation effectively ended “customary segregation” in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids still fought a segregationist stance through the Great Depression and WWII, particularly in way of labor rights. Jelks noted that, “Not util the late 1960s and 1970s were African Americans fully able to assert themselves in the fight for equality of opportunity through the legal struggle to integrate public schools,” with the election of the first African American mayor of Grand Rapids, Lyman Parks.

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