Grand Rapids, Michigan is a city with a rich history and culture, but it is also reckoning with its legacy of managerial racism, redlining, and vast racial disparities in education, housing, healthcare and more. While there have been several initiatives, especially over the last few years, that aim towards addressing these disparities, there is one organization that stands out for its commitment to telling an important story about the truth of the Black freedom struggle in Grand Rapids. Grand Stand Pictures has been working towards the creation of a very important documentary film that brings the book, A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan by Dr. Todd E. Robinson to life.
This book is a brilliant compilation of historical accounts, data and research that walks its readers through the experiences of Black citizens of Grand Rapids from the early 1900s until the 1970s. Through these experiences, readers will gain a better understanding of how craftily and intentionally managerial racism has been carried out in the city. From our school systems to our vast business infrastructure, many barriers have been put in place to stop Black residents in our city from enjoying the luxuries of a quality education, fair housing practices and employment opportunities. Despite the best efforts of civil rights leaders and organizations throughout the city’s history, we still remain one of the most segregated communities in the United States.
It is our tendency to be “West Michigan nice” that is part of the problem. Many people in this community would rather sweep issues of race (or class, gender, sexual orientation and many other issues of identity and equity) right under the rug than have critical, honest, and intentional conversations about how we can do better — and then actually do it. Additionally, “race managers” in the city have a legacy of maintaining the status quo whilst pretending to support the progress and inclusion of Black citizens, and this legacy remains. Don’t believe me? One example of this lies within the story of Helen Claytor, the first African American president of the Grand Rapids YWCA, and her role in the formation of the Human Relations Commission. During a time when the YWCA wouldn’t allow Black girls to swim in the pool or eat in the cafeteria, Helen Claytor began working closely with the GRNAACP and The GRUL (Grand Rapids Urban League) to improve conditions for Black residents. She worked with these organizations to create the Human Relations Commission in order to study race relations and racial issues in the city. Despite finding vast evidence of systemic racism and discrimination, the City Commision used this committee “to retain the status quo with long, drawn-out bureaucratic procedures, lengthy studies, and numerous committee design to limit change as well as avert any form of public discord.” In other words, nothing was really being done to alleviate the racial discrimination that has been the foundation for the living conditions we see in the city to this day.
This book is truly a story like no other, and Robinson has done an excellent job detailing the nuances of racism in a city like Grand Rapids — a “secondary city” whose racism is vastly different than that of a “primary city” like Detroit. The narrative of racism in larger cities like Chicago and Detroit is told as if it applies to the majority, if not all, of Black people in the United States. Truthfully, the racism we face here in West Michigan — and the racism that many Black Americans that do not live in large cities face — is complicated and crafty. Despite the myth that de facto segregation and natural migratory patterns have created the segregated conditions we live in, it is the legacy of explicit and intentional managerial racism that is responsible for the “urban decline and a growing urban underclass.”
On June 16th, 2021, residents of Grand Rapids came together for the first annual 616 Day Celebration organized by Grand Stand Pictures. The celebration included a special 6:16pm toast with complimentary drinks from Motu Viget Spirts, sounds from PJ the DJ and The Mel V Collective, touching words from some amazing city leaders, and the reading of the official 616 Day Proclamation. The proclamation was signed by Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and declares June 16th an official holiday that “ encourages our community to recognize and celebrate 616 Day as a time to appreciate the efforts of diversity, equity, inclusion, and representation initiatives.” During the celebration, recognition was also given to some of the city’s “Grand Champions” — those who are actively fighting for equity, diversity, and inclusion within the city and that promote the thriving of all. These Grand Champions will also be recognized for their efforts by receiving their names in the credits of the documentary film underway.
The stories within A City Within A City are so important to the work that is being done to address racism in Grand Rapids. Afterall, we have to understand where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going. While our history has been erased, downplayed and misrepresented throughout American history, we are now in a position to empower our community through the truth and understanding that comes from sharing these stories. If you would like to support the creation of this film, please consider a contribution to the crowdfunding campaign today.