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Black Leaders Reflect on Black History Month in Grand Rapids

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Black History Month Storytime Webinar image.

By Anthony Clark Jr.

On Feb. 24, the Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Stand Pictures, and a private Facebook group known as “Black People of Grand Rapids” (BPGR) hosted a Zoom webinar that featured award-winning authors and professors Todd E. Robinson, Randal Jelks, and T.A. El-Amin. 

Jeanessa Smith, the Adult Services Manager for GRPL, commented on the library’s representation of accolades, history, and future goals of various African Americans, noting that she was pleased with the success the library had with Black History Month programming.

“It can be difficult to celebrate the successes and contributions of black people in our city, particularly when those successes and contributions have been made despite many efforts to quell them,” said Smith. “…the library is committed to sharing diverse and authentic stories, experiences and expressions from all areas of our community and we strive to do that in a positive and uplifting manner. I think we accomplished that this year.”

The webinar was part of GRPL’s virtual events throughout the month of February, acknowledging an array of African American musicians, authors, entrepreneurs, and more, who contributed to the celebration of Black History Month. Both Jelks and Robinson collaborated with Grand Stand Pictures LLC, alongside Grand Rapids community activists and organizers, to develop a documentary film titled “A City Within a City.” The film has yet to receive an official release date. 

While making the audience aware of the upcoming film, the panelists also dwelled on their experiences of attending Grand Rapids schools in the mid to late-1900’s (including Union High School and South High School), the crippling effects of structural racism, and the many instances the African American youth stood up against the oppression and discrimination Grand Rapids authorities and school board members were attemping to enforce upon African Americans. 

Black activism in Grand Rapids finds its roots as far back as 1919 when the first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter was established. Since starting up in the city, the NAACP chapter has focused on the adversities structural racism roots in the lives of African Americans, as the chapter has continued to tackle concepts such as economic inequality, criminal justice (reform) and policing, education, health, and environmental disparities.

El-Amin is a crucial mogul for the activism, rebuild, and revolution of the African American community throughout Grand Rapids. A former professor at Grand Valley State University, Davenport University, and Grand Rapids Community College, El-Amin was a Giant Awards recipient in 2011 (Phyllis Scott Activist Award); a ceremony that recognizes the positive contribution to the quality of life for the Grand Rapids community executed by African American individuals. The award ceremony is presented by GRCC annually, however, the ceremony for the current year was postponed to Feb. 5, 2022, due to unforeseen circumstances related to COVID-19. 

Jelks is a graduate of the University of Michigan (BA), Michigan State University (Ph.D.) and McCormick Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity), who teaches American, African, and African American studies at the University of Kansas. Jelks is a multi-time award winner and the author of the award-winning book “African Americans in Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids” (2006 State History Award), published in 2006.

Robinson obtained his master’s, bachelor’s, and Ph.D. from multiple institutions: U of M, Cambridge College, and American University while studying in the fields of American studies and history. The documentary is based on Robinson’s award-winning book “A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” which was published in 2012. The book is an examination of the civil rights movement of northern America by detailing the struggles of equality for African American individuals through school inequalities, bureaucratic reforms, and the influence of the African American youth that served as catalysts for anti-racism activism.

The purpose of Black History Month is often misconstrued as overlooking and/or frowning upon the accomplishments and contributions that revolutionized society by non-people of color; however, it is a celebration of those who dared to overcome the strangulating barriers African Americans, and other minorities alike, to mold a different kind of history compared to the norm. It is a celebration of African Americans who saw an opportunity to become the first in their community: the first valedictorian in their university’s history (Nicholas Johnson of Princeton University, 2020), the first woman of color to earn a pilot’s license (Bessie Coleman, 1921), the first Supreme Court justice (Thurgood Marshall, 1967), and so forth. 

Non-people of color have seen themselves in these various positions while dominating in all other facets well before July 4, 1776. School textbooks, broadcasting networks, Mount Rushmore, controversial statues outside of university stadiums, the landscape of Washington D.C., highlight non-people of color’s achievements daily. When a nation accomplishes, endures, or conceives something for the first time in its history, it is celebrated. Minorities were assigned the task of making something of themselves after they were granted freedom from their shackles over 200-years after the majority built their foundations, which is why the month of February is used to celebrate the literal blood, sweat, and tears, poured into the achievements of African Americans.

In an MLive article that highlighted the Giant Award selection, El-Amin shared what he labeled a “life lesson” that holds profound weight today and for many years to come.

Learning to know self is the ultimate lesson in life,” El-Amin said. “Studying the past, with clarity, allows you to understand your present and its challenges.”

More information regarding the origins of Black History Month can be found here.