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Lifting the Veil on Racism in Grand Rapids: Todd Robinson talk at GVSU

March 24, 2016

Earlier today, Todd Robinson, author of the important book, A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke to an audience attending the Kutsche Office of Local History forum at GVSU. IMG_6564

Robinson, who is working on a follow up book that will cover the mid-1970s to the present, provided an overview of his book and touched on some major themes.

By way of creating a framework for talking about Jim Crow era policies in Grand Rapids, Robinson showed a couple of ads used by Grand Rapids businesses in the early part of the 20th century.

The first ad was from the Vinkemulder Company and was an ad for watermelons that used a racist depiction of Black people to sell the fruit. Robinson said this ad was directed at local people, which is why the ad was crass. The second ad was from the

St. Johns Table Company ad featuring an image of a Black servant. Here, Robinson was saying that the ad was meant for the outside world, so the imagery is less crass, but equally racist.

Robison used these images to make the point that the harm done by racist images and racist practices are no less damaging, even if the images and practices are less in your face. In many ways, this sums up much of Grand Rapids and its historical treatment of African Americans, where they weren’t using water hoses of Blacks, instead used tactics that still made it difficult for Blacks to achieve justice.

Next Robison referred to the 1950s as the “Golden Era”, with new housing construction and the growth of the middle class. This is a romanticized and sanitized period, a period of American history that white people remember fondly.-b1cc494484483458

However, for Black people, the 1950s was still a period of Jim Crow policies, even in Grand Rapids, where racism dictated where they could and could not eat, shop and go to school.

This is why the action that Milo Brown and his wife engaged in at the Rowe Hotel (pictured here) was so important, because it was one of the first known instances where a Black couple came into a segregated restaurant and ordered food.

Robinson believes there is a heighten level of etiquette in Grand Rapids around race relations, where white people want to believe that things are pretty good. The author said, “Grand Rapids loves to put on a performance, but what is missing are the hidden transcripts,” the unacceptable, even subversive narrative that pulls back the veil and reveals something else.


This performance narrative around racism was also practiced in places like the old Majestic Theater in Grand Rapids. This was a place where White and Black patrons could walk up and buy tickets, but once they went inside, Black patrons were directed to the balcony, but White patrons could sit where ever they damn well pleased.

Robinson also showed images of map that reflected the practice of Red Lining in Grand Rapids. However, Robinson made it clear to those in attendance that this federal government sanctioned practice not only impacted where people could live, but schools their children would attend. Again, much of this happened during the so-called “Golden Era” in the US and Grand Rapids. 

One last example of the kind of veiled racism or what he calls in his book, Managerial Racism, was when Black Power activist Stokley Carmichael came to Grand Rapids and spoke at Fountain Street Church in 1967. Robinson said that at one point during the evening a White woman got up and said, “I don’t understand why Carmichael was brought here, because Grand Rapids has always been so good to you people.”

In many ways, this comment reflects the general attitude of most White people who still believe that Black people have been treated “pretty well” in Grand Rapids.

Robison certainly provided some great analysis and information that can inform where we go from here, which will not be easy. Much of Grand Rapids is still in denial about how deeply racist this city is, particularly on a structural level.

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