Archives for posts with tag: Race

This article was first published in The Rapidian.

The intent behind this series of articles on Auburn Hills is to serve as a launching pad for a deeper exploration into the current lived experience of African Americans in our city. In so doing, we hope to create space for a more full understanding of our racialized landscape. It is our desire that through this exploration, we might begin to again envision new spaces like Auburn Hills; spaces that we can collectively move into.

The interviews of the original residents of Auburn Hills are the brain fuel for these articles. These videos are the result of the hard work of Jeremy Moore, Joel Van Kuiken and Denise Evans.


Not many people in Grand Rapids know the story of Auburn Hills: the story of how four African American families envisioned a neighborhood where any person, regardless of their race, could live. This is a story of triumph- where in the face of fear and unfamiliarity, our community saw the creation of a new space, an integrated space. This series documents this important piece of our city’s history, and includes video of the original residents of the neighborhood and their experiences. We will also use the story of Auburn Hills as a launching pad for a deeper exploration into the current lived experience of African Americans in our city. In so doing, we hope to create space for a more full understanding of our racialized landscape. It is our desire that through this exploration, we might begin to again envision new spaces: spaces that we can collectively move into. 

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


In the early 1960s, “redlining” was a common practice across the United States. This practice was designed to confine blacks to certain areas of a city through a variety of explicit and implicit means. In frustrated response, four black professional men came together in 1962 to buy and develop a plot of vacant land in northeast Grand Rapids, with the vision of creating an integrated neighborhood that was open to all.

Dr. Julius Franks, J.E. Adams, Joseph Lee and Samuel Triplett (The Four) were middle- and upper-middle class AfricanAmericans living and working in Grand Rapids. J.E. Adams was an educator, serving as a teacher, administrator and principal during his career. Dr. Julius Franks was a dentist and former University of Michigan football star. Samuel Triplett was a teacher and the first African American to teach in the Grand Rapids Public Schools at South High, and Joseph Lee was a social worker and twice president of the Grand Rapids Urban League. In 1962, all four men were part of a philanthropic organization called the Ta-Wa-Si Club. The club was designed to help black high school students attain college scholarships and expose them to college opportunities. At one club meeting, Dr. Franks brought in a notice of “land for sale” by the City of Grand Rapids. The 20 acre parcel of land was advertised as “perfect for developing” near the corner of Fuller and Sweet streets. This land, while still in the city, was outside the “red-lined” area that black families were constrained to. Undeterred, the four men saw purchase of the land as an opportunity to provide modern housing and good educational opportunities to a growing black middle class.

The land was listed without a price, so The Four came up with a reasonable offer of approximately $1000 per acre at $20,500. For reasons unknown, the City rejected their bid and listed the land at $54,500, more than double The Four’s original bid. Despite the exorbitant price, the four bid again at $60,000 and the offer was eventually accepted with $12,000 down and a five-year land contract. From the very beginning, The Four envisioned the creation of an open neighborhood where anyone, including black families, could call home.

The backlash to the sale agreement was swift and severe. Existing neighbors feared that an integrated neighborhood would eventually turn into a slum. To substantiate this fear, the residents approached the City saying that it was “unnatural” for white and black to live so close together. One City Commission meeting saw over 100 neighbors turn out to voice their concerns. With such overwhelming pressure against the development, the City eventually balked and stalled the sale of the land, saying they were unsure if they had the right to sell the land without City Commission approval. As fear began to spread, the City came under increasing pressure to back out of the sale. At a special City Commission hearing regarding the development, well over 500 white residents showed up to express their anxiety over the development.

Sensing the rising tide of white dissent, The Four decided to hire an attorney that would push the City to make a decision regarding the legality of sale agreement. Local black organizations like the NAACP and the Grand Rapids Urban League entered the fray providing both legal and moral support for the four developers.

This is when something truly amazing began to happen. A coalition of church leaders, led by Duncan Littlefair of the mostly white Fountain Street Church, came together and asked churches to take a stand on the issue. In response, churches across the city, black and white, began to voice their support of The Four and pushed the City to see the development through.

Thus began a struggle that spanned two long bitter years. A war of public opinion was waged in our city over the freedom of black movement. Loud voices from both sides of the color line vociferously called for either the cessation or continuation of the development.

But public opinion was changing. The broader civil rights movement was gaining traction across the nation and Grand Rapids was not exempt. The City however, as with most systems, was slow to react to the changing times. A series of stalling tactics on the City’s behalf prevented The Four from building on the land that they had paid for.

Tensions continued to grow and eventually came to a crescendo in the winter of 1963, when in an unprecedented occurrence, the Chamber of Commerce charged the City with stalling and demanded that the development be allowed to continue. The City finally complied and allowed the development to move forward.

Auburn Hills Flier Courtesy of the Franks Family Archive

Auburn Hills Flier Courtesy of the Franks Family Archive

In January of 1964, two years after their purchase of the land, The Four saw one of their own housed in Auburn Hills. Joseph Lee, was the first of the four to build his own house in the neighborhood. The literature that came out about the development reflected The Four’s original goals: “Auburn Hills is a community project, created to promote the freedom of residence.” The neighborhood never became a slum as neighbors feared and, true to its founders’ vision, was always integrated. To this day, the area surrounding Auburn Hills continues to be one of our city’s most racially and ethnically diverse.

The story of Auburn Hills is truly a jewel of our city’s history. Over the next few articles, we will go into more depth around the experience of life in Auburn Hills for some of its original residents of color. There are fascinating stories to be told. We will unearth hidden narratives from how parents shielded their children from the maelstrom of public opinion, to the implications of leaving a “black space” for a “white space.” We hope you find these articles valuable and that they spark in you a desire to unearth stories of your own, and as we grow in understanding of ourselves and each other we might come back together to envision new horizons.

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Too often, the word “gentrification” is a conversation-ender. In 2010, when vandals marked up several prominent Wealthy Street businesses with indictments of gentrification we saw a combination of resistance and diversion from the Wealthy Street business community and its patrons, which again seemed to shut down the conversation. The “charges” of gentrification were dangerously dismissed as being the result of “disgruntled suburban kids… who [don’t] understand what’s really going on in this neighborhood.” G.R.I.I.D quotes a news report where one of the affected business owners said that he knew the protesters were not people from the neighborhood “because most drug dealers don’t use words like ‘gentrification.” 

The problem with diverting the story away from affected communities is that it again shifts the focus of the conversation away from the real effects that gentrification has on communities and the real opinions that communities have about the gentrification process. So the purpose of these next few entries are to help us engage in conversation around gentrification and hopefully will help us understand better what really IS going on in this neighborhood.

The Sparrows, a coffeehouse and newsstand at 1035 Wealthy St. SE, was among the businesses vandalized early Christmas morning, 2010.

The Sparrows, a coffeehouse and newsstand at 1035 Wealthy St. SE, was among the businesses vandalized early Christmas morning, 2010.

Now held up as a bastion of urban renewal, the narrative around the development of Wealthy Street has been that of a group of dedicated neighbors who fought to reclaim their neighborhood from the symptoms of urban blight. While I do not question that these neighbors worked hard, and will not argue that the issues associated with marginalized urban neighborhoods are ones that any person should have to be consigned to, it is clear to even the most casual of observers that the benefits of the development of Wealthy Street do not extend south of corridor itself.

The question that immediately comes to my mind is: What enabled these community organizers to be so “successful” in their development efforts? In order to adequately answer this question, I think we need to delve deeper into a few things. Over the next few weeks, we will take time to probe into the following aspects of the development of Wealthy Street.

  1. History
  2. Incentives
  3. Policy

The final piece of this quartet will be describing a people’s reality as they interact with Wealthy Street. I hope that you will lend your voice to the conversation!

Ky

Recently, it was brought to my attention that Grand Rapids as a city has, and has had for a while, one of the highest rates of black infant mortality in the country. 2009 data shows that our most recent black infant mortality rate hovers around 17.3%. To give you some context, this places us behind Mexico (16.2%) and well behind Syria (14.6%). Another interesting point of contrast is our white infant mortality rate, which is around 4.4%; safely below our national average of 5.9%. Research shows that outlying risk factors (education, socio-economic status, access etc) account for less than 10% in the variances in the rates of low birth rates between white and black babies. In Fact, white women who smoke during gestation, a known risk factor, still have significantly lower infant mortality rates than African-American women who do not.

Infant Mortality Rates in Grand Rapids

Infant Mortality Rates in Grand Rapids

So what then is causing this awful health disparity in a city lauded as a “mecca of health?” Medical professionals believe that ongoing exposure to large quantities of stress hormones is a leading cause in disparate pregnancy outcomes, as stress is known to be a complicating factor for pregnancy. The question then becomes: what large stressor is present for African-American women that doesn’t exist for white women?

Racism. The stress of racism is one of the leading causes for higher infant mortality rates among African American women. 

“Statistics show that women with very low birth weight babies were three times as likely to have experienced interpersonal racism than women with children of normal birth rates. Foreign-born black women see their rates of infant mortality rise to the same level as U.S.-born black women within a generation.” – Megan Carpentier, RH Reality Check.

A report last year scored the U.S. 100 largest metropolitan areas according to racial equity for African Americans. All of the 15 least equitable cities (Grand Rapids is 13th) have black infant mortality rates that are significantly higher than the nation’s average.

As somebody who works in the social service industry, we should start thinking about what kind of societal changes need to take place in order to make our city safer one for all our women. For more information on how to be a part of changing the current disparate landscape, contact the Grand Rapids African Health Institute and talk to Stephanie. She’ll point you in the right direction.

-Ky

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