African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids

African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids

by Randal Maurice Jelks



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252030406
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/13/2006
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Randal Maurice Jelks is an associate professor of history and director of the African and African Diaspora Studies program at Calvin College.

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African Americans in the Furniture City



Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03040-0

Chapter One

"The Negro, North and South": Racial Stigma in Nineteenth-Century Grand Rapids

* * *

On April 2, 1872, the Grand Rapids Eagle reported the election of William J. Hardy as the county supervisor of Gaines Township, a farming community south of Grand Rapids. In the typical partisan fashion of the local dailies, the Eagle observed that the township had "redeemed itself from the indiscretion committed last year of electing a Democratic supervisor." The article stated that "this year the Republicans elect William J. Hardy, one of the most highly respected citizens of that town, who a few years ago, was challenged by the Democratic Party at the polls in a district school meeting because of African blood in his veins. As there is not the slightest question of his fitness and capability for that position, the electors have done a good thing, the right thing, at the right time in choosing him for Supervisor." Hardy's election was quite remarkable. Unlike black officeholders in the Reconstruction South who depended upon a plethora of freedmen to gain political office, Hardy's election depended on good fortune. The Eagle's boast about Hardy's good standing could not hide the fact that his election was an anomaly.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the existing racial sensibilities in the United States. He outlined the contours of American life by comparing slavery in antiquity and in nineteenth-century America, noting that the "fact of servitude is most fatally combined with the physical and permanent fact of difference in race." He observed further that in the North, racial animus appeared "stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known." Tocqueville's understanding of slavery in America led him to conclude that whites in the North had no other means of controlling the social mobility of free persons of color than by ostracizing them. "In the South," he reflected, "the master has no fear of lifting the slave up to his level, for he knows that when he wants to he can always throw him down into the dust. In the North the white man no longer clearly sees the barrier that separates him from the degraded race, and he keeps the Negro at a distance all the more carefully because he fears lest one day they be confounded together." One region Tocqueville clearly had in mind when he wrote of the North was Michigan.

Nearly thirty years after Tocqueville's trenchant observation about slavery and race, the Grand Rapids Enquirer & Evening Herald, a Democratic daily, echoed a similar sentiment as an apology for the decency of Southern slavery. The editorial, titled "The Negro, North and South," declared:

In the South, no lady or gentleman considers it a compromise of character to ride in a car with a "person of color." So says the Richmond South: They treat their Negroes, at the South, with a great deal more equality than we do at the North. No northern lady would think of riding in a rail car, with an aromatic negro wench for a companion, but at the South, the wench has just as good a seat as her mistress. There is far more equality between the black and white races in the South, than in the North. This can be seen in the church, in the car or stage coach, in business transactions, and in the household. The blacks of the South are better treated in every respect, than the blacks of the North; they have more attention and consideration; more care and kindness; better religious privileges; and are happier and healthier. The Southern negro is a prince compared to the kicked, cuffed, and despised Northern negro. These are facts, though our readers may not believe them to be facts but, nevertheless, they are facts and can be seen by any one who will look at Southern life just as it is. If our abolition friends have any tears to shed, let them be shed for the Northern negro, who as general rule, is the most degraded being in our midst.

The editorial's suggestion that African Americans were better off in the South expressed local opinion well. The North was demarcated as free, which meant white; therefore, black people in the North were on the periphery of society. Race as an ideology was one of the determinative features of African American life in the nineteenth century. Therefore, individuals like William Hardy lived their lives fettered by it, experiencing the dynamics of racial stigmatization through both formal exclusion (political disenfranchisement) and cultural subordination (informal resentments and cultural ridicule) before and after the Civil War. Although racial stigma was structured into everyday life, this stigma did not prevent individuals such as Hardy from challenging the prevailing barriers and making life choices within and without the socially acceptable boundaries of the day.

* * *

William Hardy was born on January 9, 1823, in New Jersey to parents who were slaves. Subsequently, his parents, Mary and Henry, relocated to Seneca County, New York, where William spent his earliest childhood. The Hardy family moved west in 1827, following the migration of New Englanders and New Yorkers across the Erie Canal into Michigan's Washtenaw County, where the earliest Afro-Yankees settlers clustered. Henry Hardy soon died, leaving Mary to raise William alone. At age six or seven, William was bound out as a farmhand near Ann Arbor. As a bound servant, he spent years laboring to pay off the terms of his indenture and thereafter trying to earn enough money to establish himself as an independent farmer. In 1844, William married a free woman of color named Eliza Watts, whose family had migrated in the 1830s from Pennsylvania into Washtenaw County's Pittsfield Township. By 1846, he had earned enough money to purchase two tracts of land through a state land patent in Gaines Township, due south of the city of Grand Rapids.

Shortly thereafter, William and Eliza began their family. The 1850 census lists the Hardy family as including William, age twenty-seven; Eliza, age twenty-eight; and three children, all born in Michigan: Alice, age four; Eugene, two; and Asher, four months. By 1870, the household had grown with the birth of more children: Lloyd, born in 1856; William, 1858; and Mary, 1859.

When Hardy moved to the Grand Rapids area, the village was a boomtown gone bust. Initially, the region experienced a population surge from the East with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825; however, the village's economic prospects had diminished due to over-speculation and an economic depression. By 1838, according to one local historian, the village had been in existence only "twelve years, mostly troubled by the financial chaos of the time, hidden some winters in deep snow, and much of the time slithering in mud." Between 1838 and 1850, the county, although beset with financial woes, grew steadily with the assistance of state land grants. In 1850, the total county population increased to 12,016, and the city's numbers grew to 2,686. From 1850 onward, Grand Rapids expanded rapidly.

The Hardy family settled in Gaines Township southeast of the city. Township land, though inexpensive, was still difficult for many settlers to attain. An 1881 history of Kent County described the earlier settlers of Gaines as "poor, having barely means enough to enable them to purchase their lands of the Government for $1.25 an acre, yet their families and households, through the wilderness, gained a foothold on their farms." The author claimed that the township residents used persistent energy "to work, and the heavy forests began to disappear. It was soon found to be one of the richest tracts in the vicinity for agricultural purposes, and at the present day is one of the best in the country." Although we may exercise a degree of skepticism at the author's civic boosterism, Gaines Township did in fact grow, and so did the fortune of the Hardy family. From an economic standpoint, the Hardy family migration into the area was timely.

Race, however, continued to hinder the family. The Hardys lived in what anthropologist Victor Turner would call a liminal state. They were racially categorized in the census as mulattos. Their "racial" mixture is evident from all written accounts of them. They possessed neither black nor dark brown skin and exhibited limited Negroid features. Their cultural identity could best be described as Afro-Yankees. It should come as no surprise that they shared some of same cultural traits as their white neighbors. Notwithstanding their genetic and cultural blending, they could not formally blend into the society in which they lived. Their lives were in limbo, both politically and culturally. Their census categorization, though biologically fictive, was a millstone around their necks.

Although the Hardys were one of the first African American farming families in the Kent County area, they were not the first people of African descent to enter the region. As early as the late 1700s, there were single men who were traders and assorted laborers in the Great Lakes region. In the town of Lowell due east of the city, one trader is identified as having settled in among the native population, where later his son Cobmoosa ("the walker") became the chief of the Flat Water Indians. In another instance, in 1835, one of the city's founding fathers, Lucius Lyon, had in his entourage an African American, John Scott, who served as cook to the men building the village's first canals.

The Hardys' migration into western Michigan coincided with that of other African American settlers in adjacent towns and counties. Ottawa County attracted both free people of color from the east and runaway slaves from the South. The town of Grand Haven became a primary stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. In 1847, Hezekiah Smith, a free man of color, purchased land from the state in Spring Lake, Michigan. Smith planned to establish a colony of freed people. Because of threats by neighboring whites, Smith disbanded the colony in 1850. In the 1870s he resumed farming on his land, where he lived out the remaining years of his life. All of these traders and settlers in the Grand Rapids region, like the Hardys, lived with the burden of race-what Tocqueville called the mark of servitude.

Antebellum Michigan was racially stratified by custom and by law. When Hardy's parents arrived in Michigan in 1827 from New York, they were faced with the new law, passed by the territorial legislature, entitled An Act to Regulate Blacks and Mulattos, and to Punish the Kidnapping of Such Persons. This act, David Katzman explains, although ostensibly designed to protect African Americans from slave hunters, required all African Americans in the territory to have a valid court-attested certificate of freedom and to register with the clerk of the county court. The stiffest provision of the act required Negroes immigrating into the territory to file a bond of five hundred dollars guaranteeing good behavior. Incidents such as the Blackburn riot in Detroit in 1833, where the African American community overran the jail to protect a runaway slave from being seized by slave catchers, typify the turbulent times and searing realities of Hardy's formative years.

Sectional strife over slavery ran high in the local newspapers as the Hardy family settled onto their farm in the 1850s, and Hardy could have taken little consolation from news reports that, for example, California had been admitted as a non-slaveholding state-but only because of an accompanying concession to the Fugitive Slave Act-or that in 1851 the Iowa legislature had prohibited free Negroes from entering the state (as Michigan had attempted to do in 1827). Indiana also prohibited free African Americans from settling in the state or being hired for contract. Throughout the upper Midwest and the Great Lakes region, the Hardy family and many other free families of color faced de jure and de facto racial exclusion in all aspects of civic life. If this were not enough, William Hardy had yet another and perhaps a more ubiquitous hardship to face: a constant barrage of printed and staged cultural mockery.

* * *

Throughout Grand Rapids, newspapers constantly characterized African Americans as either deserving of slavery or incapable of managing liberty. Numerous uncomplimentary depictions of African Americans as buffoons appeared in the newspaper. Columns reinforced ideas set in motion by the advent of the minstrel show. African American cultural styles were co-opted for their entertainment value, thereby marginalizing African Americans politically and demeaning their personhood through crude humor. Although slavery had no economic role in Michigan as a state, slavery, as Tocqueville recognized, set the cultural and ideological parameters of the dominant society. Even the private reflections of Grand Rapids diarist Rebecca Richmond captured the sentiment and popular attitude about African Americans prevalent in 1863.

Rain. "The Black Swan," alias Miss Greenfield gave a concert this evening at Luce's Hall. Mother, Father, May and I rode down. The hall was quite filled when we arrived and it was some time before we could obtain seats but were finally ushered into some that had been reserved but failed of being sold. The program consisted of music of the highest order, which the colored lady rendered with much evident taste, refinement, and expression. Her voice is quite pleasing, sweet and melodious, and of remarkable compass. In the lower register it has much more the character of the male than of a female: indeed, so striking [were] the changes that, where she sang one stanza in the middle register and the second one a octave below, I thought for a moment that her pianist, Dr. Kress, must be singing. In her appearance, I was disappointed. She is pure African of the homeliest kind-short, thick, black, awkward. A bright pink silk dress made low in the neck and with short sleeves displayed to the best advantage her ebony skin. A wreath of red roses sat evenly on her wooly crown; and her white-kid gloves were of the most perfect fit. A great portion of the audience evidently attended from pure curiosity, and were apparently disappointed with the style of music, not looking for that of so high a tone. She sang not one Ethiopian melody.

Richmond's observation confirms the argument of Eric Lott that in the North's "rowdy theatrical spaces an emergent racial politics was both registered and created, and that the racial feeling underlying and shaping but [at] times eluding the official narratives of race in these years began to appear."

All aspects of African American lives were subject to cruelty and crudeness of racial stereotypes. In March 1859 the Enquirer & Herald reported a domestic dispute between two well-known African American barbers; the subheading for the article read "Grand Rapids Not to be Outdone by the Federal Capital!!" The story told of how Mr. Wilsen, the "Sable Saint," as the paper referred to him, was having an affair with the wife of his fellow barber, Mr. Highwarder. The paper noted how Mrs. Highwarder had planned to abandon one of her children in Toledo in an elaborate scheme to run away with Mr. Wilsen. However, the scheme failed because a letter Mrs. Highwarder had intended for delivery to Mr. Wilsen fell instead into the hands of Mr. Highwarder because the person carrying the letter, in the words of the newspaper, "could not distinguish one letter from another." Highwarder's discovery of the infidelity caused a thunderous uproar that ended up in civil court. Like an afternoon television soap opera, the story of the Highwarders and Wilsen provided great entertainment for its white readers. The writer noted, "We await with breathless anxiety the finale of this dark affair." Two years later the press again reported about the disputes at Highwarder's barbershop. The interesting thing about this portrayal of the Highwarders is that the African American population between 1840 and 1870 was numerically insignificant (0.7 percent of the city's total population). Yet, as one can gather, this small segment of the larger community served as significant source of entertainment.

The editor of the Enquirer & Herald, the Democratic daily, acknowledged as much in an 1859 editorial column while trying to justify black inferiority.

Residents of the extreme North come in contact with so few of the negro race; they cannot really appreciate what the latter consist of and amount to, when gathered in considerable numbers as residents of any particular locality. It was our fortune to reside for about a dozen years in a city of one of the more Northerly of the Southern States. In that city were several thousands of free darkies; and yet, of all that number, there were not as many "respectable" individuals as there are among the very few colored inhabitants of Grand Rapids. Left to themselves, they seem to deteriorate in morals, mental and physical condition and numbers. But when they are only a few of them, surrounded by a white population, they are rendered infinitely better as citizens and individuals in every respect.

Free people of color in Grand Rapids as well as in "Canada West," in the opinion of this column, proved to be problematic as independent agents. In Canada, he noted, a grand jury of Essex County, Ontario, had "alluded to the 'great prevalence for the colored race among' the occupants of the jail." It is ironic that the editor of the newspaper observed that African Americans living amid whites would make better citizens. Citizenship, however, as a result of the majority opinion in the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision (as well as the political actions of Michigan's legislature), was not available to free people of color in Michigan.

The question arises as to why newspapers even bothered to report the domestic matters of such ordinary persons as the Highwarders. Their life troubles, it seems, served the larger community as a source of humor, fulfilled stereotypes, and reinforced Negro inferiority. As scholars of race have observed, blackness as a status fostered whiteness as the ideal of American citizenship. In the antebellum era, free persons of color in the North, like their soon-to-be emancipated siblings in the South, were a bellwether for the ills of American economic class structure. Race trumped class status. The cultural subordination that stereotypes provided further eroded the status of families like the Hardys.


Excerpted from African Americans in the Furniture City by RANDAL MAURICE JELKS Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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