GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Randal Jelks’ book was meant to change the narrative about Grand Rapids history.
“West Michigan is thought of as mighty white, let me just put it to you frankly, and I wanted to change that face,” Jelks said of the mission of his book, “African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids.”
In the book, he laid out stories from 1850 to 1954 of how Black communities have shaped Grand Rapids’ history and how they helped push forward civil rights.
One of those was a civil rights case in the 1920s about public accommodation for two Black doctors who went to a show at Keith’s Theater in Grand Rapids. They were told they had to change seats due to the color of their skin. They sued and the case went to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1927. Justices ruled against Keith’s Theater.
Stories like that, Jelks said, help shed light on the overall impact Grand Rapids has on American history.
“African Americans were an afterthought in the life of the city, as though people did not exist and they actually existed. They had been here since the city was formed in 1850 and before,” Jelks told News 8 during a Monday interview at the WOOD TV8 Digital Live Desk. “So there were lots of people here that hadn’t been documented, so to speak, and I went out to kind of change that look in how we tell the history of Grand Rapids, including its Indigenous people, Latinos, Latinx people. I wanted to change the face of how we think about the city of Grand Rapids.”
Jelks taught history at Calvin University for over a decade. He attended both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. He is currently a professor at the University of Kansas. To learn more about Jelks and his other works, you can visit his website.