GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids’ first and so far only black mayor was Lyman Parks, who took the job during a turbulent time in the United States.
Those who knew him say he was an involved pastor and father, easy to talk with and invested in helping young people grow.
“I think he made it permissible for a person from the clergy to be a city commissioner or be involved in politics,” said Dan Groce, a longtime member of Parks’ congregation.
Before Lyman Parks was Mayor Parks, he was Rev. Parks of First Community AME Church on James Avenue SE. Dan Groce and his wife Betty Burton Groce have been members of the church for decades.
Burton Groce recalled Parks telling her that in order to be elected to anything in Grand Rapids, you had to know how to talk to everyone and work with everyone equally.
“He was very adamant about that: ‘I have to meet with them just as I meet with you and we have to meet together,'” she said. “It’s one of the things he shared while he was running for office.”
In the late 1960s, racial tensions amid the civil rights movement and political unrest rippled across the country. Grand Rapids was no different. Still, Parks was able to run for city commission and win.
“Religious attributes played well for Parks and people thought that having a black city commissioner would be some kind of reconciling of race relations,” said historian Randal Maurice Jelks, Ph.D., who wrote “African Americans in the Furniture City — The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids.”
“He won with a coalition because Parks tended to be a little more conservative than some of the young people who were spouting such rhetoric as black power,” Jelks added.
Later, after the mayor resigned, Parks defeated 10 other candidates to be elected to the job.
It was Parks who convinced Amway co-founder Rich DeVos to invest in the old Pantlind Hotel. A decade later, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel launched a wave of growth downtown.
Dan Groce said Parks had high expectations for the youngsters in the church and was always pushing education. Today, the Grand Rapids Public Schools administration building bears his name.
And outside Grand Rapids City Hall, you’ll find his statue. It stands as a reminder that Parks was a pioneer who had the courage to run for public office along with the heart to lead a congregation and a city.
“We need to learn how to help people become better people and become better ourselves,” Parks said when News 8 interviewed him in March 2007.
He died in November 2009.