by Scott St. Louis
February is Black History Month, and many documents preserved in the Grand Valley State University Archives illustrate the valuable contributions made by African-Americans to the campus community, to West Michigan, and to the country as a whole.
For Grand Valley, the 1970s constituted a rich period for the founding of new organizations dedicated to supporting students of color, defending civil rights, and promoting a greater awareness of African-American history and culture.
In February 1973, the Black Student Union at Grand Valley hosted multiple on-campus screenings of a documentary about Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party at the time of his death in December 1969.
Through his work with the Black Panthers, Hampton was a founding member of the Rainbow Coalition, founded in the 1960s to unite many Chicago ethnic organizations in the struggle against discriminatory housing practices, police violence, and other abuses. In this capacity, Hampton worked alongside members of the Young Lords, a community organization formed in response to the displacement of working-class Latinos by gentrification and urban renewal programs.
By 1979, students at Grand Valley had established a campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The existing records of this student organization include a booklet of the Constitution and Bylaws to be observed by NAACP branches, published in 1978.
The Grand Valley State Colleges Black Alumni Association was also established in 1979, earning commendation from GVSC President Arend “Don” Lubbers.
Black History in Grand Rapids
With regard to African-American history in Grand Rapids, the GVSU Special Collections are also home to the papers of Paul I. Phillips, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Urban League from 1947 to 1976. Phillips became the first African-American to hold elected office in the city when he won a position on the Grand Rapids Charter Commission in 1951. He was also elected to the Grand Rapids Board of Education, on which he served from 1962 to 1970. Phillips received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Grand Valley in 1972, and was appointed by Governor William G. Milliken to the institution’s Board of Control in May 1976. He passed away late in December of that year.
For his distinguished record of public service, Phillips was the recipient of many posthumous honors. Several scholarship funds and local athletic awards came to bear his name. In 1979, the Kent County Board of Commissioners dedicated its new Social Services facility in Grand Rapids to his memory.
From Grand Valley to Grand Rapids and beyond, these collections at the GVSU Special Collections & University Archives help to document the history and contributions of African-Americans in our communities.