Community Builders: Early African-American Women in Grand Rapids

Mary Roberts Tate For over 25 years the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council has underwritten efforts dedicated to rediscovering and crediting the rich past of area women, including the history of the 115-year-old Grand Rapids Study Club, the oldest African-American women’s club still in existence.


During the 1890s, local women’s clubs proliferated so rapidly, and organized women into such a social force, that newspapers were compelled to create new sections featuring their plans and activities. These early accounts revealed that  all women, from Grand Rapids Jews to Polish Catholics, gathered for self-education and charitable purposes. Along with the African-American Married Ladies Nineteenth Century Club in 1898, they hosted state and nation-wide gatherings to publicly denounce racist articles.


In 1907, five local African-American women’s groups, representing a small percentage of the city’s population, hosted the Michigan Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Delegates were welcomed by the Grand Rapids mayor and treated to gracious receptions and trolley tours. Hosts included African-American women leaders like Emma Ford and Mary Roberts Tate who began speaking their minds in public, on area stages, and in newspapers.


On February 11, in a program series of the Grand Rapids Historical Society, Yvonne Sims and Jo Ellyn Clarey will tell a fascinating story that corrects errors and fills gaps in Grand Rapids history. They will reintroduce the Beverly sisters, address misinformation about Hattie – the first African-American teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools – and introduce her longer-lived sister, Ethel, whose contributions to the community were much more extensive.

Ethel Beverly Burgess (left) and Hattie Beverly (right)
Ethel Beverly Burgess (left) and Hattie Beverly (right)


While women community builders, especially the African-American, have often been forgotten locally, ignored statewide, and dismissed nationally, Grand Rapids women have been breaking down barriers impeding them from the very beginning. Only now are women’s historians pulling their stories out of the rich social environment that fostered their emergence onto the public stage. And their histories are now challenging almost every generalization made about them ever since.


Event Details:


Date: February 11, 2016 at 7:00pm
Location: John F. Donnelly Conference Center at Aquinas College – 157 Woodward Lane SE, Grand Rapids
Co-Sponsors: Grand Rapids Study Club & the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council


About the Presenters:


Yvonne Sims has helped lead significant community events as the Forum on Violence and won the Giants Award in 1986 for community service. As a native Grand Rapidian, she has served as a Lifestyles columnist for the Grand Rapids Press and invested in projects of the Grand Rapids Study Club, the city’s longest-continuing African-American women’s group. Her historical programs and oversight of club archives have been a major addition to local women’s history.


By profession a literary scholar, Jo Ellyn Clarey taught at a variety of academic institutions before redirecting her path into the world of local women’s history. She has helped document the achievements of lost women and forgotten events, including those representing early African-American women in Grand Rapids. Besides winning the 1999 Albert Baxter Award in local history, she has served on the boards of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, the GR Historical Society, the GR Historical Commission, and organized women’s history research and programming statewide and nationally.