50 years after Grand Rapids riot, black poverty worse

Target 8 finds Grand Rapids has the worst poverty disparity along racial lines of any large Michigan city

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For three days, parts of Grand Rapids burned.

A race riot erupted in the city 50 years ago — on July 25, 1967 — fueled in part by discrimination, poverty and mistrust.

A half-century later, the racial divide in Grand Rapids is, in some ways, even wider.

The poverty rate among the city's blacks is worse now than it was during the riot, according to a Target 8 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Not only that, the analysis found, Grand Rapids has the biggest gap among the state's large cities between black and white poverty.

Target 8 interviewed some of the rioters, some of the police officers they clashed with and others who survived it. They tell stories of firebombs, looting, shots fired in both directions, tear gas and mass arrests.

Most agreed: While it may look a lot different now in the "riot zone," not much has really changed.

"All those places tore down now," Hezekiah Pulphus said while looking through old photographs of the riot.

The riot was captured in grainy film and in black and white newspaper photographs.

"When I look at them, I kind of remember, you know, but you brought it back to me and it was an ugly memory for me," said Pulphus, who was arrested during the riot.

Grand Rapids, race riot, 1967
A map showing the area of Grand Rapids where the 1967 race riot was concentrated.

The uprising covered a 36-block area, from Franklin Street SE north to Wealthy Street and from Ionia Avenue east to Lafayette Avenue — not coincidentally the city's blackest and poorest neighborhoods back then.

Pulphus, who was 21, said he lobbed a few Molotov cocktails — wine bottles filled with gas. He said an officer shot and injured one of his friends.

"That was the enemy, the police and the firemen, all of them was the enemy," Pulphus said. "To me, that's the way I saw it in my mind."

'LIKE A WAR ZONE'

Other protesters said their enemies were discrimination and poverty.

"Jobs (were) hard to get — it was hard to get, hard to keep," said Willie Joe Vance, who was arrested in the riot. "That was the biggest thing, really. That was the biggest issue."

Vance had a job, but a lot of his friends did not. He joined the uprising after rioters inadvertently burned down his family's home on LaGrave Avenue SE at Wealthy Street SE.

"I got to do a couple of 'We (Shall) Overcomes' and police rushed me," Vance said.

Cathy Cutts grew up poor on the city's southeast side.

"Rough, rough, very rough," she said of her neighborhood back then. "We were all just poor, welfare."

Cathy Cutts
Cathy Cutts.

She was 8 years old when rioters swarmed her street, and remembered her mom wouldn't let her go out to play.

"They were rolling around, and all down there, busting windows out and destroying our neighborhood, setting fires," Cutts said.

Rioters set 33 fires over parts of three days; the governor declared a state of emergency; police enforced all-night curfews, along with bans on liquor and gasoline sales.

"It was trying times, attitudes were way up, tear gas was everywhere, gunshots were going off behind houses," recalled Fred Brown, then a member of a city task force who was trying to quell the violence only to be shot by state police.

"In the street, it sounded more like a war zone than anything else," Brown, now 72, said. "People screaming and yelling. It was chaotic."

Rioters looted, tossed rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails. While nobody died, The Grand Rapids Press reported more than 40 injuries. Police arrested nearly 350 people, many in Cutts' neighborhood.

"I've been here all my life, this is all I know, but I've seen a lot of changes, a lot of things, and it's not getting any better for any blacks," said Cutts, who grew up on Lafayette Avenue SE.

In some ways, it's worse.

RACIAL POVERTY GAP

The 1970 census, taken three years after the riot, found 32 percent of Grand Rapids' blacks living in poverty. In the latest census estimate in 2015, it was 41 percent.

The poverty rate among the city's whites: 16 percent. Blacks in Grand Rapids are 2.5 times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Target 8 found it's the widest gap between black and white poverty in Michigan's big cities — bigger than Flint, bigger than Detroit.

A recent Forbes study found Grand Rapids was second to last in a ranking of America's best cities for blacks. Only Milwaukee was worse.

Harry Bolden was one of the Grand Rapids Police Department's few black cops during the riot. Rioters fired shots in his direction, forcing him to take cover behind a curb. They called him "Uncle Tom."

He was surprised by the most recent poverty numbers.

"I didn't know that was the numbers, but they're going the wrong way, obviously, and apparently we haven't learned much, or we don't address it and don't want to do anything about it," Bolden said.

Former GRPD Officer Dick Besser ducked bullets in the dark, his patrol car doubling as a shield.

"It's interesting how much things change but yet stay the same," Besser said.

PROBLEMS IN BLACK NEIGHBORHOODS IN 1967

In 1967, Grand Rapids was not black and white. It was black or white. Segregated.

"It was all black," Cutts said of her southeast side neighborhood. "A few whites here and there, but black folk. We had a unity."

The 1970 census showed 11 percent of Grand Rapids was black. Now, it's 21 percent.

A Target 8 analysis of census tract data shows that in 1970, nearly 90 percent of the city's blacks lived in a narrow swath through Grand Rapids' midsection, roughly from Wealthy Street south to Hall Street and from the Grand River east to Fuller Avenue. Most lived in rental homes and many children were being raised by single moms, census figures show.

Willie Joe Vance, arrested during the riot, recalled the discrimination that kept many blacks from moving.

"We don't want you around here; we ain't got this for you; you can't live in this neighborhood because, you know, you're black or you ain't making enough money," Vance said blacks were told.

While the riot covered much of the southeast side, it was centered on Jefferson Avenue SE, north of Franklin, in Census Tracts 28 and 29.

In 1970, about one in five adults in those tracts were high school graduates, poverty rates were the highest in the city, median incomes were the lowest in the city, and four in 10 households were run by women, without fathers.

"Anatomy of a Riot," a report released by the city several months after the uprising, pointed to the impoverished conditions blacks lived in.

It described a "vicious cycle of poverty which is especially acute for Negroes, hindered from becoming self-supporting, self-respecting and self-controlled heads of families by discriminatory practices too numerous for anyone to recount.

"They (blacks) can see that a white man's poverty is considered a difference in social classes which can easily be erased if the person is industrious and thrifty, and they know that poverty is almost presumed an inherent characteristic of the Negro," the report said. "Negroes are hindered by the legacy of discriminatory customs which stem from slavery."

The city report listed a dozen of the black community's biggest problems, led by low income, poor housing, inadequate health care, the family breakdown, crime and education.

THE SOUTHEAST SIDE 50 YEARS LATER

Since the riot, the neighborhoods at the center of it have been gutted, their population cut in half.

Census figures from 2010 show fewer than a quarter of the city's blacks were living in the swath where 90 percent once lived. Many migrated to neighborhoods to the south and to the northeast.

Not Tinnie Davis. She stayed put.

Tinnie Davis
Tinnie Davis.

She has lived in the same home on Lafayette Avenue SE for more than 50 years, in a neighborhood where nearly two-thirds of residents are black. Nearly half her neighbors now live in poverty. She said Grand Rapids isn't a good place for young blacks.

"Once they get a record, they get a record of having drugs on them, they go to jail, they go to prison, when they get out, they can't get no jobs," Davis said.

Not a lot has changed for Cathy Cutts since the riot.

She dropped out of high school and lives a few blocks from where she grew up, still in poverty. She works in a community garden to help pay rent.

"I get in the dirt, stick my booty in the air and plant," she said.

All around her on Cass Avenue SE, new homes have sprouted in a neighborhood once choked with slum apartments.

"A lot of people got blessed, a lot of people got new houses, but it was rough down through here back then," she said.

She has also witnessed whites slowly moving into her once mostly black neighborhood.

"I call it the suburbs in the black neighborhood," she said. "Yes, sir."

She's not sure the riot did much to help blacks in Grand Rapids.

"Just like now, there are a lot of white people in high places and black people are down here, and you've got to fight hard to be in a city like Grand Rapids," Cutts said.

On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives will air a documentary about the disturbances, titled “Riot Race Reconciliation.” The film showing will start at 6 p.m. at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium, located at 401 W. Fulton St. A panel discussion will follow.

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