Early African American Women’s Clubs in Grand Rapids

For over 25 years the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council has underwritten efforts to rediscover 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. What is revealed in these early accounts? That Grand Rapids women of various ethnic, religious, and neighborhood groups were gathering for self-education and charitable purposes, hosting state- and nation-wide gatherings and stepping up publicly to denounce racist articles as did the African American Married Ladies Nineteenth Century Club in 1898.

In 1907, five local African American women’s groups, representing a minuscule 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. Who were these hosts? They included leaders like Emma Ford and Mary Roberts Tate, individual African American women who began speaking their minds in public, on area stages and in newspapers.

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 out their stories and histories, which are challenging almost every generalization made about them since.


This article can also be found in the Winter 2016 GGRWHC Newsletter.