A GIANT DOWNTOWN!
Stroll along the north side of 20 Monroe Live at 11 Ottawa Avenue, and Ethel B. Coe’s mural image will loom over you. Artist Esan Sommersell has used comic book techniques to create a huge portrait celebrating the energetic Coe as an action hero. During 2020, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council joined Lions & Rabbits to co-sponsor the Women’s Way Initiative organized by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. This project helps to reclaim positive ownership of often-overlooked public spaces and repurposes them to honor women significant to our city’s history.
Every year in Grand Rapids, a Giant Award for Humanities is presented in the name of this giant from the past: Ethel B. Coe. Both before and after Coe’s stint at age 68 with VISTA, Volunteers In Service To America, she invested in her community through organizational life and as an entertainer. Coe broke barriers and built bridges.
Born in Virginia in 1899, Coe was sent by her parents to Grand Rapids for an education better than their country schools could provide. When she was eight, Coe lived with an aunt and uncle in a local African American population under 700, but she did not escape racism in Grand Rapids during the Jim Crow era. While a student at South High School, Coe became central to the city’s first civil rights case, brought after she was refused service at a local ice cream parlor.
As a young woman, Coe was an active member of several women’s clubs, like the still-functioning Grand Rapids Study Club, whose missions were to uplift the race. She led membership initiatives and other projects for local chapters of the NAACP and Urban League; and, eventually, she played roles on every level: for the Michigan Committee on Civil Rights, on the Kent County Mental Hygiene Society, and on the Grand Rapids Better Films Council. Coe also devoted herself to youth programs — the Y-Teen Committee for the YWCA, the World Fellowship Committee — and in 1926 she became a founding member of the Junior Mother’s Club for parents of preschool children.
Ethel Coe, Grand Rapids Historical Society
Coe’s social activism led her to run for public office and, when in 1951 she ran for the Grand Rapids Charter Commission, she became one of the first two Grand Rapids African American women to throw their hats in the ring. Coe ran again in 1955, this time for the Board of Education. While she lost both of these races, Coe paved the way for future women.
In 1923, Ethel had married Walter Coe, who became the first African American detective in the Grand Rapids Police Department. Not only were both prominent members of social and civil rights organizations in Grand Rapids, both were accomplished musicians. When Ethel sang the blues, Walter was her accompanist on piano. A highly sought-after soloist and thespian, Coe often performed in churches, at NAACP events and for literary clubs. Her acting career at Civic eater and in other venues included “A Raisin in the Sun” and “King of Hearts.”
In 1967 at 68 years old, Coe was inspired by the poor treatment of Mexican laborers and their children in Michigan and trained for VISTA. After two years in Rhode Island, where she counseled needy families and supplemented community development programs, she was personally commended by Governor Frank Licht.
Coe joked about wanting to “play the lady” when she returned to Grand Rapids, but she stepped right back into her life of service with the Family Life Council of Kent County, directed the XYZ Senior Citizens Center and taught Vietnamese immigrant children English.
In everything she did, humanitarian Ethel B. Coe blazed trails.
This biography can also be found in the February 2021 issue of the grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle magazine.
“Ethel Coe, Community and Social Activist Here, dies in Philadelphia.” Grand Rapids Press, January 6, 1988.