By: Joel Campbell
To commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Furniture City Strike, Grand Rapids DSA is hosting its first Strike & Bike ride! The goal for each participant is to bike 110 miles from April 19th to August 18, the duration of the strike. It’s free to join! Friends and family members are asked to pledge at a dollar a mile for each rider. Funds will be used to further our mutual aid work in the community. Participants can join the Grand Rapids DSA Strava Club to help track their miles. Before you ride, please register here!
The top three riders will receive one of the following prizes:
- City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Manoomin: The Story of Wild Rice in Michigan
- Strike! How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids
We’re hosting hosting two group rides! Our first will be June 21st and the second will be on June 26th. Meet up at Sixth Street Park at 5:30pm and roll out is at 6pm for both nights. We’re limiting our ride size to 20 people per night. You can preview the route below. Lights and helmets are strongly recommended! Any questions, please text 616-209-9708.
Please register at: forms.gle/EzxJDeuDnqJ7Xt2a6
To help promote cycling in Grand Rapids, we’ll be hosting three free bike repair clinics. These clinics will be held May 15th at Lincoln Park, June 12th at Riverside Park, and July 10th at Martin Luther King Park from 12pm – 4pm. You can show up to the clinic the day of or fill out this form ahead of time so we can make sure to have the materials for your bike.
As part of our Strike & Bike ride, we created a tour that takes you around the city and details various aspects of its history that don’t often get any attention. To get stop by stop directions, click here!
1. The Furniture Strike of 1911
The Furniture Strike of 1911, now memorialized on a plaque next to the Spirit of Solidarity statue, is arguably the most important strike in Grand Rapids’ history. On the morning of April 19th, 1911 more than 6,000 workers, largely made up of eastern European immigrants, walked off the job demanding higher wages, shorter work days, and union representation. The John Widdicomb factory, our first stop, was the main site for most of the strike. In retaliation, the Furniture Manufacturers Employers’ Association pressured banks to foreclose on workers’ mortgages while the Christian Reformed Church issued an edict that sought to expel striking workers from their church. During the strike, the Grand Rapids Police Department fired into the picket line. The strike ended on August 18th, about 5 months after it began. Much of the dissolution came from the lack of strike funds. Strike funds, even today, are largely comprised of dues that union members are required to pay which is why Right to Work legislation, signed by former Governor Rick Snyder is so effective in dismantling unions.
2. 1925 Ku Klux Klan March
On July 4th, 1925 over 3,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down Bridge Street. The intimidation of them marching directly into the heart of the Eastern European immigrant and working class community cannot be overstated. The Klan in the 1920s, called the Invisible Empire was galvanized by the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation. Millions of Americans joined in droves. Members frequently included mayors, judges, business owners, and police officers. They sought to repel the immigration of Eastern Europeans into America through intimidation and violence. With Polish immigration came numerous other nationalities and ethnicities including a surge of Jews, Catholics, and Orthodox worshipers. These religions were, and still are, considered an affront by the KKK to a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America. The West Side of Grand Rapids, famously proud of its Polish heritage, is still home to a thriving Jewish community. On November 2, 2020, Jewish graves were spray painted with “TRUMP” and “MAGA” in the Ahavas Israel Cemetery. Anti-Semitism and anti-immigration sentiment continues to animate hate groups like the KKK, Proud Boys, and Oathkeepers to this day.
3. The Plum Tree Orchard
The Plum Tree Orchard that once stood here was demolished in the early 1870s, along with 46 burial mounds on land that Charles Belknap called “Mission land.” In his memoir, The Yesterdays of Grand Rapids, Belknap details how he spent his summers as a water boy quote “…for the men who did this grading | and had ample opportunity to gather the flint arrowheads and other implements that were unearthed in nearly every burial mound | along with the bones of the vanished race.” End quote. According to Belknap, much of the looted material, if not kept in private collection, was taken by the Kent Museum or shipped off to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.
In 2018, Anishinaabe artist Jason Quigno created the Plum Tree Memorial to commemorate this spot. In addition, you will also see the ANISHINAABEK mural, painted by Alan Compo, a member of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. This piece was also unveiled in 2018. In an interview for Grand Rapids Magazine, Compo recalled the destruction of the Plum Tree Orchard. He said, “The story goes that it was burned down, and who knows if it was to stop them from coming or if it was for progress, but I just wanted to bring it back.”
4. Breonna Taylor Way
Breonna Taylor, who grew up in Grand Rapids, was killed by Louisville Metro Police Department officers in her home on March 13, 2020. Officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove were responsible for the no-knock warrant that led to her death. The raid was part of a dedicated unit created by the Louisville Metro Police Department to help with the ongoing gentrification of Elliot Avenue where Taylor lived. The road you are riding on is dedicated to her memory.
Gentrification in Grand Rapids, like Louisville, is enacted through police violence against communities of color and working class neighborhoods. For years, the Grand Rapids police department received extra funding from the Department of Justice for Operation Weed & Seed. This program focused on the West Side, Heartside, and Southeast districts and saw the rise in police officers working the beat. In every single one of those areas today, gentrification is apparent. The new glistening buildings stand as monuments to police violence in both Louisville & Grand Rapids.
5. Viva Flaherty
Viva Flaherty worked as a secretary at Fountain Street Church during the Furniture Strike of 1911. While the minister of the church preached for calm and unity between workers and the factory owners, Flaherty stood solidly on the side of the workers. In October 1911, only a few months after the end of the strike, Flaherty published “History of the Grand Rapids Strike” and detailed the lengths to which the owners, organized as the Furniture Manufacturers Employers’ Association sought to crush the movement for unions. One passage calls to us even now:
“The workers lost the strike. Moral victories do not pay for potatoes and sugar, or secure the rest and relaxation that a hard day’s work merits. It was might not right that settled this strike and, consequently, industrial peace has not been secured in Grand Rapids. No one concerned yearns for another strike – particularly not the striker, – because he and his family suffer the most. But will the workers never wake up to their power, for they have it!”
6. The 1967 Rebellion
On July 25th,1967, an uprising in Grand Rapids began. For the next three days, in the predominantly black neighborhood, people sent a message to the city that they would not take any more abuse. As Will Mack of Black Past notes, “extreme poverty, joblessness, poor schooling and segregation….” were among the grievances of the community. On the second day, some white residents joined together and acted as vigilantes to try and suppress the uprising. The Grand Rapids Police Department, unable to completely control the situation, relied heavily on reinforcements sent in by Governor George Romney. The Michigan State Police, arriving on the heels of neutralizing the rebellion in Detroit, engaged in a systemic crackdown that led to the arrests of 320 people and forty-four injuries. Over a thousand people participated in the uprising. This intersection where you are was one of the many spots in the city where police used tear gas against the rebels.
The inequality that these uprisings sought to address never ended. Police brutality against the black community continues unchecked. In 2017, Officer Caleb Johnson pulled his gun on five black children as they were walking home. A few months later, Honestie Hodges, who was eleven-years-old at the time, was handcuffed and held at gunpoint. The officers involved were not disciplined for this action. The compounding racial discrimination helped fuel the uprising in 2020 and saw the return of tear gas to the streets of Grand Rapids.
7. Hopewell Burial Mounds
Before the Anishinaabe followed the manoomin west and settled in this area, the Hopewell lived here. Their territory extended from the Straits of Mackinac to New Orleans and ranged from West Virginia to Kansas. Grand Rapids was originally home to two sets of mounds, the Converse which was along the river, now called Ah-Nab-Awen Park, and the Norton group which is before you. These mounds were built sometime between 10 BCE and 400 CE.
As you learned at the Plum Tree Orchard stop, those mounds, also called the Converse group, were leveled by colonizers while building the city of Grand Rapids. The Hopewell Burial Mounds before you are currently besieged by the highway and oil derricks which populate this area. These serve as a reminder that colonization is not something that happened long ago in the forgotten mist of time. It is happening right before your very eyes.
8. 1836 Treaty of Washington D.C.
The Treaty of Washington D.C., sometimes called the Treaty of 1836, was signed between the United States, the Odawa and Ojibwe. The treaty encompasses 13 million acres and stretches from the southernmost point, where you stand, to Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula. The treaty guaranteed the rights of the Odawa and Ojibwe to hunt, fish, harvest, and worship. The Odawa and Ojibwe have been at the forefront of calling for the end of Line 5, Enbridge’s pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac, as its continued existence threatens these very rights.
9. Carbon Infrastructure in West Michigan
Grand Rapids Storage #2, 4026870000, owned by Goodale Enterprises, LLC, a subsidiary of Atonne Group, this storage tank is one of many parts of carbon infrastructure that dot not only Millennium Park, but all of Michigan. When we discuss climate change and massive oil and gas corporations like ExxonMobil, BP, or Shell, we tend to ignore smaller players like Goodale Enterprises or Wolverine Gas & Oil.
Unfortunately for local activists, the permitting of these storage tanks and oil derricks is handled by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, in particular The Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division. This places the responsibility firmly in the hands of the governor. To decarbonize our world, we must confront the reality that while large oil corporations are a problem, we must uproot the fossil fuel industries in Michigan as well.
10. 1821 Treaty of Chicago
The Treaty of Chicago, signed in 1821 between the United States, the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe ceded five million acres to the United States. It covers much of Grand Rapids at its northernmost and extends to Elkhart Indiana at its southernmost. Kalamazoo and Battle Creek are also part of this treaty.
This is our last stop on the tour. Thank you so much for taking time to learn more about this land and the people who have struggled to make it a better place. This tour is part of the Grand Rapids DSA’s Strike & Bike fundraiser. All money raised will go to our mutual aid fund.