Uncovering the history of the African American Pioneers who settled in the Midwest

Feb 6, 2020

Photo of a Grand Rapids resident circa 1855
Credit The Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives

Long before the Dutch arrived to Michigan, there was a wave of African American Pioneers who settled in what was then called the Northwest Territory according to Anna-Lisa Cox from the Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. 

“Some of the earliest free settlers of this region were of African descent and they were here very early before Grand Rapids was a city, actually, they were along the river and they were part of the urban development of the city .”

Those who arrived here did have a fair amount of freedom, but then what started happening is when whites witnessed the great success African Americans were having in Michigan they started to create laws against them.  

“By the state of Michigan census in 1853 only nine counties in the entire state did not have black citizens, which meant that by 1853, the state of Michigan, including the UP was more racially diverse than it is today.” 

Angelica Roberts is from Kalamazoo and a descendant of Enoch and Deborah Harris. 

“Well, these are my father's people. Um, they were mostly free people of color who were coming before the civil war to settle in Michigan. And they came from different directions. They came from, um, Boston. They came from Virginia. They came from North Carolina.” 

As a white historian, Cox says she sees uncovering this history as a responsibility. 

“One of the great sorrows of this history being erased is that it sort of gives an excuse today for many white people to feel like African Americans don't belong in Michigan or don't belong in certain areas of G rand Rapids when in reality they were belonging here and living here and pivotal to the founding of this state long before the Dutch arrived.”

Michelle Jokisch Polo, WGVU News.