African American History in the Tri-Cities
by Chad Buitenhuis
This month our country has celebrated African American History Month. This observance goes back to 1915 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded what is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. By 1926, Dr. Woodson had initiated the first week in February to celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. This week was recognized by a growing number of cities over the next few decades, and evolved into Black History Month by the late 1960s. Black History Month was officially recognized in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, a Grand Rapids native, as he urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
While we celebrate the achievements accomplished by African Americans, it is important to remember the history and understand the obstacles that these men and women faced. Slavery was abolished as a result of the Civil War in 1865. Though African Americans were granted the right to vote when the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, the following year the first of the Jim Crow Segregation Laws passed in the South. These laws banned African Americans from almost all white businesses and establishments. By 1885, most southern states would also pass laws requiring separate schools, and this was enforced after the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 with the language “equal but separate,” which would finally be overturned in 1954. When Martin Luther King Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, it had been one hundred years after our country went to war over slavery.
In spite of extreme hardships, some African Americans were able to escape the suffering and create a better life for themselves in our area. Frederick Graves was born a slave in 1835. He married Isabella Washington on Christmas Day in 1857. Sometime after their marriage Frederick left his wife and two children behind and managed to escape from the plantation. Though he did not officially enlist, Frederick was involved with the Union Army during the Civil War, and was with General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Isabella and their children traveled with the Confederate Army as a cook for some of the officers. After the war Frederick would return to his wife, and they travelled north settling in Spring Lake in 1866. The couple would have sixteen children in total, but only four would reach adulthood. Frederick worked as a masseur at the Magnetic Mineral Springs in Grand Haven, and also at the Spring Lake House, which earned him the nickname ‘Doc.’ Frederick and Isabella also worked for the Savidge family for many years.
Frederick was a very charismatic man. In 1898 he was invited to be the speaker at the Grand Haven Women’s Club’s “Southern Day” event that was held to kick off the year. He spoke about life growing up as a slave, moving between masters, and how he and his mother were once sold for $1,200. He described being at a marketplace with slaves in handcuffs and chains. During his eventual escape from slavery he ran from the plantation and “hid in a haystack for five days.” Frederick and Isabella would live out the rest of their lives in the area. Isabella passed away at an impressive age of 103 years. Both were buried at Lake Forest Cemetery in Grand Haven.
There is another African American man whose name is much more familiar to us, though many may have never heard of him. Hezekiah Smith moved to the area in 1847. It is unclear whether he was an escaped slave or not. Smith initially found work as a blacksmith, then in 1853 he began purchasing land in Spring Lake Township. Smith used this land to farm, and by 1860 he had “won for himself not only the respect and friendly regard of all who know him, but a high position in rank among the agriculturists of the county,” according to the Grand Haven News, a newspaper predating the Tribune. Two years later he would win awards for his apples, peaches, watermelons, carrots, and cabbages; but later that year he had listed his farm for sale. Smith was president of the Colored People’s Convention, which contained citizens from Ottawa and Muskegon counties, and in 1860 Smith was nominated to serve as a delegate to the state convention to fight for the right of suffrage. He later went as a representative to the 1894 Equal Rights convention in Grand Rapids.
Hezekiah Smith’s land became a beacon for escaped slaves. While the Underground Railroad had presumably stopped in the Tri-Cities area on the path to Canada, some felt safe enough to remain. A small community of African Americans grew to nearly three dozen families that inhabited his land. Historians disagree as to the reasons but the colony would soon dispatch. However, the land Hezekiah Smith had owned surrounded what is still known today as Smith’s Bayou, and Smith’s Bridge also bares the name of this hardworking man.