All month long, the Grand Rapids Historical Society and I will be sharing Black History facts that have taken place right here in Grand Rapids.


If you missed the last one, you can learn about Ted Rasberry, a player and team owner in the Negro Baseball Leagues.

Today's Black History Fact is about Paul I. Phillips.

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Paul I. Phillips was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1914.  A state record-setter in track, Phillips earned a track scholarship to Marquette University and later got his master’s degree and Ph.D. in Sociology from Fisk University in 1936.

Grand Rapids Historical Society
Grand Rapids Historical Society

A decade later, Phillips came to Grand Rapids in 1946 to work for the Borough Community Association. 

Mr. Phillips was incredibly passionate about civic and community work – Wasting no time after his arrival to the city, the next year in 1947, he became executive director and secretary of the Grand Rapids Urban League, where he would serve the organization for nearly 30 years until his death in 1976.

Phillips led the Urban League chapter in Grand Rapids through the turbulent civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, “serving as a calm and strong force against racial discrimination”. 

In addition to his work, Mr. Phillips was incredibly passionate about Black history here in Grand Rapids, cementing him as one of the most influential contributors to the local history we know today. Diligent in his research and studies, he published “The Negro In Grand Rapids: 1840-1956”, highlighting a century of significant Black events and profiles of influential Black people connected to the city.

This document is undoubtedly the most instrumental archival piece of Grand Rapids Black History, referenced in the books African Americans in the Furniture City by Dr. Randal Jelks and  “A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan” by Todd E. Robinson

Driven by his love for the people, Phillips became the first African American elected to public office in Grand Rapids, winning the election in 1951. He was also the first African American elected to the Grand Rapids Board of Education, serving from 1962 to 1970.

During President Gerald R. Ford’s time in office, Phillips served as a consultant on minority citizen concerns. In 1972, Phillips received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Grand Valley State College.

Upon Phillips’ death in 1976, Monsignor Hugh Beahan eulogized his incredible legacy as “Patiently, doggedly, intelligently, he countered every argument against integration, dissuaded those who called for violence, did his homework, kept his finger on the pulse of his town, and slowly became the single most important force for racial justice Grand Rapids has ever known.” 

His legacy lives on strong here in Grand Rapids – The Paul I. Phillips Boys and Girls Club at 726 Madison Ave SE is named in his honor. Much love to Paul I.

We extend our gratitude to our ancestor Paul I. Phillips, a dedicated public servant, historian, and community leader who never waived in his passion for Black people and our growth here in Grand Rapids.

Thank you to the Grand Rapids Historical Society for allowing me to learn about the legacy of Paul I. Phillips.

LOOK: Here are the biggest HBCUs in America

More than 100 historically Black colleges and universities are designated by the U.S. Department of Education, meeting the definition of a school "established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans."

StudySoup compiled the 20 largest historically Black colleges and universities in the nation, based on 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Each HBCU on this list is a four-year institution, and the schools are ranked by the total student enrollment.

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