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Craft Beer Times | Exploring the Roots of Race in Beer City’s History

Exploring the Roots of Race in Beer City’s History

Exploring the Roots of Race in Beer City’s History


Beer City USA, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a city known for its craft beer culture, with over 80 breweries and counting. But it’s also a city with a significant history and ongoing conversation about race. A walk through Grand Rapids can lead to interesting discoveries and insights into both subjects.


Grand Rapids’ history is intertwined with its location, situated on the Grand River and surrounded by the natural resources that made it a prime spot for trade and commerce. Native American tribes like the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe were among the first to inhabit the area.

In the early 19th century, Europeans began to settle in the region, with French explorers and traders among the first to arrive. In 1826, an entrepreneur named Louis Campau purchased land and established a trading post, gambling that the Grand River would become a major transportation route. He wasn’t wrong. By the mid-1830s, Grand Rapids was incorporated as a village, and by the end of the century, it had become a hub for the furniture industry.

As industrialization took hold in the city, racial tensions began to surface. In the late 1800s, African Americans began to work in the factories, but they faced discrimination and segregation. In 1910, a race riot took place in the city, leaving two African Americans dead and dozens injured.

During the mid-20th century, the civil rights movement brought progress, but not without resistance. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Grand Rapids to speak, but many residents opposed his visit, with some even threatening violence. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the city’s first Black mayor, Lyman Parks, was elected.

Heritage Hill

One of the best places to experience Grand Rapids’ history is in the Heritage Hill neighborhood, just east of downtown. The neighborhood is full of beautiful Victorian homes, some of which date back to the mid-1800s. It’s also where you’ll find the Meyer May House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908.

Walking through Heritage Hill, you can see both the successes and failures of the past. On one hand, you’ll see stunning homes that were built by wealthy business owners. On the other hand, the neighborhood was once segregated, with African Americans and other people of color forced to live in substandard housing.


Despite progress made in the civil rights era, Grand Rapids, like many American cities, still struggles with issues of race and inequality. In recent years, the city has seen a growing movement for racial justice, with protests and demonstrations demanding change.

One area where this struggle is particularly evident is in the public school system. Grand Rapids Public Schools serves a diverse student population, but it has a history of underfunding and neglect. Significant gaps exist in academic achievement between white students and students of color.

But there are also signs of hope. The city has a vibrant and growing Latinx community, with organizations like the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan working to empower and support Latinx residents. Grand Rapids also has a thriving arts community, with events like ArtPrize showcasing diverse voices and perspectives.

South Division

A walk down South Division Avenue can give you a glimpse into both the struggles and strengths of the city’s current racial climate. The avenue was once known as a hub for prostitution and drug dealing but has since seen significant revitalization, including an influx of new businesses and cultural events.

But South Division is also home to many residents who are struggling to make ends meet. Poverty rates in Grand Rapids are consistently higher for people of color than for white people. Racial disparities can be seen in everything from access to healthy food to representation in leadership positions.


Grand Rapids may be known for its beer, but it’s also a city with a fascinating history and ongoing conversations about race. A walk through its neighborhoods and streets can lead to both learning and reflection, showing the complexity and richness of this Midwestern city.


Dustin is a writer about craft beer and a professional brewer in the city of Chicago. He has written for several magazines and has over a decade of experience in the beer industry. He is currently working on a book about the history of beer in Chicago.

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