23 ways to honor Black history in Muskegon—this month and throughout the year

The Sepia Club in Muskegon, as shown in the “Up From the Bottoms” documentary.

When African Americans began to move to Muskegon during the Great Migration, during which six million African Americans left the southern United States for the north, they did so in search of a better life. African American residents have since become an integral part of the Muskegon community, contributing major accomplishments in the area, from the arts to business and much more.

However, these accomplishments have come in the face of racism and adversity. Racism did not disappear once black individuals made it to the northern states; instead, African Americans here in Muskegon (and throughout the country) were barred from going into many businesses; they faced redlining (being unable to rent and purchase real estate in certain parts of the community because of race); they earned less than their white counterparts (and still do).  People of color continue to report numerous forms of racial discrimination, in Muskegon and throughout West Michigan, from the workplace to housing, and more.

Despite all of this, African American Muskegonites are, and have been, empowering the city and its residents and spearheading the charge for justice throughout the region, whether that’s working to create affordable housing, educating people about local African American history, and so much more.

This Black History Month, you’ll have the chance to learn about the powerful and deeply important accomplishments of local black leaders, engage in discussions surrounding race and equity, and more. But it’s not only February that should be about black history, and there are numerous ways to continue to honor black Muskegonites’ past, present and future throughout the year. Below, we’ve detailed events that are happening this month, as well as opportunities to engage with black history during the other 11 months of the year.

1. We’d encourage you to visit The James Jackson Museum of African American History during Black History Month—and during the rest of the year as well. The Muskegon Heights museum is an incredible space that provides historical information about the local African American community, including stories about African American leaders who forever shaped Muskegon Heights and Muskegon. The venue too offers state and national information, events that aim to empower the local community, and more. The museum is open from 2pm-5pm Tuesday through Saturday; it is located at 7 E. Center St. in Muskegon Heights.

2. Watch “Up From the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream,” a documentary that tells the story of the migration of African Americans from the south to the north during World War II and after. Actress Cicely Tyson narrates, guiding the viewer through the stories of 15 Muskegon residents who were a part of this migration. The film is a powerful look at the lives of our neighbors, of people who faced racism not just in the rural south but also in the north, including in Muskegon. To purchase the film, please click here.

3. This year’s “Love Your Community” mini-grants from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County are focusing on  projects, programs or events promoting diversity, equity and inclusion within our area. Individuals, nonprofits and businesses are invited to apply for these grants of $500 each through Feb. 14. Beginning Feb. 22, the public will be able to go to the Community Foundation’s Facebook page to vote for your favorite project. The five projects with the most ‘likes’ on the Foundation’s page will each receive a $500 grant. To find out more information about applying, please click here.

4. Racial inequities throughout our region translates to more people of color living in poverty, educational disparities, and poorer health outcomes—including shorter life expectancy, higher infant and child mortality rates, and higher teen birth rates—for black and Hispanic individuals.

Compared to the rest of the state, Muskegon has a greater percentage of African American children living in poverty. Statewide, 42 percent of African American children live in poverty; in Muskegon, that number rises to 65 percent, according to federal data. Twenty-eight percent of all children in Muskegon County live in poverty.

To change this, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County will be issuing a minimum of $25,000 in grants for nonprofit programs or projects implementing strategies that help celebrate diversity, create equity, and foster inclusion. Applications of intent must be submitted by Feb. 14; grant applications are due by Feb. 28. To learn more about applying, visit the Community Foundation’s website here; complete application details are available here.

Bishop Nathaniel Wyoming Wells, Jr. serves as the Senior Pastor of the Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ in Muskegon. He is featured in the “SONS” exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

5. An exploration of race, racism, perception, and bias, the “SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male” exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art is simultaneously an empowering celebration of our community’s black leaders and an indictment of how we as a society treat black men. Being shown through March 10, the show features the portraits of 47 black men from the greater Muskegon area. Each man was nominated by a committee of community leaders and photographed by artist Jerry Taliaferro. 

6. Muskegon Community College kicks off its Black History Month celebration with a program titled, “Muskegon Heights West Side Story” from 6pm to 8pm on Monday, Feb. 4. The event will be held in the college’s Blue and Gold room (located at 221 S. Quarterline Rd.). During the talk, participants will get to learn about the history of Muskegon Heights’ West Side from the 1940s through the 1970s. Robert Dowson will share his story and life’s experiences, along with other members of the community who lived on the West Side. This event is free and open to the public.

7. Poets and poetry fans, you won’t want to miss this. Hackley Public Library will host an open mic poetry night with journalist and writer Clayton Hardiman on Tuesday, Feb. 5 from 6-7pm. During the event, you can share your favorite poem, poetry you have written, or your favorite Black History/black experience/African American poetry. And for those who would rather just listen, you’re welcome to attend as well. This event is free and open to the public.

8. The Muskegon Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute will be hosting an open house on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 2:30pm to 5pm at the Louis McMurray Bus Terminal, located at Sixth Street and Sherman Boulevard in Muskegon Heights. During this free event, you’ll have the chance to learn about the Muskegon chapter, as well as A. Philip Randolph, a Civil Rights leader who organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African American labor union. Refreshments will be provided.

9. Chefs, it’s your time to shine. Hackley Public Library will host its annual “Sweet Soul Food Dessert Competition” on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 2-3pm. Both adults and children can enter for a chance to win prizes. If you think your recipe is up to the task, sign up for this competition and see if your dessert will be crowned the winner. If you’d rather do less cooking and more tasting, you’re invited to come watch the competition unfold. To compete, register by clicking here or calling the library at 231-722-8011. This event is free and open to the public.

A group of Homestead Grays player pose together in 1946. Photo via the National Baseball Hall of Fame

10. After racism and “Jim Crow” laws forced African American players from professional American baseball teams by 1900, black players began to form their own baseball teams. In 1920, the Negro National League was born in Kansas City, Missouri—and, soon, rival leagues formed in the Eastern and Southern states. The Negro Leagues, made up of a collection of teams throughout the country, consisted of some of the country’s best players, including Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and Josh Gibson. Future major leaguers like the New York Giants’ Willie Mays and the Chicago Cubs’ Ernie Banks too played in the Negro Leagues.

On Monday, Feb. 11, Hackley Public Library will delve into the legacy of the Negro Leagues with a program featuring Dan D’Addona, the Holland Sentinel’s sports editor. D’Addona, who serves on the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues Research Committee, will give a talk on the history of the leagues and showcase the impact they had on baseball and American culture. This event is free and open to the public.

11. Hair experts Kenny Terrell of Ken’s Anointed Hands and Yancey Harris of Fancy Yancey’s Barber Shop will share their expertise on hair care for men and boys at Hackley Public Library on Tuesday, Feb. 12 from 6-7pm. The two will also provide a demonstration of proper cutting techniques. Plus, during the event, Hackley will announce a new library service that will be offered at both barbershop locations. This program is free and open to the public.

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first U.S. spaceflight. Her achievements were portrayed in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” Photo via the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

12. “Hidden Figures,” a film about a team of female African American mathematicians who battled racism and sexism while serving a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program—and never being shown the credit they deserved—will be shown twice at Muskegon Community College. MCC will screen the film at 1pm on Wednesday, Feb.13 and again at 5:30pm on Feb. 13 in Collegiate Hall. Admission to the film is free and open to the public. A discussion of the film will immediately follow the movie.

13. What does it mean to be a black man in Muskegon? In the United States? What are the experiences of black men in Muskegon? Of the black leaders shaping our community? Featuring 32 African American men from across the greater Muskegon community, “Black Man” is a feature-length documentary that delves into these questions. In the documentary, filmmaker Jon Covington, a Muskegon native, interviews men from a wide range of backgrounds about their lives. Ages 18 to 94, the men include local barbers, a fireman, a college president, unemployed laborers, athletes, students, teachers, coaches, and others. The film will be shown from 12-1pm on Thursday, Feb. 14 at the Muskegon Museum of Art. Admission to the film is free; coffee and cookies will be provided.

Curtis Taylor. Photo by Robert Sanchez

14. Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Curtis Taylor is returning to Hackley Public Library for a free jazz performance from 2pm to 3pm on Saturday, Feb. 16. A renowned musician who has toured around the globe, Taylor has played at some of the country’s most feted jazz venues, including performing a concert at New York City’s Kennedy Center for NPR’s JazzSet and a week-long engagement at the famed Dizzy’s Club in NYC.

15. The Ebony Road Players, a Grand Rapids-based theater company that aims to inspire, educate and engage West Michigan with productions focused on the Black experience, is coming to Muskegon to perform “The Meeting,” a play by Jeff Stetson about an imaginary meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in a Harlem hotel room during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Differing in their philosophies, but alike in their mutual respect, the two men debate their varying approaches to the problems plaguing the country. “The Meeting” will be performed on Friday, Feb. 22 from 5:30-7:30pm at the Muskegon Museum of Art. It is free and open to the public.

16. From fair housing practices to mental health and racism, the Diatribe poetry group tackles daunting social issues with the performing arts, dialogue and more in schools, libraries, and other venues throughout West Michigan. Now, the group is heading to Hackley Public Library on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 2pm, when they’ll perform poetry meant to inspire change.

17. An artist, designer, art director, and writer who was one of the earliest African Americans to work professionally in New York City’s advertising business, the work of Joseph Grey II helped to break down racial barriers in one of the most influential cities in the world. Through March 10, the Muskegon Museum of Art will show its exhibition featuring Grey’s work, “Ad Man: Joseph Grey II.” Grey himself will join the museum for a gallery talk on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 6pm. The talk is free and open to the public.

18. “Yeah, black hair is really divisive in this country,” author and podcaster Phoebe Robinson, of 2 Dope Queens, told Essence after the publication of her book, “You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have To Explain).” “I don’t think people realize how much pressure black women face to have their hair tell the world who they are where it’s like, ‘I’m safe’ or ‘I’m professional.’”

In a world that insists on politicizing black women’s hair, it can be radical just to do what you want with your own hair. Luckily, Unity Hair Salon’s Nietra Hood and Ebony Jones will be on hand to do just that at Hackley Public Library. From 6-7pm on Monday, Feb. 25, Hood and Jones will demonstrate and answer all your black hair care questions.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. Photo via Angie Thomas

19. Hackley Public Library invites the public to a discussion revolving around “The Hate U Give,” a young adult novel by Angie Thomas that focuses on a 16-year-old girl who has lost two friends to gun violence: one by a gang drive-by and one by a police officer. An exploration of police brutality, justice and activism, the book debuted at number one on the New York Times best-seller list and remained there for 50 weeks. You are invited to read this award-winning book and join the library for an intergenerational discussion led by Mickey Wallace of 103.7 The Beat. The library will have extra copies of the book available for check-out. The event will take place at Hackley Public Library on Tuesday, Feb. 26 from 6-7pm. It is free and open to the public.

20. Students, instructors, staff, and community members are invited to read aloud and listen to selections of prose and poetry from the body of African American literature during the “African American Read-In Chain” on Wednesday, Feb. 27, from 2:30-4 p.m. in the Blue and Gold Room. This program is part of a national event sponsored by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English.  For more information, email Theresa.Kanoza@muskegoncc.edu.

21. Muskegon Community College will close its Black History Month with the annual Love in Action Awards Dinner on Thursday, Feb. 28, from 6-9 p.m. in Collegiate Hall. The event celebrates unsung community heroes who are nominated by their peers. Tickets for the banquet are $30 each or $180 for a table of six. The deadline for purchasing tickets is Monday, Feb. 18.  Registration is required to attend. For more information, contact Sche Cornelius by emailing sche.cornelius@muskegoncc.edu or calling (231) 777-0532.

22. Local poet Kaizen Kabir, of WriAck Radio, will host an open mic night of spoken word with a dee-jay and invited artists on Thursday, Feb. 28 from 5:30-7:30pm at the Muskegon Museum of Art. The evening, titled “The Art of Storytelling,” will feature guest poets Azizi Jasper of Detroit and Moody Black of Greenville, South Carolina. Music will be provided by Muskegon’s Eric Hildreth, otherwise known as DJ E-Hill. This event is free and open to the public.

23. The Muskegon Area District Library will be screening movies honoring the heritage, accomplishments and culture of African Americans. Movies include “Black Panther,” “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Fences,” “42,” “Selma,” “Race,” “The Help,” and more. To see an entire lineup and locations, please click here.

Know of another Black History Month event that’s not to be missed? Let us know in the comments below, or email us at muskegontimes@gmail.com and we’ll add it to the list.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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