Author of mayor’s book of the year to speak at GVSU

GVL / Courtesy - Todd Robinson
Author Todd Robinson

GVL / Courtesy – Todd Robinson Author Todd Robinson

Jordan Schulte

Grand Rapids, like many larger cities in the Midwest, has gone through civil rights movements that aren’t as widely talked or taught about.

Todd E. Robinson, a professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, wrote a book about the civil rights era in Grand Rapids that has been chosen as Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ book of the year. Robinson will visit Grand Valley State University on March 24 to discuss his book at the seventh annual Local History Roundtable.

Robinson will give the keynote address as well as facilitate a panel discussion called “Race and the West Michigan City.”

His book, “A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” studies school integration and other civil rights era struggles as they unfolded in Grand Rapids. While Robinson is not from Grand Rapids, he gathered diary entries, newspaper articles and documents published by local organizations to paint a picture of black Grand Rapidians after World War II.

Bliss said in a February speech that the book “helps us learn from our past and appreciate the context of our current state.”

The event is organized by the Kutsche Office of Local History, a department of the university that seeks to give voice to diverse communities through history.

Melanie Shell-Weiss, the office’s director, says Robinson’s book is one of two significant historical accounts of the civil rights struggle in Grand Rapids. The other, a 2006 novel by Randal Jelks, deals with the period between 1850 and 1954.

Robinson’s book picks up chronologically where Jelks left off.

“His interest in Grand Rapids really came about because he thought objectively, as a scholar, that Grand Rapids is a really interesting place,” Shell-Weiss said. “He thought Michigan has an important civil rights story to tell.”

Shell-Weiss said Robinson was invited to speak at GVSU months before he received the book of the year award. She said that his newly-heightened profile has in turn heightened the event’s profile.

“That was just a serendipitous thing,” Shell-Weiss said. “Now we’re getting all this attention from the city.”

There are several panels planned for the day-long event, including a discussion on the past and future of communities in West Michigan, reflections on diversity and belonging and a discussion led by Delia Fernandez on the Mexican and Puerto Rican experience in Grand Rapids.

Timothy Gleisner, head of the Local History Department and Special Collections at the Grand Rapids Public Library, will give the closing address.

The third annual Gordon Olson award will also be presented in recognition of a person’s contribution to the history of diverse communities.

“I think there’s a lot of untold history in West Michigan that needs more attention,” Shell-Weiss said.

Shell-Weiss says they choose a different theme each year to help accomplish that goal.

“We’re not just interested in the past, we think it really matters in the here-and-now and in the future,” she said. “We use the past to inform our future.”

There is a $25 registration fee for the event, which is waived for students. The event begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included. For more information and to register for the event, visit