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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Momentum builds for a new African-American museum in Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of George Bayard
George Bayard, executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives.

February is a busy time for George Bayard. He’s a collector and a keeper of black history, and this is the one month he’s in high demand in Grand Rapids.

I met him this past weekend in a large, noisy hallway during an ethnic festival at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. He stood in front of a table full of his own collected pieces of black history.

Some pieces he collected during the 25 years he ran his own art gallery in Grand Rapids. Some were just left for him.

“I’d come in some days,” he says, “and there’d be something just sitting on a step.”

Bayard looks across his table, and points out to me that there are museums and centers all over Michigan to celebrate black history.

There’s the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

There’s the IdlewildHistoric Cultural Center, and  the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, and the Black Arts & Cultural Center in Kalamazoo.

"The first reason is because we need one," George Bayard says of the plans for a new museum. "And the second reason is because we have a wealth of talent and history to be told here in Grand Rapids."

And yet, in Michigan’s second-largest city, there is no museum or institution focused on black history.

Not yet.

Bayard is now dedicated to building one.

“The first reason is because we need one,” he says of the plans for a new museum. “And the second reason is because we have a wealth of talent and history to be told here in Grand Rapids.”

Bayard is executive director of the group working to build the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives. They use the acronym GRAAMA, a nod to the role played by grandmothers in passing down a history that hasn’t always been included in the official documents.

“Our museum is going to be focused on local history,” Bayard says. “There are a lot of famous people who came from Grand Rapids, African Americans who’ve made an impact locally as well as nationally. And that’s the story that we’re going to concentrate on.”

Famous people like FloydMayweather or Al Green, who grew up in Grand Rapids.

Or the story of Grand Rapids’ first African American mayor, Lyman Parks, who became mayor two years before Detroit elected Coleman Young to be its first black mayor.

Credit courtesy George Bayard

“Not only are there famous people,” Bayard says, “but there are even more everyday people who made impacts in this community. And that’s probably the most important story.”

Those everyday stories are being collected now in oral histories that will live on in the archives of the new museum.

Bayard says after years of people hoping this would happen, he believes the museum can open late this year or early in 2017.

There’s enough money already in place for a start. But Bayard says, of course, they’ll be looking for more donations to keep things going.

And soon, maybe Bayard won’t just be busy in February. He’ll be among many at the new museum telling the stories of black Grand Rapidians year-round.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.