Five African American Women Who Have Shaped Our City

Helen J Claytor

Hele

As Grand Rapids celebrates Black History Month, we want to introduce you to five women who have played major roles in our city’s history with their outstanding achievements in the face of adversity.

Helen J. Claytor
1907-2005

Perhaps the most recognizable name on this list, Helen Claytor made history as the first black woman president of any YWCA in the country in 1949 when she was appointed the president of the Grand Rapids YWCA . She went on to become the first black woman president of the National YWCA, a position in which she served from 1967-1973. After retiring in 1974, she continued to work on behalf of civil rights and helped to found the city’s Equal Opportunity Office. A statue commemorating Claytor’s achievements and dedication to public service stands in Grand Rapids Community College’s Dr. Juan R. Olivarez Student Plaza. Read more about Claytor here.

Harriet Wood Hill
1922-2006

Harriet Wood Hill was the first African-American policewoman and first female detective of the Grand Rapids Police Department. The GRPD hired Hill as a clerk typist in 1951. Hill stood tall in the face of racism in the workplace, resolving to perform her duties no matter the cost. In 1955, she applied for a position as a police officer. In 1977, she was asked to join the detective bureau, making her the first woman in the department’s 106-year history. In 1978, she was nominated for officer of the year.

Emma Ford
1863-1937

Ford was a fierce advocate for civil rights who traveled throughout the state speaking on behalf of African Americans and women and challenging media depictions of them. She was active in women’s suffrage and a founding member of the Married Ladies Nineteenth Century Club, an organization that provided social and literary activities for local African American Women. In 1913, Governor Woodbridge Ferris asked Ford to represent the state of Michigan at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York. Read more about Ford here.

Hattie Beverly
1874-1904

The first African American teacher in Grand Rapids Public Schools, Hattie Beverly was certainly a woman to be admired. She graduated from Central High School in 1895 with an emphasis in Preparatory English. Later, in 1899 Beverly was hired to teach at Congress Elementary School. Each year at the Giants Awards and Banquet the Hattie Beverly Education Award is given to an outstanding African American educator in the Grand Rapids area.

Lillian Gill
1917-2014

Lillian Gill was a fierce entrepreneur and a dedicated volunteer. In 1953, Gill became the first black sales agent for Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel as they founded Amway. Gill began selling life insurance in 1959 and in 1982 became the first African American woman in the state to retire from selling life insurance. She served as vice president to three different presidents of local NAACP chapters. She was also one of two black woman golfers to first play at Grand Rapids Indian Trails Golf Course. Her volunteer efforts and community involvement were numerous, including acting as president of the Sunday School Congress for the District of Michigan for 32 years and helping parents of children who had dropped out of school. Her many honors include a Giant Award, which she received in 1986.

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