Meet the Women of West Michigan Who Made History
(1874 – 1904)
First African-American School Teacher in Grand Rapids
“Miss Beverly’s Ambition” titles an article in The Grand Rapids Herald in January 1899. Hattie Beverly was “the first woman of colored blood to aspire to an appointment in the city schools as a teacher.”
The second daughter of a Dutch mother, Minnie Ruesink, and African American father, John Beverly, Hattie was born in Milwaukee in 1874, before her parents moved their young family to Grand Rapids. At times her father, John Beverly, was described as a well-to-do colored man; but the family was so destitute that when three of their children died in the early 1890s, they could not afford grave markers.
Nevertheless, after working part-time so she could attend high school part-time, Beverly graduated in 1895 at age 21. Her yearbook notes her lovely voice: “A prima donna, Hattie Beverly will sing, Till all the music world doth with her praises ring.” After graduation, Beverly was admitted to the teacher-training school of the Grand Rapids Public Schools and finished in 1899.
Although she was asked to substitute teach even while she was in training, there came a problem when she sought a job. A January 1899 article in The Grand Rapids Herald describes a school board meeting in which some members quietly raised questions about a black woman teaching white children. When they were too reticent to argue for Beverly, Mr. F. J. Bilitho “expressed himself freely: ‘I am in favor of employing Miss Beverly.
She has shown herself to be a young lady of ambition and push to get as far as she has, and I can see no justifiable reason why she should be turned down.’”
After teaching for two years, she resigned, married, and gave birth to one daughter before dying at age 30 of tuberculosis. Beverly left behind a legacy of ambition, persistence, and accomplishment.