GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Most elementary students in Grand Rapids could probably tell you the story of Rosa Parks but fewer know the story of Dr. Emmett Bolden. Bolden was a dentist in Grand Rapids who challenged segregation laws back in the 1920s and helped to change the course of history.
In the early 20th century, theater was rising in popularity and became a pillar of the American social scene. People were able to see silent films, plays, musicals and movies called “talkies” but often only certain patrons were allowed the best view.
“Even though Michigan had a civil rights law on the books since, I believe, the 1890s, it really wasn’t enforced. Businesses like theaters had a regular practice of only allowing Black patrons to sit in the very worst seats up in the balcony,” said Alex Forist, the chief curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
In December 1925, Dr. Emmett Bolden, one of the first Black dentists in the area, attempted to see a show with friends at Keith’s Theater in downtown Grand Rapids. The theater was on Lyon Street between Monroe Avenue and Ottawa Avenue.
“He and a friend went to the theater. They tried to buy a seat on the main floor. They were refused and told they could only sit in the balcony and, of course, the next people in line behind them were white and the theater operator sold them seats on the main floor,” Forist said.
Bolden then teamed up with the NAACP of greater Grand Rapids and Attorney Oliver Green, the first Black man to join the Grand Rapids Bar Association, to file suit against the theater. Bolden and Green were friends who went to high school together.
In the first trial, they lost. The trial court ruled that private businesses could refuse service to anyone they chose. After they appealed, taking the case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, the first ruling was overturned in 1927. The Supreme Court justices ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were unconstitutional, setting a precedent for all social spaces in the state.
Green and the NAACP tried at least two or three similar cases as tests before trying Bolden’s case. Bolden was intentionally chosen as the martyr whose case could be taken to the Supreme Court if necessary.
“Dr. Bolden was specifically chosen in this case because he was a known quantity. He grew up in this town. He went to South High School. He was an athlete. He went to the University of Michigan, got his doctorate in dentistry, came back to Grand Rapids and started his practice,” Forist said. “Basically he was someone who was well known in Grand Rapids with an unimpeachable character and because he was working with the NAACP. One of the things they knew is if the person had any sort of skeletons in their closet, that’s what the opposing attorneys and the press would make the whole trial about.”
Despite the magnitude of the case, no local newspapers or publications covered the story. Forist says there was only coverage from national Black publications, like the Chicago Defender, which could explain why the story is less well known.
“People don’t want to think about the racist history in Grand Rapids and they don’t want to confront it. Rosa Parks, that happened in the South. That’s far away. We all know there was racism in the South. Even at the time, people in Grand Rapids didn’t want to confront that,” he added.
In 1995, the State Bar of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Bar Association placed a plaque near the Old Kent Bank Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids commemorating the work of Green, Bolden and the major civil rights decision. In recent years, the buildings were refaced and the plaque was removed and sent to Ferris State University, according to current staff at the Fifth Third Bank Center that stands in the theater’s place.
An account of Bolden’s story can also be found at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
“It’s an important milestone, one you can look back on with a little bit of hope and pride and sort of remember the important steps and sacrifices that people had to take to get us further down the path to where we are today,” Forist said.