A nearly-forgotten Grand Rapids dentist spent years battling the system to kill segregation in the music scene for good.
From The Crane Wives to La Dispute, Grand Rapids has one of the strongest music communities in the state of Michigan. But history has long failed to acknowledge Dr. Emmet M. Bolden’s years-long battle against racist judges and corporations to open the city’s largest venues to the entire community.
Written by Kay VanAntwerpen (Kay@Kreisaumedia.com)
Sponsored by Brenden Stark and Stark Real Estate Group (BrendenStark@outlook.com).
December 1925 was aggressive in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dangerous ice overtook the brick roads and lashes of snow gave the wind teeth. Dr. Emmet M. Bolden and a couple of friends sought reprieve at Keith’s Theater on Lyon Street, where a Vaudeville show was playing. They sprung for floor-level tickets.
The white ticket vendor, however, denied entry to Dr. Bolden and his friends. You see, they were black men and at the time, the front floor was restricted — “whites only.” As if it would somehow resolve the problem, the vendor instead offered to seat the group on the upper balcony, at the back of the theater. These seats were without debate, the worst seats in the house.
For context, Keith’s Theatre wasn’t just any tiny dive bar with a stage and microphone. The 1,900 seat venue was one of the most prestigious performance halls in Grand Rapids at the time. Designed by architect Lee DeCamp, the lobby and executive side booths could be moderately described as “flamboyant.”The proscenium (the arch through which the audience views the actors) was much larger than those in the average theater, and was rigged with expensive lighting that made the stage-viewing experience one-of-a-kind.
Despite civil rights laws meant to protect against this form of segregation, entertainment broker Walter Norris, who managed Keith’s Theatre at the time, enforced these hardline segregationist policies. But he was far from the only venue manager in Grand Rapids who got away with such wanton racism.
At the time, most venues in Grand Rapids sidestepped civil rights laws thanks to inconsistent legal interpretations. To make matters worse, minorities in Grand Rapids lived under the thumb of Kent County prosecutor Earl W. Munshaw who gleefully and intentionally turned a blind eye to crimes against them.
But Dr. Bolden wasn’t the kind of man to take this injustice lying down, however. He and his friends declined the back-house seats and left. The ticket vendor most likely assumed he had seen the last of Dr. Bolden — but if that was the case, he was dead wrong.
Two days later, the doctor returned armed with a $1,000 lawsuit (the equivalent of around $16,500 in 2022) and the full support of the Grand Rapids NAACP.
Now, technically Dr. Bolden shouldn’t have had to file a civil suit. This sort of segregation was illegal in Michigan, and if prosecutor Munshaw had any interest in doing his job, criminal charges would have been levied against Norris and his venue. But as we mentioned — Munshaw’s bigotry meant that he had no interest in fulfilling the duties of his office in cases where the black community was concerned. And without a prosecutor to bring the charges, Keith’s Theater was safe from legal rammifications.
But civil charges weren’t necessarily a sneaky loophole. There was a lot of risk involved for Dr. Bolden and those supporting him. They were essentially sailing the legal unknown and the courts of Michigan were not much more reliable than Munshaw himself when it came to civil rights protections.
The Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society writes that the federal government had given up defending the civil rights of former slaves and their children. The Federal Supreme Court had declared Congress unable to issue laws prohibiting segregation, instead placing that decision in the hands of the states. And in Michigan, like everywhere else — those hands were, very, very white.
While Many states did design their own civil rights acts, they were often insufficient or even racist in their own right. In Michigan, white legal professionals decided the civil rights of black Americans were more than adequately satisfied with “separate but equal” policies.
Dr. Bolden’s lawsuit was first handled by The Superior Court of Grand Rapids. He lost thanks to a series of conclusions by Judge Leonard Verdier.
In his ruling, Verdier made the following (racist) claims:
- The upper seats at Keith’s Theater were just as comfortable as the seats on the first floor.
- If a white man had been denied a seat on the first floor because of his race, no complaint would have been made and there would be no cause of action to claim damages.
- Because no hypothetical white man would had hypothetically complained, to provide damages to Dr. Bolden would be to give him more rights than white men — something Verdier would not stand for.
You wouldn’t think a man this old would be flexible enough for Olympic level mental gymnastics. (Image borrowed from historicimages.com).
Judge Verdier was hardly impartial, and that his racism played a role in the verdict is not up for debate. Earlier that year, he’d sentenced a black man to jail for life with an armed robbery conviction, writing: “if you were in some other states, you would have been lynched.”
Dr. Bolden and the NAACP appealed the case to the Michigan Supreme Court. Keith Theater, operating under the legal title Grand Rapids Operating corporation — hired lawyer to delay the trial and drain Dr. Bolden’s financial resources.
They failed, thanks to legendary badass and presumable namesake of the green olive — Oliver Green.
Green, a World War I veteran originally from New York, was a contemporary civil rights powerhouse in West Michigan and the first black member of the Grand Rapids Bar Association.
Green’s first argument in front of the Michigan Supreme Court painted a grim picture for the Grand Rapids Operating Company — they were about to lose. A loss in this case would spread its arms wider than Keith’s Theatre or even Grand Rapids — it would make segregation illegal in all Michigan venues.
As a last ditch effort, The Grand Rapids Operating Company asked their legal firm to offer Green a job. A bribe. A term of acceptance was that he would no longer represent Dr. Bolden.
Green denied them.
The Michigan Supreme Court smacked Verdier’s decision into dust and cited Keith’s Theatre with a violation of the Michigan Civil Rights Act.
Supreme Court Justice Nelson Sharpe aggressively contradicted Verdier, writing: “The public safety and general welfare of our people demand that, when the public is invited to attend places of public accommodation, amusement and recreation, there shall be no discrimination among those permitted to enter because of race, creed or color.”
A settlement of $200 was reach, and more importantly this case led legal scholars to begin interpreting Michigan’s civil rights act in a much friendlier manner.
Though Dr. Bolden won a strategic battle against segregation, the war rages in America still to this day
Judge Verdier remained on the bench until 1932, when he was elevated to the circuit court. He died in Tucson, Arizona in 1962.
In 1995, the Grand Rapids Bar Association and the Michigan Bar Association placed a plaque in Dr. Bolden’s honor on Lyon street’s Fifth Third building. But for the most part, Bolden’s story has disappeared into history.
“Except for the plaque and a handful of references in history books, you won’t find many mentions of Bolden’s name outside of legal documents,” The Grand Rapids Press’ Chris Knape wrote in a 2009 piece.
It’s easy to find photos, records, and an obituary for Judge Verdier. Many pieces have been written on Keith Theater as an iconic venue. But only a single photograph of Mr. Green turned up, and none of Dr. Bolden.
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About the Author
Kaya-Jean (“Kay”) VanAntwerpen is a transgender journalist, musician, and activist from Grand Rapids, Michigan. They studied journalism at Grand Valley State University, and have written for Entrepreneur Magazine, Advance Publications, MLive Media Group, and countless other local and international publications. You can find some of their most recent work here:
- They were a contributing editor to Christopher Andrus’s non-fiction book on business, ethics, and philanthropy — Dough Nation: How Pizza and Small Business Can Change America.
- They write lyrics and play bass in pop-rock band Chasing the Sky — their most recent album, King of the Losing Side, is available at chasingthesky.bandcamp.com.
- Kay also runs a couple of small-time webzines about a number of odd topics. If you’re interested in working with them, you can reach out at Kay@KreisauMedia.com.