All month long, the Grand Rapids Historical Society and I will be sharing Black History facts that have taken place right here in Grand Rapids.

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If you missed the last one, you can learn about Dr. Patricia Pulliam, an educator, publisher of the Grand Rapids Times, and co-Founder of the Giant Awards.

Today's Blackity Black History Fact is all about Dr. Ella Mary Sims, a social justice warrior, community activist, and the first woman of color columnist for the Grand Rapids Times.

Grand Rapids Historical Society
Grand Rapids Historical Society

The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Ella Wesley was born on Christmas Eve in 1923 in a sharecropper’s cabin near Sumner, Mississippi. She went on to high school in Helen, Arkansas.

After suffering a series of personal losses like losing her firstborn son and then later her first husband, she sank into a major depression. Her physician encouraged her to take a vacation, so she went to visit her cousin in Grand Rapids. In March of 1946, Ella relocated here with her infant son, Jimmy.

After moving to Grand Rapids, she met Clyde Sims at an American Legion Hall in 1947. The couple married and had nine more children. Upon arrival, she noticed the plight of the city, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work in the community.

Ella became active in her church, True Light Baptist, and her children’s schools. She raised not only her children but also the children of the neighborhood, making her a beloved mother and mentor to many. 

To stay close to her kids, Ella joined the parent-teacher associations at their schools. In 1950, Ella started her community work at Sheldon School PTA. Later, she was the vice president and president of Campau Park PTA as well as an influential member of the South High School PTA and their action council. 

Dedicated to making a difference, Ella committed to causes that would directly uplift the Black community here in Grand Rapids. Her involvement in the Office of Economic Opportunity gave her a platform to combat social issues like poverty and unemployment. She became one of the first urban agents of the Community Action Program, helping to facilitate initiatives like On Job Training that provided training and employment opportunities to those seeking jobs.

Ensuring Affordable Housing for All has been a passion that Ella championed. Helping guide the City of Grand Rapids, she fought for federal funds to build Campau Commons, the 1st affordable housing in Grand Rapids.

In the 1960s, Ella was heavily involved at the Sheldon Complex as manager. She was able to provide countless neighborhood Community Action Programs like daycare and latchkey, adult literacy classes, and family development workshops. The complex was also a community refuge, where many students came for a safe space to discuss issues in an open environment. 

Committed to the future of the youth, Sims ran for GRPS School Board in 1971. She was active with a number of organizations including the NAACP,  the Family Outreach Center, Dwelling Place, the Salvation Army, and the Michigan League of Human Services. Dr. Sims was a founding member of the Grand Rapids YWCA Women’s Resource Center in 1973. 

She broke ground as the first woman of color to be a columnist for The Grand Rapids Press in the 1970s. Her weekly column was called “It Seems To Me” where she became a voice, sharing her perspective on current issues.

When her children were young adults, Sims went to college and earned her bachelor’s degree at Aquinas College in 1975. She served as the college’s director of minority student affairs where she supported the first group of 125 Black students to integrate the college. Integral to the program’s success in retaining the remaining students she organized cars so the students could get off campus on the weekends to attend church and socialize and also helped them connect with Black alumni mentors. 

Dr. Ella Sims received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Aquinas College in 2001.

A longtime member of the Salvation Army's advisory board, Sims was instrumental in fundraising and planning for the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center.

In addition to her many honors, at the 2005 Giants Awards, Dr. Sims received the ceremony’s highest honor, the Giant Among Giants award. At the age of 89, Dr. Ella May Sims passed away on January 23rd, 2013. Today, the Dwelling Place recognized Dr. Sims with a mural, located at 21 Weston St. SE. 

We extend our gratitude to our ancestor Dr. Ella Mary Sims for her pure spirit, love, and care she gave to the people here in our city. Her tireless service did more than make a difference in the community at large. She made a genuine impact directly on so many people’s lives here in Grand Rapids as she truly made them feel like family. 

LOOK: Here are the biggest HBCUs in America

More than 100 historically Black colleges and universities are designated by the U.S. Department of Education, meeting the definition of a school "established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans."

StudySoup compiled the 20 largest historically Black colleges and universities in the nation, based on 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Each HBCU on this list is a four-year institution, and the schools are ranked by the total student enrollment.

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