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Collection Tier:
Tier 3

Video and Audio ➔ Oral History, Ellen James

For the Changing America exhibit, local community leaders were asked to respond to the question: How do you see the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington in Grand Rapids today?
Digital Audio
Changing America (May 25 – October 13 2019)

Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963, examines the relationship between two great people’s movements, which both grew out of decades of bold actions, resistance, organization, and vision. One hundred years separate them, yet they are linked in a larger story of liberty and the American experience – one that has had a profound impact on the generations that followed. 

The GRPM added artifacts and stories to the exhibition to give it an additional local perspective. In addition to artifacts from the GRPM Collections, many artifacts on display are on loan from the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives. Local stories are told through the eyes of our community in the form of oral histories and a place for visitors to share their own stories.

Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963 was created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History in collaboration with the American Library Association Public Programs Office. The exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Ellen James
During the 1960’s, Ellen James worked to eliminate racism through her leadership in her Young Women Committed to Action group (YWCA). Later, she worked in the Equal Opportunity Department for the City of Grand Rapids for 30 years. James was a founding member of the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees on which she served for 25 years. She was first elected to the board in 1991 and was reelected serving four terms. She was also a founding member of the Coalition for Representative Government which sought persons of color in particular to run for nonpartisan offices. This group was very successful in getting elections to the City Commission, School Board, and Judicial positions.

James was also a part of many other Grand Rapids boards including the Community Relations Commission of the City of Grand Rapids, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Executive Board, Grand Rapids Police Chief’s Advisory Board, and the YWCA Board of Directors, the YMCA Board of Directors, Project Rehab, Member of the Black Elected Officials, and the Porter Hills Foundation Board. She is also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

In addition to numerous awards, James has also been honored by Grand Rapids Magazine as one of its 10 leaders with a mission. She was also the first recipient of the Nelson Mandela Presidential Award from the National Organization of Law Enforcement Executives, Michigan Women’s Foundation Woman of Courage Award, Legacy of African American Women Elected Officials, United Methodist Community House Triumph Award, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Theology from Midwest Theological University in 2017, and a Giant Among Giants Award in 2018.