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Historical archives reveal Michigan man's hidden story with Louisville ties

John Stubbs is a name you won't find in your history books. But maybe he should be. Thanks to a chance meeting, an intriguing part of his story is now being told.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — On Washington Street SE, smack dab in between Lafayette and Jefferson avenues is an unassuming building where many tales of Grand Rapids are stored. Inside the Community Archives and Research Center, you'll find row after row of shelves stacked high with history.

It could be an overwhelming sight for most people. But Grand Rapids Chief of Police Eric Winstrom has a certain level of comfort in a room like this.

"In my time as an attorney for the Chicago Police Department, I did a lot of projects involving personnel files. And it's my experience that sometimes, especially those older personnel files, hold a lot of things that can be of interest to family members," he said.

Chief Winstrom recently met someone whose curiosity lent itself to Winstrom's research skills.

"It was a chance happening that I met Chief Winstrom through a friend of a friend. And I was like, hey, the chief of police! Let's go straight to the top and ask this guy if he knows about my dad," said Megan Stubbs.

Megan's father, John Stubbs, passed away when she was only 12 years old. Today she carries wonderful memories of traveling to her dad's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky as a child. They would visit family and attend the Kentucky Derby.

Credit: Provided
Megan and John Stubbs

Stubbs previously served in the U.S. Army and as an officer on the Grand Rapids Police Department. But by the time Megan was born, his policing days were long over. This left her yearning to know more about her dad's life as an officer, and the meeting with Chief Winstrom gave her that chance.

"I just thought it was a would be a great opportunity to check out the archives and see if maybe there was something I could dig up that would be of interest to her," Winstrom said.

Information on Stubbs was indeed available in a locked part of the archives, where personnel files are stored. They turned up a picture of Officer Stubbs in his uniform among other records.

"There was so much in the file. There were letters of commendation in the file, and just seeing the different places he lived in the city, it was just so fascinating, because these are things I would never have known," Megan said.

But one thing in the file stuck out to Chief Winstrom.

"I saw an envelope which was sealed and had a statement right on there dated 1953 and only to be opened by the authority of the chief of police" Winstrom said.

Because of Winstrom's experience combing through old records, he said this might often indicate something that is shameful to an officer, shameful to the department, or something someone was trying to hide from the public.

"To be honest, I was thinking oh boy, if I open this, it could be something embarrassing," he said.

But what was inside that envelope, sealed decades ago from the public's view, was a set of records and newspaper clippings that are anything but embarrassing, at least from today's point of view.

"This Army veteran was arrested for being Black in a white-only park in Louisville, Kentucky, and trying to play tennis. That was the big scandal that was in this in this envelope," Winstrom said.

One of the newspaper clippings details how Stubbs went to Louisville's Triangle Park in 1948 to find someone to play tennis with when he was ordered to leave, and then arrested for disorderly conduct when he wouldn't leave. Stubbs said when he was overseas with the Army, he played wherever he wanted to and he assumed he could do the same in his home city.

"That he stood up for himself, and he was really willing to go to court and willing to go and give a statement to the paper that he shouldn't have been arrested, in 1948 Kentucky, takes a lot of courage," Chief Winstrom said.

Another clipping shows that shortly after the arrest, a group of people petitioned the mayor to end segregation in recreational areas in Louisville.

Chief Winstrom believes if Stubbs were alive today, he would be a civil rights icon and that he's also proud of the work Stubbs did as a Grand Rapids police officer.

Credit: Provided
John Stubbs was a Grand Rapids police officer from 1953 to 1966.

As for Megan she says this discovery has given her a chance to ponder what her dad might think of the state of race relations in America today.

"I think he would be shocked at all the progress we've made from the 50s to where we are now. And also, I think he'd say we'd have a lot longer way to go. I don't think that anyone thinks that we're in the final iteration of what society is going to look like, and I think we're always striving to be that more perfect union," she said.

"I think we're always working towards progress, and we're going to have stumblings and mistakes along the way. But I think he would be heartened with where we are and also there to keep us to the fire and say, 'keep improving.'"

If you'd like to dig up some Grand Rapids history of your own, the city archives can help you do that. You can request records or schedule a research appointment on their website.

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