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William M. Glenn papers

Identifier: Collection 049

Scope and Contents

The bulk of the collection dates to the period, 1941 to 1986. It consists of Glenn's writings, correspondence, papers and government files, and letters to various editors, the thrust of Glenn's reform efforts are highlighted. Also included are records Glenn kept on the various organizations with which he worked. Over 1,400 slides and circa 200 photographs illustrate Glenn's life, from family picnics to protest marches and senior citizen housing. The series are: 1) Subject Files, 2) Michigan State Police: Security Investigation Squad. Glenn File, 3) Concerned Senior Citizens, 4) Community Relations Commission, 5) Urban League, 6) Young and Old United, 7) Publications, 8) Clippings, 9) Scrapbooks, 10) Photographs, 11) Slides, and Film Reels.

More recently, copies of FBI Documents on Glenn, ca. 1944-1966, have been added to the collection, obtained by Calvin College Professor Randal Jelks, under the Freedom of Information Act. The collection also includes images of national figures, such as George McGovern, probably during a 1972 President campaign visit, and the African American politician Shirley Chisholm.


  • 1903-1986


Biographical / Historical

William Melbourne Glenn was born on June 22, 1903 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father, William M. Glenn, was first a coachman, later a chauffeur for W.H. Anderson, President of Fourth National Bank. His mother was Emma Cole. William M. Glenn married Virginia Burnett in 1937.

Some of Glenn's ancestors were black, some white. As a result, Glenn learned of racial prejudice at an early age. Upon graduation from Central High School, the best job he could get was that of bellhop at the Pantlind Hotel in 1920. He worked at the Pantlind until 1941, when he obtained a job at the Hayes Manufacturing Company. Glenn was the first African American to be hired by Hayes, after the NAACP had broken the color barrier at the firm. Within a year, he was elected Shop Steward, and then joined the UAW-CIO, becoming Plant Committee Chairman. He was also elected to the Kent County Industrial Council and given the responsibility of seeing that the fair employment practices laws were working in Grand Rapids. He revealed to the State Representative of the Fair Employment Practices Commission that Blacks were not being generally employed in local industries. Not long afterwards, Blacks were working at General Motors, American Seating, and several other local plants.

In 1951 William Glenn received a leave from Hayes to visit Europe with a group of union people. In Paris, several members of the group, including Glenn, decided to accept an invitation to visit the Soviet Union. When Glenn returned to New York, his passport was taken by the Immigration Department. As a result of the attention given to his unauthorized visit to the Soviet Union, he was discharged from Hayes. Glenn filed a grievance with the State, and his case went to arbitration. He won, and was re-instated by Hayes. A group of fellow employees, however, staged a sit-down strike, and refused to work with him, and he was again fired. More arbitration ensued but he was refused unemployment compensation. His lawyers finally decided that the hysteria caused at the time by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others prevented Glenn's case from having much hope for success.

As a result Glenn began a garage building business with a friend. This firm later developed into house repair/remodeling, as well as purchasing property, fixing it up, and reselling it. Once successful in business, Glenn also turned his attention to civic causes.

Glenn began agitating for senior housing in 1950, when he published a newspaper called the Civic Reminder, which lasted less than a year. He served on the Committee on Racial Equality and was president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the NAACP. He was chairman of the Housing Committee of the Grand Rapids Urban League under Paul Phillips, and was the first labor representative on the governing board of the Family Service Agency. He also was treasurer of Planned Parenthood.

In 1971, the Western Michigan Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union chose him as its "Man of the Year" for his dedication and efforts in the causes of Civil Liberties the citation reads. Upon retirement from business, Glenn turned his attention to helping senior citizens. He was instrumental in organizing the local Concerned Senior Citizens, the XYZ Senior Citizens Center and Senior Neighbors, Inc. During his later years, he acted as an ombudsman for senior citizens, both black and white. His assistance included housing, food, medical care, or even burial expenses.


8.13 Linear Feet (11 boxes)

Language of Materials



William Melbourne Glenn (1903-1986) was a local political activist. Glenn began his activism in 1941, becoming the first African American hired at Hayes Manufacturing Company in Grand Rapids. Glenn was active in a number of organizations, including the Grand Rapids chapter of the NAACP, the Grand Rapids Urban League, the Family Service Agency, Planned Parenthood, Young and Old United, Concerned Senior Citizens, XYZ Senior Citizens Center and Senior Neighbors, Inc. In 1971, the Western Michigan Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union chose Glenn as its "Man of the Year" for his dedication and efforts in the causes of Civil Liberties.

The collection contains his writings, correspondence, papers and government files and letters to various editors. Over 1,400 slides and about 200 photographs illustrate Glenn's life, from family picnics to protest marches and senior citizen housing.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Virginia Glenn, 1986, 1987, 1990; accession numbers 1986.118; 1987.042; 2000.016

Related Materials

Moving images associated with this collection are housed in Coll. 175, the GRPL Moving Images Collection.

Processing Information

The four reels of films, three 16mm and one 8mm, that are part of this collection are physically housed with the GRPL Moving Image Collection, #175. The first is of the 1963 March on Washington, plus miscellaneous subjects, including the plane flight. The third reel is of Glenn's trip to Europe, 1951, while the fourth is a Glenn discussion about housing. The March on Washington & the Trip to Europe, appear to have been reformatted to videotape. The collection was reprocessed with the donation of additional material in January 1990. This reprocessing consisted of rearranging a number of smaller series into a single larger Subject File series, organization of the photographs by subject heading and extensive revision of the finding aid.

Finding aid for the William M. Glenn papers
August 1987
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Grand Rapids History Center Repository

Grand Rapids Public Library
111 Library Street NE
Grand Rapids Michigan 49503 USA