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The first black man in Kent County to buy land was a political and religious trailblazer

In the mid 1840s, William J. Hardy, a 23-year-old African American man, purchased 95 acres of farmland in Gaines Township, just a few miles southeast of Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Achieving a historic first is rarely easy. But, achieving several historical firsts all within the same family is nothing short of remarkable. 

William J. Hardy and his family's contributions to West Michigan should be acknowledged, but their story is often only shared within a small circle--until today.

A small part of his story can be found while walking through an exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum entitled "Newcomers: The People of the Place." The small display explained that in the mid-1840s, Hardy was the first African American man to purchase land in Kent County and said that he sold some of that land to a second African American man.

But there is much more to Hardy's story.

Credit: Courtesy of George Bayard / GRAAMA
Undated sketch of William J. Hardy. (Source: Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives at the Grand Rapids Public Library)

Migration to Michigan

Hardy was born on Jan. 9, 1823 in the New York/New Jersey area, according to George Bayard, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives.

Hardy's parents migrated to Michigan in 1827, the year the state of New York abolished slavery. Bayard said Hardy's family originally settled in Washtenaw County. His father died shortly after their move, Bayard explained. After his father's death Hardy's mother raised him alone. When Hardy was around 14-years-old, his mother sent him to a farm in Ann Arbor, where he worked as an indentured servant, eventually earning enough money to become an independent farmer. 

Buying Farmland in Gaines Township

In 1844, Hardy married a free woman of color named Eliza Watts. By 1846, the two earned enough money to purchase two tracts of land, totaling 95 acres, in Gaines Township, just southeast of Grand Rapids. Bayard said documents revealed the land would have been at the corner of Hanna Lake Road and 68th Street, where a Chemical Bank is now located.

Hardy and his wife ended up having six children: Alice, Eugene, Asher, Lloyd, William and Mary Ellen. The family stayed in a log cabin on their property for several years and by 1850, the value of the farm was about $600. Bayard said this was slightly above average for Gaines Township farms at the time, which were valued around $580.

Sometime before 1855, Hardy sold his first farm to another black family and bought a second, 80-acre farm near his first. Bayard said it's around 68th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue. 

Credit: Courtesy of Gaines Township Offices / Historical Society and Parks & Trails Committee
1863 Land Gaines Township Land Plat.

'Adventism's First Black Family'

It isn't immediately clear when, but sometime after 1857, Hardy heard a message from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in a meeting in Caledonia. According to Adventism's First Black Family, an archive of Hardy's life by the Adventist Review, a former Methodist minister by the name of Joseph B. Frisbie held a series of meetings in the area about his newfound religion and practices. 

Frisbie baptized Hardy's wife Eliza on Oct. 5, 1857, but had not baptized Hardy at that time. Historians with the Adventist Review say it wasn't long before Hardy decided to join the group in Caledonia. He wrote a letter to Uriah Smith, the church's leader saying, “After being connected to the Free Will Baptists for a number of years, I was led to cast my lot with the Sabbath-keepers in Caledonia and never regretted that step.” 

By 1868, Bayard said Hardy was acting as treasurer, and in 1876, he was unanimously elected elder of the church. By 1878, Hardy was given full control of the church -- making the Hardys the first black family of Adventism.   

First Black Man Elected to Public Office in Michigan

When the 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1870 giving black men to the right to vote, almost immediately, Hardy became involved in politics, Bayard said. 

Despite the racial stigma of the period, in 1872, Hardy was elected Gaines Township supervisor, reportedly the first black elected official in the state of Michigan. He was the township's 13th supervisor. Bayard said Hardy was re-elected a number of times and likely handled land disputes and exchanges. 

More Firsts for the Hardy Family

The Hardy's eldest son, Eugene, was reportedly the first black man to graduate from high school in the state of Michigan -- doing so in 1877. According to Bayard's records and a history collection at the Grand Rapids Public Library, Eugene graduated from Central High School in Grand Rapids. Eugene went on to study law but became a music teacher. A second son of Hardy, William Jr., attending Battle Creek College, but the Adventist Review said he did not graduate. 

Credit: Courtesy of Gaines Township Offices / Historical Society and Parks & Trails Committee
Eugene Hardy, son of William J. Hardy, was reported the first black man to graduate high school in Michigan. He attended Central High School in Grand Rapids.

'A Man of Honor, Honesty, and Integrity'

In the early 1880s, Hardy suffered a stroke. According to Bayard's records, he sold his farmland in Gaines Township and moved to a smaller farm in Dutton to operate a horse stable. Without his leadership, by 1885, the Gaines Adventist church disbanded, according to archives from the Adventist Review. 

Credit: Courtesy of Gaines Township Offices / Historical Society and Parks & Trails Committee
1876 Gaines Township Plat Map.

On June 8, 1888, Hardy died. According to historical documents, more than 400 people attended his funeral. An obituary in the Grand Rapids Eagle newspaper, said, "[Hardy] was a man of honor, honesty and integrity and was appreciated by the community in which he lived." 

Eliza, Hardy's wife, died on Dec. 13, 1890, and according to the Adventist Review archives, the Hardys are buried in Blain Cemetery in Gaines Township. 

In 2015, Gaines Township dedicated a pond located at the township hall and Prairie Wolf Park site to Hardy. 


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