The Rapidian

Labor historian and history teacher Michael Johnston honored with Baxter Award

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Labor historian Michael Johnston was honored with the 2010 Baxter Award by the Grand Rapids Historical Society

Labor historian Michael Johnston was honored with the 2010 Baxter Award by the Grand Rapids Historical Society

Michael Johnston, well-known local labor historian and popular history teacher at Kenowa Hills Public Schools, has been awarded the Albert E. Baxter Award for 2010 from the Grand Rapids Historical Society.

The prestigious award is proudly presented every year to honor persons who have made significant contributions to the preservation and interpretation of Grand River Valley. It is named after the late Albert Baxter, author of the comprehensive book "History of the City of Grand Rapids" published in 1890. 

Johnston, the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Labor Heritage Society of West Michigan, has long held a deep passion and commitment to social justice. During his twenties, he took time off from his college studies at Grand Valley State University to be a campaign boycott worker for legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union in Grand Rapids and later in California.

He became very involved in the "Grand Valley Labor News,"  the official periodical of the Kent/Ionia AFL-CIO, in 1978 when he was named its assistant editor. He was promoted to editor in 1981 and then senior editor, a position he still retains today.

In recent years, the longtime history teacher played a leadership role in establishing the Spirit of Solidarity National Labor Monument, a rare tribute to the labor movement that's  located in front of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids. Dedicated in 2007, this nine-foot-tall monument of three bronze figures commemorates the historic 1911 Furniture Workers Strike in Grand Rapids that dramatically changed the city's economic and political structures for decades.

The monument represents a fitting culmination of Johnston's earlier efforts from 1989 to 1994 when he was a research consultant for the much-studied Furniture City Exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. His research and collection of artifacts for the museum's largest exhibit documented this brutal strike that brought much of the city to a standstill throughout the summer of 1911 and affected more than 5,000 workers and 60 factories.

During his research of the historic furniture strike, Johnston discovered two priceless hand-painted silk trade union banners used during the life-changing strike that became the centerpiece of the comprehensive Furniture City Exhibit in downtown Grand Rapids.

As an activist, researcher, radio host, and writer, Johnston remains a popular guest speaker and workshop leader on labor, radical, and social history of Grand Rapids. Among his presentations have been those to the UAW Local Union Press Association, Michigan State AFL-CIO, Michigan Historical Society, and the Grand Rapids Historical Society.

Since 1980, the Baxter Award has been presented at the annual banquet meeting of the Grand Rapids Historical Society each May.  Baxter's 840-page book is not the first historical account of Grand Rapids, but the revered author's dedication to accuracy and rich detail from long ago set the high standard for every city historian that followed in his footsteps.


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