Sharon and her husband Emanuel recall growing up in Benton Harbor working in the surrounding fields and eating plenty of fresh produce. Sharon particularly remembers eating lots of okra and collard greens cooked with spices and pinto beans!
Back then, in the 1960s and 70s, industry was strong and jobs were plentiful in Benton Harbor and many members of the African American community moved to the town for work.
Emanuel, an avid historian, explained:
“People could come and find employment. People could put kids through college. There were no issues with hunger and homelessness,” he said. “But in the aftermath of social issues, particularly Dr. King’s assassination, you then saw ‘white flight,’ and businesses starting to go across the bridge [to St. Joseph]. With industry vanishing, the means of making a living vanished.”
Returning to Benton Harbor
40 years ago, Sharon and Emanuel moved to California, but they returned to Benton Harbor nine years ago hoping to start a teahouse. Amateur herbalists, they wanted to promote healthy living in their hometown. On their return, they were shocked to learn how food insecurity had invaded the community in their absence. They were also surprised by the lack of resources — even art — available to their neighbors.
“Coming back we saw there was no art or culture to visit or aspire to — there was no place just to come and learn,” Sharon recalled.
The couple decided they would incorporate their passion for history and art into their teahouse, but finding a building proved challenging. It took them a few years to find a good spot, but it was outside downtown, so turning it into a teahouse wasn’t possible. Instead, they decided to step away from their initial plans and fully dedicate the space to art and history. Over the last few years, they’ve slowly amassed a collection of historical artifacts — from books to records to a coveted stamp collection and even Mohammed Ali memorabilia — and created the African American History and Literature Gallery.
Their Gallery is not just a place to view pieces of history, but also a place to learn about the past in an interactive way. Children from various programs in Benton Harbor come to explore and learn history hands on. Sharon asks them to explore and choose an item that speaks to them — such as a record by a Benton Harbor musician. The group then gathers to discuss their feelings about the items they chose and what they learned. For adults, the Gallery hosts fireside chats.
“We tell people this is a tool for self-development,” Sharon explained. “We’re not necessarily interested in pushing [historical figures’] stories, but helping you develop your story.”
Seeing Hunger in Their Own Backyard
Soon after they opened the Gallery, Sharon and Emanuel began seeing the need for food right outside their doors.
Often, neighbors in need walking by the Gallery stop and knock, hoping the nonprofit has food or resources to offer. When this happens, Sharon and Emanuel rush to put something together, not wanting to tell the passerby to leave empty handed.
When they began hosting events at the Gallery, they saw hunger in a new light.
They realized many of the people coming didn’t have much food at home, and so they started providing snacks and meals — often purchased with their own money — so that they can be prepared to learn and participate.
Sharon explained that you can invite people to participate in something but, if they’re hungry, they won’t be in the best mindset to do so.
“Feed them first,” she said.
Joining the Food Bank and Whirlpool in the Fight against Hunger
When Whirlpool approached the Gallery and asked if it could house a Feel Good Fridge, Sharon and Emanuel were excited. They became a food bank partner last November so that they could participate in the program. Feel Good Fridges are provided by Whirlpool and stocked with fresh produce and other food by the food bank. As our agency partner, the Gallery is now also eligible to receive shelf-stable food.
The first day they opened their fridge and pantry to the public, few people came to their doors, even though they’d distributed flyers. But Sharon and Emanuel are firm believers that it’s not enough to just start a program and hope people come — you have to be proactive.
“You have to have innovative people behind you. You have to have people who are willing to be there building trust,” Sharon said.
The couple recruited a number of volunteers and they all went door-to-door offering food to neighbors, informing them that the Gallery had started a pantry that would be open monthly and available to them. They reached 15 families in need and hope to reach more in the coming months.
“We gave them some comfort food, nutrition drinks, cranberry juices — not all sugar,” Sharon said. “[At the food bank] we found almonds, pistachios, dried cranberries, cherries, dates. We got feedback of ‘oh that stuff that was in the bag, that was good, what was that?’ — so giving them a choice [of healthy options], not just filling the bag with chips, chips, chips.”
Passing the Mission on to the Community
For Sharon and Emanuel, running the Gallery is an important part of their mission to serve their community. They also work as property managers for a homeownership rehab project, but are otherwise semi-retired. Running the Gallery is something they do out of care for their neighbors, but they don’t want to run it forever. Their dream is to one day see the Benton Harbor community take it on.
“I can’t even imagine the potential that this place has even what we’ve reached thus far — I can’t imagine that going away,” Sharon said.
Feeding America West Michigan is proud to support the work of unique organizations like the Gallery across the service area — who merge their passion with a mission to fight hunger. Our partnership with Whirlpool and their Feel Good Fridges has fostered many new partnerships like this one, ensuring neighbors can access nourishing food when they need it most.
This story was written by Juliana Ludema, Communication and Marketing Specialist.