East Lansing will see a twin set of public dedications this Friday aimed at honoring civil rights leader Dr. Robert L. Green, who will be coming to town with his family to join the celebrations. Amid the publicity surrounding these events, tips from ELi readers and research forays are uncovering some more of the history of racial integration in East Lansing’s housing and schools.
Three public events on Friday will honor Dr. Green and his family.
A press release on the events from the City of East Lansing named Green as “a civil rights leader and the first known Black person to purchase a home in East Lansing along with his wife, Lettie, in 1964.” The Greens purchased the house at 207 Bessemaur Dr. and their children attended Pinecrest Elementary School, undoubtedly marking relatively early instances of racial integration of housing and public schools in East Lansing.
An MSU faculty member, member of East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission (now the Human Rights Commission), and nationally-renowned leader in education, Dr. Robert L. Green worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, going on to a long career in education. A local committee has been working to honor Green’s local and national legacy.
According to the City’s press release on this Friday’s events, in 1964, “realtors blocked Dr. Green from buying a home” in the Glencairn neighborhood of East Lansing, “despite the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending state enforcement of restrictive housing covenants. Dr. Green filed a complaint with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission,” and ultimately bought the house on Bessemaur Drive.
This Friday morning, Sept. 24, “dedication ceremonies will be hosted for the recently renamed Dr. Robert L. Green Elementary School, 1811 Pinecrest Drive, and a new Michigan historical marker installed in the park land adjacent to Dr. Green’s former home at 207 Bessemaur Drive. Following the dedication ceremony at the school, which will begin at 9:30 a.m., participants will be invited to join in a march down to 207 Bessemaur Drive for the dedication of the historical marker at 11:30 a.m.”
Then, on Friday evening from 6:30-7:30 p.m., another special event will happen at the Wharton Center (with facial masking required). According to the press release, “The program, presented by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan and the One Book, One Community program, will feature Dr. Green’s reflections on the Civil Rights Movement. It is free and open to the public. Following the program, community members are invited to stay for a performance by the MSU College of Music Wind Symphony at 8 p.m.”
As ELi has been reporting on the effort to honor the Greens, one reader pointed us to another African American family that purchased a home here in 1961 (three years before the Greens purchased theirs).
On Monday, our online contact form brought in an anonymous tip indicating that Robert Green is not in fact “the first known Black person to purchase a house in East Lansing,” as the City’s press release said.
The tipster wrote to say that the late Dr. John W. Porter and his wife Lois Helen Porter bought a house in East Lansing in July 1961. The tipster also said it was purchased with a mortgage – a significant fact since we know from history that many Black and African American people were denied equal access to home loans through the process known as redlining.
John Porter earned his Ph.D. in education at MSU and, according to his MLive obituary, “At 26, he was the youngest person and the first black professional employed in the Michigan Department of Education.” At age 38, he became “the youngest Chief State School Officer in the nation and the first black State School Superintendent in the United States, since the days of reconstruction.” In 1979, he was named President of Eastern Michigan University.
As the person writing in to ELi noted, in a 1999 oral history, Porter said he had been “the first black person to buy a home [and to] get a mortgage for a home in East Lansing.” In that interview, Porter said that purchase occurred in 1962. The tipster named the actual date as July 1961, but did not give us the address of the house.
Thanks to librarian Angelo Moreno at the East Lansing Public Library, we were quickly able to figure out that, by 1962, the Porters lived at 1551 Snyder Rd., just east of Hagadorn Road. That location makes sense for the family, as a news clipping also submitted by the tipster indicates Porter was “a member of the board of deacons of Edgewood United Church,” near where the Porters bought their home.
With the address known to us, we were able to locate the deed and mortgage records that show the Porters bought the house at 1551 Snyder Rd. in July 1961, with the aid of a $10,400 loan from the East Lansing Savings and Loan Association. (ELi has posted images of the deed and the mortgage for our readers.)
During this period, East Lansing was rife with racist housing discrimination, as Bill Castanier reported in an in-depth history in 2015. Porter would have known this well, as he served on the Human Relations Commission and fought for housing equal rights here.
A redlining map that has been preserved by the MSU Archives shows that where the Porters bought their home was marked a “definitely declining” area of East Lansing. (It appears that Snyder Road was called Fernwood Avenue on this map.) By contrast, the Glencairn area where the Greens had tried to purchase a house and been denied was marked on the map “Best Lending Area.”
Thanks to the honoring of the Greens, we are also learning more about the history of the racial integration of schools in East Lansing.
In response to ELi’s article about the East Lansing Public School Board’s unanimous decision to rename Pinecrest Elementary School after Dr. Green, reader Lynn Borenius Brown posted at our Facebook page, “I think this is wonderful! I just want to note that I started at Red Cedar [elementary] school in 1957 – first grade. My best friend was Juanita Stafford. Her father was Dr. William Stafford. He was on the faculty at Michigan State University in food science.”
She continued, “they were a black family. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it because I didn’t realize that racism existed. They lived in faculty housing near the school.” Brown added that, in her recollection, “there were students from all over the world” at Red Cedar Elementary at the time, “but I do not remember any other black students. Juanita’s family and I attended University Lutheran Church when it was in downtown East Lansing.”
Local leaders in the effort to honor the Green family have indicated an intent to try to bring together these elements of East Lansing’s history, including civil rights leadership, racism, and barrier-breaking.
Note: An updated press release from the City, released this afternoon, refers to Dr. Green as “the first black person to purchase a home in the community through the use of a realtor using U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 executive order mandating an end to housing discrimination.”