In 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 11063, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in the sale, leasing, rental, or other disposition of properties and facilities owned or operated by the federal government or provided with federal funds. The goal was to push back against redlining – the practice of discriminating against people on the basis of race or ethnicity by denying them equal access to housing opportunities.
But even after that order was signed, Robert L. Green, an associate professor of education at Michigan State University, found himself being denied a chance to buy the house at 341 Southlawn Ave., in East Lansing. According to Green, the house was offered to white people but repeatedly refused to him.
Green did not take no for an answer. Referring to Kennedy’s order, in March 1964 Green made a complaint to the Federal Housing Administration office in Grand Rapids. While he did not ultimately purchase the house on Southlawn Ave., Green did break longstanding housing discrimination barriers here when he bought a house at 207 Bessemaur Drive, in what is now the Northern Meadows neighborhood of East Lansing, within the Pinecrest Elementary boundaries. His children are believed to be among the first to integrate East Lansing Public Schools.
Nearly 60 years later, an ad hoc team consisting of the City’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator Elaine Hardy, Parks & Rec Advisory Commissioner Adam DeLay, City Council Member Ron Bacon, and Human Rights Commissioner Karen Hoene are working to formulate proposals to honor Green’s efforts.
The group is hoping to have historical markers placed at 207 Bessemaur Drive – a move the current owners are said to be happy to support – and in the park across the street from the house.
“Adam DeLay had the idea of placing a historic marker on the home at 207 Bessemaur when he learned about the significant national victory that Dr. Green won in challenging the redlining that was happening to Black people,” Hardy explains.
“There was a group of us who understood how significant and historic this particular landmark decision was, and we wanted to find some way to memorialize it and to talk about redlining in East Lansing in a way that was educational so that our community could understand.”
Currently, the team is completing the application for the approval of a State Historic Marker, which would tell the story of redlining in East Lansing and the significance of Green’s efforts and work. Once state recognition is achieved, the group is planning on working to secure a national form of recognition as well.
The recognition team is also planning to propose changing Pinecrest Elementary School’s name to honor Green and his family. For this to happen, the ELPS School Board would have to approve the name-change proposal.
“We thought that the naming of the school would be a fitting piece to the recognition of somebody who has significant ties to East Lansing and who is such a great national civil rights hero,” Hardy said.
As of now, the team has taken the proposals to the Human Rights Commission and the Arts Commission in addition to sharing the proposals with various members of the community. On Wednesday, April 21, the idea will be brought to East Lansing’s Parks & Rec Advisory Committee.
So far, the feedback has been positive and supportive. But for the plans to come to fruition, they must receive official approvals.
The team is hoping for the State Historic Marker and the school’s name change to come about in 2021, and they are hoping to receive the national recognition in 2022.
In 2018, East Lansing High School student Alex Hosey brought the issue of the City’s history of racist housing discrimination to the fore, and his efforts led to the City Council issuing a formal recognition and apology for that history. Hosey’s efforts also led to a public discussion on race and racism in East Lansing. (Disclosure: Hosey later became a reporter for ELi.)
Today, the group working on recognizing Robert Green believes that these changes will appropriately honor Green’s legacy as having worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the Education Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and having been one of the first Black faculty members at MSU as the Director of the Department of Urban Development. Green also worked with the East Lansing Human Rights Commission and on civil rights related issues on MSU’s campus.
The group also hopes these changes will stimulate conversation about how far East Lansing has come, but also how much further it must go.
“I’m hoping that the community will understand that most of the nation has had a very painful past with race and racial discrimination, particularly racial discrimination around housing and education,” Hardy said.
“When we understand that painful history and can put it into context, we can do something about it. I feel that we need to have more of [these conversations] around this issue of our very racialized society and how we all are born into this structure of racism, and we are all, unwittingly, participants in it,” she said. “When we start talking about those structures, and the harm that they have done to certain segments of our community, we can become the society that we believe that we are, that we all want to be.”
Note: This article has been corrected to indicate that 207 Bessemaur is in the Northern Meadows neighborhood, not the Pinecrest neighborhood as originally stated.