GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the wake of redlining and general bigotry, it took Grand Rapids’ communities of color decades to overcome obstacles and establish fair housing practices.
For years, racist policies prevented Black residents from taking advantage of the popular post-war building programs and were limited to a handful of neighborhoods — the ones with the least amount of investment, closest to industrial zones and filled with aging buildings.
That area was known as the “Black Belt.” Wealthy Street served as the northern border, with Franklin Street to the south, Fuller Avenue to the east and the Grand River to the west.
In 1959, Paul Phillips, a long-time activist and leader of the Grand Rapids Urban League, addressed the Michigan Committee on Civil Rights. He said in the years after redlining was instituted, finding housing had gotten even more difficult for Black families and made communities even more segregated.
“In 1940, the minority population of Grand Rapids lived in a comparatively integrated community with a considerable percentage of white neighbors. Today, we find block after block without a single white resident,” Phillips said. “What was at first a restriction to certain residential areas has developed into a pattern of totally segregated Negro neighborhoods.”
By the start of the 1960s, a handful of families were able to break through and establish lives outside of the Black Belt, but the boundaries otherwise still stood.
The wheels of change found momentum when a group of Black investors made a bold move, putting their own equity on the line.
THE INVESTORS & THEIR CONCEPT
The four investors, J.E. Adams, Dr. Julius Franks, Joseph Lee and Samuel Triplett, were all Black professionals. They belonged to a chapter of the Ta-Wa-Si Club, dedicated to helping Black high school students earn college scholarships and find new opportunities.
Adams and Triplett were both educators. Triplett was the first Black teacher to be hired at Grand Rapids’ South High School, while Adams went on to serve as the director of elementary schools and the director of driver’s education for Grand Rapids Public Schools. Lee was a social worker and served a stint as the president of the GR Urban League. Franks was a University of Michigan football star who studied to become a dentist and established his practice in Grand Rapids.
Together, they launched the Auburn Hills Land Developing Company, using their own money to invest in a new neighborhood, one where Black and white families could live side-by-side and thrive together.
Franks was the one who brought the idea to the group after seeing a notice in the local papers that the city was planning to sell a 20-acre plot of land on the northeast side. The developers would plat the neighborhood into 65 properties where homes could be built at an estimate between $17,000 and $20,000.
Dubbed the “Fuller-Sweet” site, the property sat between Fuller and Ball Avenues, stretching north to Knapp Street and south to Sweet Street.
The property was first put up for sale by Grand Rapids’ Sinking Fund Trustees in September. The city received three bids, including a $20,000 bid from the Auburn Hills investor group.
According to an Oct. 5, 1962, report from The Grand Rapids Press, the Auburn Hills bid was considered the only “bona fide bid.” The other two, which offered more money, came with “attached unacceptable conditions.”
However, the trustees were not satisfied with the $20,000 bid and asked for the property to be reappraised. After the appraisal, the trustees put the property up for sale again, this time setting a minimum bid at $54,250.
The investor group felt jilted by the city’s rejection and believed that the decision to relist the property was an attempt to find a different buyer and scare them away with a bigger price tag. Instead, they doubled down. When the sales window closed, the Auburn Hills investor group was the only bid, this time offering up $60,000 — well above the asking price.
On Nov. 28, 1962, the sale was unanimously approved by Sinking Fund Trustees and triggered an uproar from many members of the nearby and almost exclusively white community. Several families rushed to put their homes up for sale, believing that a nearby neighborhood with Black residents would tank their property values.
Within weeks, members of the neighborhood had organized a coalition called the White Citizens Committee. The City Commission moved its Dec. 18 meeting to Creston High School’s auditorium to accommodate an estimated 500 protesters who wanted to discuss the sale.
In his book “A City Within a City,” historian Todd Robinson said the committee’s “escalating anxiety had everything to do with race.”
“Virtually synonymous, space and race maintained an inextricable relationship throughout the post-war era,” Robinson wrote. “The metaphoric identification of ghettos, slums and suburbs comparatively functioned to represent ‘natural’ and ‘appropriate’ metropolitan spatial segregation.”
At the Dec. 18 meeting, White Citizens Committee Chairman Edward Kalin argued that the development would be a failure, not only for the white residents on the northeast side but also the Black residents looking to move out of the Black Belt.
As quoted by The Grand Rapids Press, he said: “(If the project goes ahead) one of two inevitable situations will occur. All the houses will be occupied by colored people. This, of course, is still segregation and will adversely affect adjoining property values. Secondly, if both colored and white live together in the project, the net result will be a slum area.”
City Commissioners Robert Jamo and Evangeline Lamberts did their part to try to quell concerns while also raising some of their own.
“I know it’s very hard to wait when you are so uncertain about the future,” Lamberts said, noting that the economic factors involved are “a legitimate concern.”
Lamberts stated her concern was not with the investors themselves or even the idea of Black families trying to find better housing in other areas of the city, but rather the odds that the development would be a success.
The Dec. 19 Grand Rapids Press report noted Lambert said several leaders of Grand Rapids’ Black community “do not support the project and don’t believe it will succeed” and that “some believe that if it fails it will set the Negroes back for a generation.”
Jamo raised a similar concern, estimating that “no more than 15” local Black families could afford to build in the development. He also warned concerned neighbors not to “do anything hasty.”
“You are dealing with human rights. We are walking on eggs. Bear with us,” he said.
Still, at the end of the day, the investors’ bid was the only one for the land and it was not the City Commission’s role to decide what is a good or a bad investment. After a month of delays, the City Commission was set to approve the sale.
But the investors were not in the clear just yet.
THE PARK PLAN
In January 1963, just days before the City Commission was set to vote on the sale, an attorney representing the White Citizens Committee claimed that the Fuller-Sweet site could not legally be sold because the land was supposed to be set aside as a new park.
Attorney Jack Bowie claimed the property was never removed from the city’s master park plan in 1950 and submitted documents recorded by the register of deeds office as proof. Immediately, attorneys representing the city of Grand Rapids downplayed the claims, saying the property was briefly considered but never formally added to the park plan.
Benjamin Baum, an attorney representing the four investors, was more direct with his assertion.
“I realized as well as the people who are purchasing this property, the obstacles that would lie ahead of them since they made this offer,” Baum told The Grand Rapids Press. “They, as well as I, recognize that no matter what they do to follow all the laws, somebody will raise a point to try to upset their valid transaction.”
The City Commission went ahead and approved the sale, but the investors were still months away from breaking ground.
In the months following the sale, assessors discussed the need for a new drainage system on the property. Baum called it another way for the city to stall the development, saying the property was assessed in 1959 and could easily hook up to a storm drain from the Kent Country Club property.
By this point, more Black community leaders had joined to support the investors, most notably Phillips and Alfred Cowles, the leader of the city’s Human Relations Commission. Phillips and Cowles were two of the community figures who worked closely with Lamberts and had raised some initial hesitancy about the development’s potential.
Cowles told The Grand Rapids Press that the Fuller-Sweet development had become a “symbol in the non-white quest for housing.”
“Our people are itching. The young people’s feet are hot,” he said. “We don’t have nice homes to live in like you do … and don’t remind us its our fault because it’s not.”
Shovels were still silent when Bowie finally filed his lawsuit against the city in September 1963. The lawsuit made it to the courtroom the following January. The testimony turned up some interesting evidence, uncovering a mystery that ultimately went unsolved.
The three people who served as planning director, assistant planning director and parks superintendent in 1950 all testified that the property was never formally a part of the city’s master park plan, saying it was only briefly considered and never explored.
The most interesting testimony came from the secretary of the Planning Commission. She testified that the paperwork at question, filed with the Register of Deeds in 1960, included a signature that had been clipped from documents years earlier. She claims she had “no idea” who did it.
After two days of testimony, the judge made a quick ruling in the city’s favor, arguing the plaintiff had “no cause for action.”
Regardless, with the lawsuit in the rearview mirror, developers were finally able to move forward.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Cheryl Franks, the daughter of Dr. Julius, never lived in the Auburn Hills neighborhood. The family built three homes in the neighborhood and still owns two of them but her family grew up a couple of blocks away on Emerald Avenue.
She was a young child, around 7 years old, when the development saga first started unfolding. She doesn’t remember much about it but remembers a lot about life of growing up Black in the 1960s.
“There was a lot of unhappy feelings that our family was in the neighborhood,” Franks told News 8. “(I remember) all of the name calling. I must have been called every name in the book.”
Franks was one of two Black students at nearby Kent Hills Elementary. She remembers the walks to and from school.
“When I would go to school, people would try to hit me and knock me down and call me names. I remember that. I remember specific individuals that I had big fights with. I never lost! I can tell you that,” she said with a smirk.
It wasn’t all bad. She remembers over time that the Franks family became close with several neighbors, especially the kids.
“Once we (moved in), we befriended all the people on our street with the exception of the ones that were the hardcore ‘We don’t like Blacks,’ which was fine with us because we didn’t like you either,” Franks said.
Reflecting back, Franks believes her parents tried to shelter her in many ways and said she only learned more of the details years later.
“As a 7- or 8-year-old, what do you really remember? What do your parents really tell you? Our parents really didn’t go into like, ‘The Black people and the white people are doing this and saying that’ because I don’t know if they really thought we would understand,” Franks said. “But when the story finally started to get told, I remember one day my father saying, ‘Yeah, we put a lot of sweat and equity into developing this. And we did it because we wanted to show that African Americans could live anywhere and be successful just like anybody else.’”
One of Franks’ biggest takeaways from her recollections is the sheer number of good memories.
“He just showed us all the good things, like the family picnics that they had over there, the neighborhood events, the involvement with the people over there, and just how beautiful it was,” Franks said. “We would drive through there all the time; we could ride our bikes over there. It was just beautiful. It’s a nice neighborhood.”
Barbara Law is on the other side of that story. The daughter of Evangeline Lamberts, she says her mother was miscast as a racist because of her role as a commissioner during the property sale.
“She absolutely wasn’t,” Law said bluntly, explaining that the sale was much more complicated than what was reported in the papers.
Law said her mother “was above reproach” and what some people saw as opposition was actually her mother being a diligent, hard-working public servant.
“Mayor (Stan) Davis hated her. He said the problem with Vangie is that she reads everything. You couldn’t snow her. You couldn’t trick her,” Law told News 8. “Her first rule was always do your homework, read everything. She came up through the League of Women Voters, and in those days, they were a real force. They didn’t decide, ‘We’re for this program or we’re against this program.’ They said, ‘OK, we’re going to investigate this and we’re going to look at everything and then we’re going to make up our minds.’”
She continued: “So, if you want to make allegations about my mom, you have to take into consideration that she would have read everything and thought it through. She would have asked the Black people that she admired: Al Cowles, (Judge) John Letz, she was his campaign manager. So you can’t throw around this (expletive) that she was racist.”
Decades later, the Auburn Hills neighborhood has established sturdy roots in the northeast side. A few streets are lined with the now-giant sycamores that were planted around the same time the first homes were built.
Today, Franks, more descendants of the four investors and others are working to get the neighborhood recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. The group is called the Auburn Hills Historic Recognition Committee. Historic preservation consultant Jennifer Metz is helping the group along with George Bayard III at the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives.
“We would like to see it recognized for its historic importance,” Metz told News 8. “We’re trying to raise money to do that work. It’s quite a bit of work to list it in the national register.”
Currently, the committee’s focus is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The group has submitted its letter of intent for a grant to cover their costs. Since being launched in 2017, the National Trust has supported more than 200 preservation projects across the country.
Metz says the group has more goals than a simple honor. It is looking at signage and state markers and are considering developing a curriculum to be used in middle schools and high schools to “keep telling that story.”
“When we first started this, Mr. Adams was still alive,” Metz said. “I talked to him on the phone, and I asked, ‘How did you do this for two years?’ Going out to meetings night after night, I just can’t imagine it myself. It seems so exhausting. And he said we weren’t going to make any money off of this. He said we were doing it because it was the right thing to do.”