Robert Inexperienced, who beat East Lansing’s racist housing coverage, was honored on Friday
EAST LANSING – As Dr. Robert Green moved into 207 Bessemaur Drive six decades ago, he had already made history.
This is where Green finally settled after becoming the first black man to file a legal challenge to redlining in East Lansing. As a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Education, he’d spent years looking for a home, encountering racist brokers and housing policies that had kept East Lansing white for decades.
Green mistakenly went down in history as the first black man to own a house in East Lansing. According to US census data, at least 11 non-whites had done so before him.
But Green was the first to successfully crack down on redlining there, citing President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 executive on housing discrimination in a complaint against a prominent East Lansing realtor.
On Friday, the state of Michigan will erect a historic plaque across from the house on Bessemaur honoring the man who helped integrate East Lansing. Events begin at 9:30 am at Robert Green Elementary School (formerly Pinecrest), where Green will march with Martin Luther King III and Ernest Green of Little Rock Nine for a dedication ceremony at the house of Bessemaur. Green will speak again at the Wharton Center on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Over the years, green has been raised as a local symbol of the civil rights movement. But when he bought the Bessemaur house in 1964, he was still a young MSU professor doing his Ph.D. two years earlier.
“Suddenly people were calling me a civil rights activist,” Green said in an interview on Thursday. “I wasn’t a civil rights activist. I was just a professor trying to buy a house.”
When Green was looking for a house for him and his wife, Lettie, he met Walter Neller, a well-known real estate agent in East Lansing. Neller told him, “‘We have the right to separate ourselves from blacks, Jews and Indians,'” Green recalled.
So he and the late Senator Carl Levin, then a prominent lawyer, litigated the matter. They filed a complaint with the Federal Housing Administration, which ruled in favor of the duo in 1964.
After they won, Green decided not to buy the house in order to keep his commission out of the hands of the racist realtor. But he would go down as the first man to legally defeat redlining in East Lansing.
Meanwhile, MSU students gathered around Green and protested against discriminatory housing practices in East Lansing. Students in Green’s psychological foundation education campaigned to keep the educator in East Lansing, protesting in town hall and on campus.
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Hannah Zimmerman, the 22-year-old great-granddaughter of then MSU President John Hannah and his wife Mary Shaw, never met her great-grandfather. But she recently started researching the impact it had on East Lansing. While browsing through family history, she learned of Hannah’s friendship with Green, who asked the MSU president for help when he couldn’t buy a house.
“We have the example of the house (of Hannah) calling the mayor,” Zimmerman said. “I think these are the cases that appeal to me. I haven’t been there and don’t know the relationship, but this kindness and support reaffirms (their closeness) to me.”
In a well-documented encounter, Hannah Green called his office after a student protest at MSU and offered to buy a house himself and then sell it to the educator.
“I said no because the next black guy would have the same problem,” said Green.
The house Green bought belonged to another black MSU professor in the math department. Two black agents helped convince Green and his wife to view the house. After buying it, they suffered phone threats and at least one physical altercation with Neller, Green said.
“Students and young people in America have always played a good role in social justice,” said Green, who has since moved to the suburbs of Las Vegas. “When I was working in Mississippi, students from all over the country came from Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Boston University to fight for social justice.”
Green’s efforts eventually led the East Lansing Human Relations Commission (now the Human Rights Commission) to draft an ordinance on fair housing. The city council only passed it four days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
A temporary replacement marker will be erected in Green’s former home on Friday and replaced with a permanent structure in a few weeks, said Michelle Davis, coordinator of the marker program at the Michigan History Center.
“This (Marker) was a slightly different situation because he’s still alive,” said Clark. “The commission doesn’t normally make tags for people still alive, but they concluded the story was so significant that we should put his name on the tag.”
Contact reporter Krystal Nurse at (517) 267-1344 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @KrystalRNurse.