It’s one thing to read about the country’s Civil Rights movement. It’s another entirely to get a visit from three local women who came of age during that period.
Forest Hills Northern Middle students were visited recently by three area women who were once residents of Auburn Hills, the first Grand Rapids neighborhood to break the housing color barrier.
The visit to Northern Middle by former Auburn Hills residents was part of a multi-school design-think project aimed at getting students in the district to use the visual arts to promote the legacy of the neighborhood.
“Even though segregation is not out in the open, it’s still everywhere,” said eighth-grader Jenna Mustapha. “This was so close to where we live. It’s hard to imagine what they had to put up with.”
A Brief History
Edye Evans Hyde, Paula Triplett and Toni Spencer-Beatty spoke recently to the group of FHN Middle students. Triplett, whose family helped start the neighborhood, moved there when she was 5.
Auburn Hills, on the city’s Northeast Side, is a typical mid- to late 20th Century neighborhood. But it represents a turning point for race relations in Grand Rapids.
In 1962, Paula Triplett’s father, Samuel Triplett; along with Joseph W. Lee; J. E. Adams; and Dr. Julius Franks made a bid to buy and develop a tract of land owned by the city of Grand Rapids, according to Grand Rapids Historical Society documents. They wanted to create a subdivision of 50 or 60 medium-priced homes on 20 acres, just southeast of the intersection of Fuller Avenue and Knapp Street NE.
The men were acting in response to “redlining,” a now illegal type of racially-motivated bank credit rationing that made it difficult or impossible to get a housing loan outside a specific redlined area. Many white neighbors — but not all — fought the Auburn Hills development, citing fear of lowered property values.
Eventually the city commission approved the sale and the city passed the Fair Housing Ordinance in December 1963. Today the neighborhood is home to about 740 people, according to the 2010 Census, mixed about 35 percent white, 52 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic, plus other nationalities.
‘We Were Community’
“All us kids in the neighborhood, we were community,” Triplett told the Forest Hills students. “It was a great experience, a great childhood, though I think our parents were afraid.”
Spencer-Beatty babysat Triplett, and only lived in the neighborhood about two years before leaving for college. Her parents stayed until their deaths a few years ago. She remembers hearing about threats to burn down her neighborhood, and transferred out of Creston High soon after starting there, because she was made to feel so uncomfortable.
“It wasn’t the kids; it was the principal and the teachers,” recalled Spencer-Beatty. For example, she said, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she and a group of black students gathered around the flag in front of the school to request that it be lowered to half-staff.
Instead, she said, “The principal came outside and said, ‘I never want to see you all gathered together like this; you make us scared.'”
The Way You Respond
Evans Hyde moved into the neighborhood with her family when she was in the sixth grade. She confirmed there was “definitely a feeling of racial divide in the school,” during the time, which coincided with forced busing of black students into mostly-white neighborhood schools.
“When you force people together who don’t want to be together, there’s going to be a lot of bumps and bruises,” she told students. “I think all three of us are proud of what our parents took on.”
Added Spencer-Beatty: “We’re not just talking history here; there are still things that happen every day, because you’re black, or female, or gay.
“The way you respond to those things does make a difference.”
Spencer-Beatty’s daughter, Leona Whitney Beatty, wrote and directed the award-winning 2003 film, “Last Chair,” which was inspired by her mother’s experiences in Auburn Hills. It debuted at the renowned Cannes Film Festival.