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Lansing Highway Project in 60's Spurred Busing in 70's

interstate highway
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The I-496 construction project in the 1960's displaced hundreds of African-Americans in Lansing and led to a controversial busing program to desegregate local schools.

In the 1960’s, thousands of people in Lansing lost their homes.  Interstate 496 was built through the middle of the city’s historically African-American neighborhood.  The mass displacement of families altered many facets of life, including education.

 

Editor's Note:  The "I-496 Intersects Education" event will be held Saturday, July 27 at the Educational Child Care Center at 1715 W. Malcolm X Blvd. in Lansing.  It runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

 

“I Looked Up…No Houses.”

There’s a spot in Lansing where the traffic fades into tranquility.

River Point Park sits at the confluence of the Grand River and the Red Cedar.  I-496 buzzes in the background.

Debra Plummer used to come here as a child.  In the early 60’s, she lived on nearby William Street near the giant GM and Oldsmobile plants.

The highway was just being built then.  When it needed room to grow, it  found it in Plummer’s neighborhood.

“I didn't understand it all as a little girl,” Plummer says. “One day we saw houses and then I looked up again, no houses.”

Classroom Culture Shock

Lansing was one of dozens of American cities that found itself caught up in the urban renewal zeitgeist of the 60’s.  Many houses along the Main Street corridor were demolished to build I-496.  Debra Plummer’s was one of them.

Her family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood off North Logan, today known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Boulevard.  Her first day at Willow Elementary was a culture shock.

“There was maybe five blacks in the classroom,” Plummer recalls.  “I came from Kalamazoo Street School, which I was accustomed to the majority of the classroom being black.”

None of her teachers were black, either.  It wasn’t until Plummer went to middle school before she met any teachers who looked like she did.

An Unpopular Plan

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown V. the Board of Education officially outlawed school segregation in 1954.  But it continued for decades.  The High Court stepped in again, upholding busing as a means of achieving desegregation.

The Lansing school board saw the writing on the wall.  In 1972, the district voluntarily adopted its own desegregation plan. 

Right away, there was resistance.

“This decision was not taken well by the overall community,” says Dr. John Schweitzer, a social science professor with the Center for Community and Economic Development at Michigan State University. 

Under the plan, more than 800 mostly white students were bussed to a cluster of eight Lansing elementary schools.  This voluntary integration was designed to equalize school resources for all students.

Opponents didn’t want their kids bussed across town.  They felt Lansing would be better served through integrated housing.  Tempers rose, and in late 1972, Lansing voters ousted the five member school board majority.

However, Schweitzer says, that failed to deliver the victors a remedy.

"The new school board members tried to reverse the policy,” he says.  “However, then the courts took over and they said, once you've desegregated, we can't go back and redo it. And so from that time on the Lansing schools remained integrated.”           

Tense Times

In the 70’s, integration divided Lansing. 

Dr. Eva L. Evans remembers that time.  She was one of Lansing’s first African-American school administrators, retiring as deputy superintendent.

“There were those who said well, it's the law of the land and we're going to obey the law,” Evans says.  “And there were those who felt that, I don't care if somebody walked on water and a star appeared in the east.  My kids are not going to school on the west side.”

Lansing didn’t experience the tensions that plagued other cities like Detroit and Pontiac.  Still, skirmishes were common.

“I can remember riding the bus with the students home one Friday,” Evans recalls.  “I had voluntarily just got on the bus and said, ‘Sit down.  You’re not going to fight here.’”         

Even with busing, educational outcomes in Lansing remained unequal. 

Finally, in 1975, a federal judge ordered the district Lansing Public Schools to submit a plan to eliminate “a purposeful pattern of racial segregation” in its elementary schools.  That plan continues today.

America’s school desegregation struggle may be over.  But Eva Evans believes we really didn’t learn from our history.

“We're reliving it,” she asserts.  “The way power and people etc are divided in the United States. Does the United States really mean what it says it is? Every generation, it seems we have to test that.”       

 

 

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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