EAST LANSING — When Dr. Robert Green moved into 207 Bessemaur Drive six decades ago, he’d already made history.
That’s where Green eventually settled after becoming the first Black man to mount a legal challenge to redlining in East Lansing. A professor in Michigan State University’s School of Education, he’d searched for years for a home, encountering racist real estate agents and housing policies that had kept East Lansing white for decades.
Green has inaccurately gone down in history as the first Black man to own a home in East Lansing. In fact, at least 11 nonwhites had done so before him, according to U.S. Census data.
But Green was the first to mount a successful legal challenge against redlining there, citing President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 executive order on housing discrimination in a complaint against a prominent East Lansing real estate agent.
On Friday, the State of Michigan will erect a historical marker across the street from the house on Bessemaur honoring the man who helped integrate East Lansing. Events begin at 9:30 a.m at Robert Green Elementary School (formerly Pinecrest), where Green will march with Martin Luther King III and Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine to the Bessemaur house for a dedication ceremony. Green will speak again at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Wharton Center.
Over the years, Green has been lifted up as a local symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. But when he bought the Bessemaur house in 1964, he was just a young MSU professor, having finished his Ph.D. two years earlier.
“All of a sudden, people were calling me a civil rights leader,” Green said in an interview Thursday. “I was no civil rights leader. I was just a professor trying to buy a house.”
As Green searched for a house for himself and his wife, Lettie, he encountered Walter Neller, a prominent 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 Sen. Carl Levin, then a prominent attorney, litigated the issue. They filed a complaint with the Federal Housing Administration, which ruled in the duo’s favor in 1964.
After they won, Green opted not to buy the house, wanting to keep his commission out of the racist real estate agent’s hands. But he’d go down as the first man to beat redlining through legal means in East Lansing.
Meanwhile, MSU students rallied around Green, protesting discriminatory housing practices in East Lansing. Students in Green’s psychological foundations of education class fought for the educator to stay in East Lansing, protesting at City Hall and on campus.
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 he had on East Lansing. Digging through family history, she learned of the friendship Hannah had with Green, who asked the MSU president for help when he couldn’t buy a home.
“We have the example of the house, (of Hannah) calling the mayor,” Zimmerman said. “I think those are the instances that speak to me. I wasn’t there and don’t know the relationship, but those acts of kindness and support reiterate (their closeness) to me.”
In one well-documented encounter, after a student protest at MSU, Hannah called Green into his office and offered to buy a home himself then sell it to the educator.
“I said ‘no,’ because the next Black coming along (was going) to have the same problem,” Green said.
The home Green did end up buying belonged to another Black MSU professor, in the mathematics department. Two Black real estate agents helped convince Green and his wife to tour the home. After they bought it, they endured 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 suburban Las Vegas. “When I worked in Mississippi, I had students coming down from Michigan State, University of Michigan, Boston University, from all over the country fighting for social justice.”
Green’s efforts eventually led East Lansing’s human relations commission (now the Human Rights Commission) to write a fair housing ordinance. City Council didn’t pass it until four days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968.
A temporary stand-in marker will be erected at Green’s former home Friday and replaced with a permanent structure in several weeks, said Michelle Davis, marker program coordinator at the Michigan History Center.
“This (marker) was a bit of a different situation because he’s still alive,” Clark said. “The commission doesn’t usually do markers for people who are still alive, but they concluded that the story was so significant that we should include his name in the marker.”