GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — During Black History Month, we hear some of the most inspiring stories of African Americans throughout our country's history. One such story happened right here in West Michigan.
In the 1950s and 60s, it was nearly impossible for black people to get the loans needed to become homeowners anywhere in Grand Rapids other than the southeast side. It's an illegal practice called "redlining."
"People thought that their land value was going to go down by having people of color living in that area," said Bobby Franks, the oldest son of Dr. Franks.
The group of four wasn't willing to accept that fate. They wanted to start a neighborhood on the northeast side of the city where anyone was welcome.
"They didn’t shun. They didn’t leave out anybody. They included everybody," said Cheryl Franks, the oldest daughter of Dr. Franks.
The men found their opportunity when the city announced plans to sell 20 acres of vacant land along Fuller Avenue. It was, at that time, called the "Fuller - Sweet" area.
Their initial bid was rejected. The city raised the price of the land. As people learned about the project the men had planned, they formed an organization to fight the idea of an integrated neighborhood. They argued that the area would become a slum and that property values in the area would drop.
The opposition also took other routes to try to stop the project. They argued that the developers were inexperienced, that the plan was economically unsound, and that the land the men were trying to buy was actually designated for city parks. All those claims would prove to be unfounded.
"Wow, did they go through a number of hurdles to ensure that all of the kids of the four families that developed the property could succeed and could live anywhere," said Beverly Grant, the youngest daughter of Dr. Franks.
"We didn’t quite realize everything that they went through because we were all young and they wanted to shelter us a little bit of some of the things that weren’t as pleasant to know about," she said.
Finally, in January of 1963 the sale of the land was approved and not long after homes started going up on three cul-de-sacs along Palmer, Dale and Drexel courts. Auburn Avenue serves as the neighborhood's main drag and Travis Street connects Auburn Hills to Fuller Avenue.
"It was inclusive. Anybody could buy property over here and anybody could build a house. It was just a matter of could we have people of color be joined by people of non-color," Cheryl said.
Initially only one white family, the Schneiders, built a home in the Auburn Hills neighborhood. But today it's one of the most diverse areas in Grand Rapids.
"There’s good people in this town. It happened in this town so maybe it should be a pride thing for everybody," said Fredrick Franks, the youngest sibling in the Franks family.
"The neighborhood in and of itself is absolutely gorgeous," Cheryl said. "It hasn't gone downhill. The homes are pretty unique, so it wasn't a cookie-cutter approach. People could build what they wanted to build so there's a variety."
Despite the progress, though, the Franks siblings say there is still work to be done in our country.
"Let there be no mistake. We still live in a society where racism is running rampant and it’s all kinds of different levels," said Beverly.
"It’s in banking, it’s in the housing, it’s in businesses. It is all over. Let's not sugar coat this and say we’re still living in a world where everybody can do what they want to do. It’s in the education system. It’s all over that we need to improve on how all people are treated."
"We’ve always wanted to bring people together," said Fredrick. "We’ve lived a life of bringing people together. Rich. Poor. Black. White. We’ve come a long way. It’s obvious we have a long way to go."
To learn more about the Auburn Hills neighborhood, you can visit the Newcomers exhibit on the third floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
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