OPINION

Lansing’s Bethlehem Temple, housing policy, and the reporting of history

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(John Aerni-Flessner is an associate professor of African and world history in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University

Berkley Sorrells graduated from East Lansing High School and is a senior at Michigan State University double-majoring in history and arts and humanities.)

The story of the African American community in Lansing is slowly being told through projects like the Pave the Way collaboration between the City of Lansing and the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. However, for most residents who are not African American, this history is often not well known. So, when this history does enter the mainstream, errors often go uncorrected and their significance remains unknown. The authors at MSU have been researching aspects of Lansing’s African American history and wanted to correct the record on one of Lansing’s oldest African American churches: the Bethlehem Temple.

Both City Pulse and the Lansing State Journal independently reported in 2019, and City Pulse did so again last week, that the former Temple Club building being renovated in Old Town was built in 1906 for the Bethlehem Temple, but this is simply not true. The building was constructed for the white First Methodist Church, Lansing’s oldest Protestant organization, in 1906. The Bethlehem Temple only purchased it in 1965 when the Methodist congregation moved to the suburbs. While all the publications quickly corrected the stories when we contacted them about it, the fact that the error continues to be made suggests that while public knowledge of redlining has certainly increased recently, its deeper effects and reverberations into the present continue to be hidden.

The Bethlehem Temple was not founded as a church until the early 1930s. Further, African American churches and most African American residents were unable to purchase or use property outside of the Main Street/St. Joseph’s neighborhood immediately south of downtown Lansing until at least the 1960s, and longer in some places. The Bethlehem Temple purchased the Old Town building in 1965 when the construction of I-496 displaced much of the African American community. The Bethlehem Temple remained in Old Town until 2000 when it moved to South Washington Avenue, where it goes by the name “The Bread House—Beth Temple.” The space they vacated in Old Town became The Temple Club, a music/dancing venue for a few years, was put under renovation in 2019 and its owners plan to start renting out apartments there in early 2022.

Lansing had a relatively small and slow-growing African American population compared to other Michigan and Midwestern cities in the mid-20th century, with the city only having 6,745 individuals (6.3% of the population) identifying as African American in the 1960 census. Most arrived as part of the Great Migration, but almost all were relegated to the Main Street/St. Joseph’s neighborhood. It was here in the early 1930s that the Bethlehem Temple was founded in a small, rented clapboard house at 835 W. Main St. In addition to redlining and residential steering by Realtors, restrictive covenants in deeds prohibited the sale of properties in most of the city to minority populations (as well as immigrants, people of Jewish descent, and other categories). All of these combined to keep African Americans confined to this neighborhood. 

While Lansing’s African American population was relatively small, it was expanding rapidly by the 1950s, but the size of the available neighborhood remained static. With no increase in the supply of housing, even those African American residents who had been able to secure middle-class jobs often found it difficult to locate a house they could purchase. Finally, the redlining practices that limited loans in supposedly “high risk” areas meant that the lucky few who managed to purchase a house found it difficult to maintain it because they could not secure loans for home improvement. Thus, African Americans in Lansing most often could not build generational wealth through home ownership as many of their white counterparts did through the economic and housing boom of the mid-20th century.

So why does it matter if the basic chronology of the Bethlehem Temple is misreported in the contemporary period? Situating a major African American church in Old Town before 1965 suggests that Lansing was a racially integrated community long before it was and also suggests that African Americans had an opportunity to build intergenerational wealth via home ownership. As noted earlier, this was not the case. Studies have shown that formerly redlined neighborhoods are linked to worse health outcomes in the present, and that these neighborhoods bear a disproportionate impact from climate change. In short, the disparities in health, current living conditions, and even family wealth that so often fall out along racial lines in our city and society can be directly linked to the redlining practices of the past. Thus, racist housing practices that denied African Americans the ability to purchase homes have led to a widening in the family wealth gap along racial lines that continues to increase. 

But it is not only for negative reasons that properly situating the Bethlehem Temple in its correct neighborhood matters. While African Americans were confined to this neighborhood, they built a strong and resilient community here in Lansing. Thus, the ability of the Bethlehem Temple to move into new, integrated neighborhoods is a story of both success and failure. Its move was forced by the so-called urban renewal projects of the mid-1960s that deliberately destroyed the African American neighborhood to construct I496, much of the state office complex and expand the footprint of the GM factory that all continue to dominate this corner of Lansing.

Urban renewal greatly disrupted the live of individuals and the community as a whole. The ability of the Bethlehem Temple congregation to pool their resources to purchase a grand limestone and granite building in Old Town in 1965 suggests that African Americans were able to make gains despite the structural racism embedded in discriminatory housing policies. But the progress also came with a high price. The tight-knit community of the first Bethlehem Temple — where members walked to church and socialized easily and readily as neighbors — was destroyed in order to make way for a highway. Thus, the collective pain of social disruption was the price the community was forced to pay to move into the larger structure.  

Failing to get the chronology correct for the moves of the Bethlehem Temple continues to hide the fact that the Lansing we see today, including the quick commute for folks on I496, the massive employment juggernaut that is the state government complex, and the expanded GM factory on the Grand River, were all able to be built only through the mass displacement of the African American community. Structural racism in housing policy was and is central to the story of who was made to move to make contemporary Lansing what it is. Thus, getting this story right is crucial in the quest to help people understand that the wrongs of the past are not bygones. They continue to reverberate in the health, wealth and inequality of our city and region in the present. Policies that look to bring about justice and equity in the present are needed to repay those for whom the city and state government forced to bear a disproportionate burden in the past to bring about the convenient, prosperous modern life we enjoy today.

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