A Salute To Lansing's Black History
Image by City of Lansing
It's the first of February, and the start of Black History Month. Over the next 29 days, important figures in the civil rights movement and African-American citizens are recognized for their achievements and contributions.
One woman in the community is making it her mission to interview African-American families that have been in Lansing prior to the 1940's. Rina Risper, who publishes the New Citizens Press newspaper in Lansing, plans to put together a collection of stories about this area's history, what life was like for some African-American families growing up in the Lansing area, and their many achievements.
"Black History Month should be about exploring all of the history that is involved with the African-American community," Risper said. "It's so important that we also discuss what's going on locally, what happened here locally, for historical purposes, because so often we forget the individuals who actually helped build the town you live in."
Risper wants to make sure people won't forget , as she brings together community members to tell their stories about growing up in Lansing.
Lonnie Johnson is one of the Lansing residents participating in the project. He grew up on the west side of Lansing in the 1940's.
"Lansing was, the black community was, somewhat of a self-contained community," Johnson recalled in his interview with Risper. "We had a grocery store, dry cleaners, barbers, churches, gas stations - we able to meet most of our basic needs."
Johnson graduated from Sexton High School in 1957. His fond memories of growing up in the area brought him back later in life with his own family.
"I had so much fun as a teen and growing up that i wanted my two boys who were still young to have that same experience," Johnson said.
Ralph Riddle, another participant, was born in 1927 and grew up in north Lansing. He says his family was the only black family in the neighborhood at the time.
"It's a fact of life that during that time the real estate companies in Lansing fostered a policy of discrimination," Riddle explained. "A friend of my father's, who was Caucasian, bought the house for him and then transferred ownership to him."
Riddle's father was a brick mason, and his work can still be seen today all around the city.
"I drive around and see dad made that particular local or that building was a part of his history," said Riddle.
But Riddle's favorite building is the one named after his late wife -- Vivien Riddle Elementary School.
"That school stands today as a monument to her contributions to the education system in Lansing," Riddle said.
Some Lansing memories are too painful for Riddle to share.
"I've been advised not to be too forthright on my racial scars embedded in my mentality from the days at Lansing's Eastern High School," said Riddle.
The group all agrees it's important to make sure these stories are passed on to future generations.
"If you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you're going," Johnson said.
The project will be called African-American and Lansing's legacies, and will be unveiled under the New Citizens Press Community Action Network Rina Risper hopes it will give residents in the greater Lansing area an opportunity to discover the untold history of some of Lansing's African-American families.
The hope is also that this project will inspire others to look into their family history as well. In honor of Black History Month, there will be a program dedicated to researching family history.
The Lansing Area African-American Genealogy Society will present an introduction to researching African-American family history this Sunday, February 5th at 11:30 a.m. That will be at the First Presbyterian Church of Lansing at 510 West Ottawa Street. At the presentation, several community members will share some of their own experiences and family research as well.