Paving the Way documents impact of I-496 on African American community

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Pictured from left are Adolph Burton, Kenney Turner and Bill Castanier presenting partners for Paving the Way project.

Feb. 17 was a day for community in Lansing. The brisk air carried a sense of nostalgia and warmth outside of  the Mask Memorial CME Church. Newcomers were greeted with a smile and welcomed by a stream of lit-up faces upon their first steps inside.

The vibrant energy was nothing new to Marilyn Plummer. She reflects on childhood memories and brings them to life at “Paving the Way.”

“I was very young, so what I remember was the construction, the tearing down and the relocation. We ultimately had to move from our home to the west side of Lansing,” said Plummer.

As Mayor Andy Schor’s outreach coordinator, Plummer describes her involvement with the project as a“perfect fit.”

“It came natural to me. I was passionate about being a part of the project. Even if I didn’t work for the city at this capacity, I’d still be here.”

Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, with Kenney Turner and Adolph Burton, took turns talking about a year-long plan to develop “Paving the Way.”

The sessions offered a historical review of events leading up to the construction of I-496 and its lasting impacts on the neighborhoods.

Castanier mentioned that a lot of people may not have been there, or like himself, forgotten about most things that happened when the expressway was built.

A grant from the National Parks Service is helping the City of Lansing and the Historical Society of Greater Lansing create a multi-dimensional story told by the people directly affected.

Down three from the right is Burton R. Smith in a third-grade class picture during his time attending Main Elementary School.

Many attendees, such as Burton Smith, ricocheted old memories of their upbringing in the neighborhoods surrounding the St. Joseph and Main Street corridors. He even went the extra mile and brought in class pictures of Main Elementary School.

The project includes a traveling exhibit of photographs and personal items from residents. It will be shown at the Library of Michigan in 2020. The exhibit will include rooms replicating  one of the eight churches torn down, as well as Johnnie’s Record Shop, to highlight places where the community used to gather. For those who cannot attend the exhibit, a documentary will make the story accessible for public viewing.

Users will be able to scroll over a house and learn about the family that once called that place on  the online map their home. The website will feature oral histories as well as exclusive interviews that might not be in the documentary.

Plummer emphasized the importance of churches as gathering places for seniors or others who cannot make the meetings downtown. Not only is it more accessible to host meetings at various venues but, rather, it offers a comforting space for people to share their stories.

“The momentum has grown since it is Black History Month, but when we think about it, it’s just an opportunity for Lansing to shine as the diverse community that we are,” said Plummer. “We’ve all come a long way with being an inclusive community.”

Castanier said he hopes to “tell the history of the vibrant African- American communities by using original stories.”

The project has the support of the Lansing community. At Sunday meetings, citizens are welcomed to share anecdotes about the former community and share research or artifacts they have saved. They also are also given the opportunity to be interviewed at the end of the meetings for the documentary.

Turner was conducting research on the community when Burton introduced him to Castanier and “Paving the Way.” Now, Burton and Turner are vital researchers for the project and help Castanier lead meetings.

Turner described this project as a “labor of love,” saying he has spent many days in the library from open to close searching for information.

This area was the hub of the black community. In a time when laws prohibited African Americans from living in many areas, they felt welcome in the local businesses, nightclubs, and churches that were all their own.

Turner said the community was self-contained. He recalls his parents forcing him to wake up each Sunday for church, stealing candy from a local convenience store, and daily walks to school with his friends.

“I loved that neighborhood,” said Burton. “That’s where I went to school. My grandmother lived four blocks of us, the doctor where I was born lived four blocks from us. Everything that was important to us was four or five blocks from home.”

The freeway project tore down 850 homes and businesses and eight churches. It affected more than 600 African Americans. Families who were forced to move with little or no aid from the federal government.

“I use the freeway today, it is convenient. But you don’t take away a way of life,” Burton said.

The city received a $40,000 grant from The National Park Service and has the support of Michigan State University, Lansing Community College and many others to complete the project.

The project is expected to be finished in April 2020.

Meetings are held the second Monday of each month. If you are interested in learning more about this project, or have a story to share, visit the link below.

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