4 Black Men Created Grand Rapids’ Auburn Hills Neighborhood
All month long, the Grand Rapids Historical Society and I will be sharing Black History facts that have taken place right here in Grand Rapids.
If you missed the last one, you can learn about Floyd Skinner, an attorney, social justice activist, and the owner of Club Indigo, Grand Rapids’ first Black nightclub.
Today's Blackity Black History Fact is all about the Four and the Auburn Hills neighborhood.
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 due to redlining. This practice was designed to confine Black people to certain areas of a city, creating unfair boundaries and restrictions for those who desired to live outside the lines.
Frustrated with only being allowed to purchase homes on the redlined southeast side, four Black men came together in 1962 with a vision of building a neighborhood where everyone was welcome.
The Four – Dr. Julius Franks, J.E. Adams, Joseph Lee, and Samuel Triplett were friends as well as determined and established men in Grand Rapids.
J.E. Adams was a teacher, administrator, and principal.
Dr. Julius Franks was President of the West Michigan Dental Society and the first Black All-American at the University of Michigan.
Samuel Triplett was a teacher and the first African American to teach in the Grand Rapids Public Schools at South High.
Joseph Lee was a social worker and twice president of the Grand Rapids Urban League.
In 1962, all four men were part of a philanthropic organization called the Ta-Wa-Si Club. The club was designed to help black high school students attain college scholarships and expose them to college opportunities.
At one club meeting, Dr. Franks brought in a “land for sale” notice from the City of Grand Rapids. Advertised as “perfect for developing”, the 20 acres of land were located near the corner of Fuller and Sweet streets. The neighborhood entrance located on Travis Street NE, included Drexel, Dale, and Palmer Courts NE.
The plot of land on Grand Rapids’ northeast side was outside the “redlined” area black families in Grand Rapids were restricted to on the southeast side. Determined, the four men saw the purchase of the land as an opportunity for change for the growing Black population here. The men knew it was time to claim more space and create the first area in Grand Rapids where Black people were able to build homes from the ground up.
The idea was to create a subdivision of 50 or 60 medium-priced homes on 20 acres just southeast of the intersection of Fuller Avenue and Knapp Street NE. Together, the men set their sights to buy a plot of vacant land in northeast Grand Rapids and develop it into a neighborhood called Auburn Hills.
Originally listed without a price, The Four came up with a reasonable offer for the land of approximately $1000 per acre at $20,500. The city rejected their bid and listed the land at $54,500, more than double The Four’s original bid. Despite the price, the four bid again at $60,000 and the offer was eventually accepted with $12,000 down and a five-year land contract.
The backlash to the sale agreement was swift and severe from the white neighbors living in the area, claiming it was unnatural for Black and white people to live so close to one another and the neighborhood was bound to deteriorate. The opposition also took other routes to try to stop the project, arguing that the developers were inexperienced and the plan was economically unsound.
One City Commission meeting saw over 500 white residents turn out to voice their concerns. With such overwhelming pressure against the development, the City eventually stalled the sale of the land, saying that the land was designated for city parks.
Sensing the city’s buckle to pressure, The Four decided to hire an attorney that would push the City to make a decision regarding the legality of the sale agreement first advertised for the land. Local Black organizations like the NAACP and the Grand Rapids Urban League were in constant support of the Four in their fight for the land. A coalition of church leaders, led by Duncan Littlefair of Fountain Street Church, came together and asked churches to take a stand on the issue. In response, churches across the city, Black and white, began to voice their support of The Four and pushed the City to see the development through.
When tensions continued to grow and eventually came to a peak in the winter of 1963, the Chamber of Commerce charged the City Commission of Grand Rapids with stalling and demanded that the development be allowed to continue. After two years of pushing for progress from the Four and their allies, The City commission ultimately complied and allowed the development to move forward. The sale of land was monumental in our city’s history, marking the official expansion of Black people to other sides of Grand Rapids.
Joseph Lee was the first of The Four to build his own house in the Auburn Hills neighborhood. The Four stayed true to their vision to create fair housing available to Black people anywhere in Grand Rapids.
In advertisements promoting the new neighborhood to future homeowners, the message was clear:
“Auburn Hills is a community project, created to promote the freedom of residence.”
To this day, the area surrounding Auburn Hills continues to be one of Grand Rapids’ most diverse neighborhoods, still including a majority of the homes built in the 1960s.
We extend our gratitude to The Four – Dr. Julius Franks, J.E. Adams, Joseph Lee, and Samuel Triplett – for their persistence and initiative that saw us outside the lines drawn out for Black people in Grand Rapids. We are reminded with vision and determination, we can build our own futures for our community together, wherever we decide.