The Bethlehem Temple
Overcoming with Stability and Strength: The Bethlehem Temple's Role in the African American Community's Struggle Against Urban Renewal
By Berkley Sorrells
Neighborhoods with established, close communities like those of Lansing’s Main Street/St. Joseph’s neighborhood embodied what it means to be human and to belong. They had churches, weekly barbeques, and club meetings, all for the neighborhood to come together and enjoy. The homes where this community was fostered were bulldozed for the sake of Urban Renewal: the construction of Interstate Highway 496 that runs through the heart of Lansing. The forced relocation of families between 1964 and the summer of 1966 in the community around W. Main Street was an intentional attack on the established ties within Lansing’s African American neighborhoods. These bonds, represented within the relationships associated with churches like the Bethlehem Temple, originally located at 835 West Main, kept the community spirit intact. The African American community continued to thrive after the relocation, revealing the strength of bonds established within the old, close-knit neighborhood. Most of the people and institutions from the neighborhood remained within the city of Lansing as seen by the moves of the Bethlehem Temple first to Old Town and then to South Washington Avenue in REO Town, where it remains today.
West Main Street was within walking distance of Lansing’s primary commercial district and situated close to top employers in the city, Oldsmobile’s Lansing Car Assembly complex was in the neighborhood and the REO Motor Works factory was also just across the river. A predominantly African American neighborhood, Main Street/St. Joseph’s acted as one of the few areas of security in a town which was plagued with Ku Klux Klan and nativist sentiment. “That’s the way it was and I didn’t grow up in Mississippi either- I grew up in Michigan,” (Fine 5) A young Malcom X explained as he outlineed the racism he faced growing up, partly in this very neighborhood (on William Street). Lansing was not as diverse as other comparable industrial cities in the Midwest. Unlike Detroit, which received many of its auto workers from immigrant families and African American families who were part of the Great Migration, Lansing’s auto workers came mostly from the surrounding farming communities. In 1910, Lansing’s African Americans constituted only 1.1% of the total population and its native-born white population was 62.4% (Fine 18). Lansing in the 1920s, like many places across the Midwest, was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist and anti-immigrant group activities. In 1923, one Lansing Klan organization was able “to burn a cross across the Grand River from a park where hundreds of people were listening to an open-air concert one late summer night” (Fine 65).
However, open Klan rallies like those in Lansing were just one particularly odious version of the racism that African Americans faced. Families were simultaneously subjected to insidious housing discrimination practices, in the form of practices such as redlining, the drawing of districts on city maps wherein the color of the neighborhood reflected the ability or inability of individuals to obtain mortgages for home loans. “Most important in determining a neighborhood’s classification was the level of racial, ethnic, and economic homogeneity, the absence or presence of a ‘lower grade population’” (Sugrue 43-44). The least desirable color, red, was used to signify districts that were unavailable for financing, and these “Redlined” neighborhoods were ones that had significant minority and immigrant populations. Lansing’s African American community was no exception to this.
The poor, dilapidated housing within these areas was not just hard to live in, but also made it hard for those residents fortunate enough to own houses to accrue wealth in properties, due to the fact that homeowners were unable to obtain loans to update houses in redlined neighborhoods. Further, with the landlords in this neighborhood having an almost-guaranteed renting population because of the inability of African Americans to rent in other parts of town, they, too, had little incentive to invest in the houses here outside of the bare minimum necessary to keep them in habitable condition. Thus, those in poor conditions remained that way. Without access to the single greatest financial asset that most American families had—a house that appreciated in value—African Americans in Lansing, as in other cities, were left impoverished and hard-pressed to generate family wealth. This contributed to the difficulty many African American families had in escaping inter-generational cycles of poverty.
The African American population of Lansing was restricted to living in close quarters with one another due to their relegation into solely redlined areas. This had the unintended positive consequence of making for a close knit community, united through similar experiences. The enduring, stable sense of community within the Main Street/St. Joseph’s neighborhood of Lansing was sustained through the establishment of institutions such as Bethlehem Temple Church. It is not clear exactly what year the church was founded, but it was located at 835 W. Main Street by the mid-1930s. Churches within communities like that at Main Street/St. Joseph neighborhood play a key role in African American life, with the first African American church in North America located in Savannah, Georgia opening in 1777. The church played a political role for the African American community. When African American families were denied suffrage, the church remained as an entity where they could elect officers, and other positions within church life. Into the civil rights era, the churches were the “institutional center for Black mobilization” within the community (“‘The Black Church,’- A Brief History”, African American Registry). They functioned as the base for civil rights mobilization as different entities collaborated and sought motivation and solidarity to fight segregation and other forms of racism. The same was true here in Lansing.
The Bethlehem Temple’s prominence within the community, in addition to its role socially and politically, was magnified by its location in a family home on W. Main Street. From the outside, other than a sign located on the front porch, the house did not stand out as a church—it looked like any other neighborhood house. Whether this was intentional or not cannot be determined, but it was likely that the founding members of the church had no other option due to the high expense of purchasing and maintaining a traditional church building. There may have also been pushback from city officials and the Lansing Chamber of Commerce on the establishment of an African American church in the area. In 1923, the Chamber had declined to help raise funds for a new African American Baptist Church “claiming that the city’s four ‘colored’ churches sufficed” ( Fine 30).
The 1920s and 1930s saw a substantial job increase in industrial cities like Lansing. As factories like the Oldsmobile plant produced cars, the need for workers skyrocketed. Then, in 1941 when the United States went into war factories became hubs of production as war materials like tanks and airplanes flew off of the belts faster than any cars in the previous few decades of production. This led to a rise in African American families moving North to find factory jobs in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Lansing, The years of the Second World War and the post-war economic boom following the United States’ victory saw an 81.3% increase in Lansing’s African American population (Meyer 24). Aspiring to escape the Jim Crow South, the movement of African American families north became known as the Great Migration. The increases in African American population in Lansing only continued, with the largest influx between 1960-1969. Within the 1960s Lansing experienced an increase in the African American population of 127%. This is the same decade that families within the Main Street/St. Joseph neighborhood were forced from their homes, as their neighborhood was deemed a blight by the Michigan Department of Transportation in order to clear a path for I-496.
Neighborhood institutions within the Main Street/St. Joseph neighborhood like the Bethlehem Temple played a defining role in the community as a hub and symbol of unity, and we can see how much so from the first-hand interviews from the work of Dr. Homer Hawkins. His in-depth, contemporaneous interviews with neighborhood residents who had to move when the freeway destroyed the neighborhood reveal the pain of those told to relocate and leave their close community, friends, and neighbors behind. A woman he refers to as Mrs. G. explains “My whole social life was changed at age seventy. I can’t get to church activities like I used to because it’s so far” (Hawkins 155). Mrs. G, who lived on West Main Street before her forced eviction, was likely referring to the Bethlehem Temple family that she was forced to leave behind. Through the relocation, she became more distant from her neighbors, with whom she went to church and attended bridge clubs. “I had something that was nice and now I have nothing” (Hawkins 155). “I’ll tell you what they could have done better…they could’ve recognized that they were forcing us to leave an area that I loved.” (Hawkins 157).
The church that she attended near her former home on West Main was an integral part of Mrs. G’s life- and not just spiritually. Although she was forced to leave her community, her spirituality and religion did not leave her. But what did was the close friends and comradery that she established over years of living in the close-knit community of West Main. She mentions how it became more difficult to get to church once she was forced to relocate, but her sadness in that is laced with an even-deeper sorrow for the loss of the community. “The whole group of friends that I used to live close to were scattered” she said, “The old group was broken up.” The strength of the bond between members of the Main Street/St. Joseph community is palpable in Mrs. G’s lamentation for her old home and neighborhood.
This sentiment is echoed by another individual in Dr. Hawkins’ interviews, referred to as Mr. L. “You didn’t know where your best friends were going and you didn’t know where you were going. It was like a very bad ending to a very happy story…everybody was so close and you could look to your neighbors for help if you needed anything” (Hawkins 151, 152). Mr. L has these deep ties within his community thanks to how much they all relied on one another, as well as likely attending the same church(es), clubs, schools, and working within similar establishments. In his interview, taken after he moved away from the neighborhood, he noted: “Close friends are hard to come by but we had plenty in the old neighborhood but you seldom get a chance to see them anymore” (Hawkins 152). The need for a similar connectedness afterwards like that of their former communities is what kept them so upset following their forced relocation and was the sentiment that many used to keep the relationships and close-communal ties well established.
First documented at 835 West Main in 1934, the Bethlehem Temple is still documented at this location until at least 1940. In 1955, however, it is documented at 827 W. St. Joseph, where it remained until 1965. This was when the first Methodist Congregation of Lansing, which had been housed at 502 E. Grand River Ave. for 48 years, turned the space over to the Bethlehem Temple. Thirty-five years later, the Bethlehem Temple moved again to 1518 South Washington Avenue in REO Town, just over a mile from its first location on West Main Street. Again, the church took over the space of a former majority white congregation which was moving further out of town—the old South Washington Avenue Baptist Church (or South Church). The Temple is still in operation there today.
Back up in Old Town, the First Methodist Congregation was Lansing’s oldest Protestant organization. When the cornerstone at 502 E. Grand River Ave. was removed and replaced with that of the Bethlehem Temple in 1965, it marked a significant moment in showing the growth and expansion of Lansing’s African American community. The Bethlehem Temple continued to grow and expand into larger buildings, and this included into the old building of one of Lansing’s longest established white protestant churches. The cornerstone of 502 E. Grand River was changed in the same year that removals for the construction of I-496 started. The connection between these events is clear.
The work to keep relationships like those exemplified by the experiences of Mr. L and Mrs. G well-established and intact following relocation are exemplified by Leonard and Bessie Hegmon, former residents of 828 West Main. This address contained a house right across the street from the original Bethlehem Temple, and the Hegmons are first documented as tenants of the property in 1941. A waiter in the Hotel Olds at the time, Leonard held one of the better jobs in the city available at the time to African Americans. Although his job was primarily to serve Lansing’s white, upper-class visitors within his position, he was not working in the physically demanding, dangerous, and dirty jobs in the auto industry. Malcom X decried men like Hegmon explaining that “the only thing [they] could dream about becoming was a good waiter or a good busboy or a good shoeshine man” (Fine 5). However, the job with the tips paid better than the menial labor available in other work establishments at the time.
Considering they moved to Lansing in 1926, the year the Olds Hotel opened, the Hegemons were ahead of some of the later waves of African American migration to the Main St/St. Joseph’s neighborhood. Bessie Hegmon was a charter member of the Bethlehem Temple, and she remained a member of the congregation as it moved around the city until she passed away at the age of 98 in 1994. After being raised in in Ohio and being forced to move with the coming of I-496, she remained connected with and active in the Bethlehem Temple for her entire life. The families, neighbors, and friends she and her husband most likely connected with led her to involve herself, no matter where the Bethlehem Temple was located at the time. Her primary sense of community had been established deeply by the couple’s years living at 828 West Main.
While Bessie remained a member of the congregation, it likely impacted her deeply that the church and community had been disrupted by the coming of I-496, just as it had for Mrs. G. Through the lives of these individuals we see the deeply harmful, systematic impacts that Urban Renewal and redlining had, and how they continue to affect communities today. While the stories of these individuals and the wider community need to be told so that people can better understand the harmful impacts of such programs, they did not limit the ways that African American residents saw themselves or their communities. The passion for the community they found within the Main St/St. Joseph’s neighborhood prior to Urban Renewal reveals the power of the human need to find connection and build a community. That need is embodied in the resilient spirit of the African American community of Lansing that continued to thrive following the bulldozing of their homes, churches, schools, and shops. The physical presence of the neighborhood may have been ultimately removed, but the deep bonds established within it through the cultural hubs and institutions within the community like the Bethlehem Temple allowed for its own kind of renewal—one of ultimate stability and longevity.
“‘The Black Church," a Brief History.” African American Registry, https://aaregistry.org/story/the-black-church-a-brief-history/
Fine, Lisa M. The Story of REO JOE: Work, Kin and Community in Autotown, USA. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.
Hawkins, Homer Chandler. Knowledge of the Social and Emotional Implications of Urban Renewal and the Utility of this Knowledge to the Practice of Social Work. Michigan State University, PhD Dissertation, 1971.
Meyer, Douglas K. The Changing Negro Residential Patterns in Lansing, Michigan, 1850-1969. Michigan State University, PhD Dissertation, 1970.
Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2014.