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Black History Month: Remembering the fight for fair housing in Stevens Point

Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 8:00 PM CST
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STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) - This Black History Month, Newschannel 7 is bringing you stories of Black history and culture in our area.

We’re remembering the fight for fair housing and a time when the UW-Stevens Point community stepped up to right a wrong.

Inside the Collins Classroom Center is a visible reminder students created to remember the instance of discrimination that led a group of professors to join in the fight for Black people to be able to live where they want.

Documents show just how easily white homeowners and landlords in Stevens point could deny Black people housing in the 1960s. History Professor Lee Willis has studied this.

“In some of the neighborhoods in Stevens Point, there were restrictions that said that if you purchased this home, you will not sell or rent your house to a nonwhite person,” Willis explained.

In 1967, a Black professor, Dr. Jimmie Franklin, and his wife went to look at a potential home in Stevens Point. When they arrived for their appointment, the landlord said it had been rented.

“It seemed suspicious, it seemed very fishy just with the body language and the way they felt they were treated by this individual,” Willis said, recalling Dr. Franklin’s experience.

Dr. Franklin was well-liked by students and colleagues and had recently won a teaching award.

He told white colleagues what happened later that afternoon. One of those colleagues is Justus Paul, a professor who would go on to be Dean of the College of Letters and Science. Another colleague, Dr. Gene Brack, agreed to ask the same landlord about the rental.

“He went and inquired, and the guy said, ‘Oh yes, it is still available, and if you sign today, I’ll give you a break on the price,’” Paul recalled.

Paul was part of a group of young, white professors who rallied around Dr. Franklin after it became clear the landlord was discriminating.

“From there, we started complaining. We were even told by the chancellor that we were troublemakers,” Paul said.

A back-and-forth between professors and the chancellor is documented in a series of letters.

Faculty immediately passed a fair housing resolution calling the discrimination “odious, humiliating and degrading.” After pressure from faculty, Stevens Point’s common council approved a fair housing ordinance in December 1967.

“There was some risk involved,” said Paul, who was not tenured at the time and worried about his job security. “The result, though, we were pleased with.”

“Many of them who stuck their neck out, they were recent hires,” explained Willis.

Professor Willis says the ordinance was part of a groundswell for fair housing around the U.S. Congress passed the fair housing act the following year, in 1968.

“There’s a need to continue to retell the story, because that’s how we continue to instill and inculcate the values we want to live by,” he said. “It’s part of a much larger trend in which people just demanded, these are not the values that we want our community to abide by.”

Dr. Franklin went on to teach at Vanderbilt University and serve as president of the Southern Historical Association.

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