Diversity Comes to the Grosse Pointes

Nestled along Lake St. Clair on the far east side of Detroit, Grosse Pointe has long boasted historic architecture, beautiful landscapes, excellent schools, and some of the most desirable and expensive residential real estate in the country. 

And for many years,  the collection of 12 square miles organized within five distinct municipalities remained one of the least racially diverse communities in the region, despite sharing a border with the City of Detroit at Alter Road. 

One method used to accomplish segregation was through the infamous "point system," a systematic process of discrimination practiced by realtors between 1945 and 1960 which assigned a point value to prospective property owners based on apppearance, race and ethnicity. The system was designed to exclude blacks, Jews and southern Europeans. Even after the point system was dismantled as a result of a 1960 civil suit, the Pointes remained highly segregated for the remainder of the century.

But that has slowly begun to change in recent years. 

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of African Americans and other non-whites living in the community has increased significantly, both in the Pointes and in the adjacent community of Harper Woods, which is partially served by the Grosse Pointe Public Schools.

Source: United States Census.  (Data for the Village of Grosse Pointe Shores not available.)

The reputation of the schools is a major reason why people choose to live in the Pointes and that is no exception for African Americans who have recently migrated into the community from Detroit in hopes of providing a better education for their children. That was the case for Jedonna Dinges, a black woman married to a white man, who moved into the district in 2010 primarily so that her daughter could attend the Grosse Pointe Schools.  

"Grosse Pointe is the last place I thought I would ever see myself living," says Dinges, who was born and raised on Detroit's west side. 

Dinges is quick to note that living in Grosse Pointe as an African American has its challenges not necessarily because of overt racism, but simply because the community has long standing traditions and a culture that for so long has not considered the needs of non-whites.

"It's not that I have experienced racism firsthand or that my daughter has encountered any racism," she says. "But there are so many people in this community that just don't get it. A lot of what makes up the fabric of Grosse Pointe is very status quo, but this community is becoming more diverse by the second, and people need to have this conversation."

Sometimes it's just a matter of communication and getting involved. This past school year, Dinges received an email from another parent detailing the hair, makeup and clothing requirements for the Grosse Pointe South school choir, which Dinges' daughter participates in. 

"They were asking the girls to buy flat irons and straighten their hair," she recalls. "I told my daughter that we would not be buying a flat iron."

So Dinges joined the "South Hair Force," the group of moms who do the girls' hair before choir recitals, both to support her daughter and to educate the community about the needs of black girls.

"They were so glad I was there," says Dinges. "The black girls were so happy that somebody was there who understood their hair, and it was really a nice experience for me and my daughter."

It was a more serious issue, however, that prompted the formation of Diverse GP, a group dedicated to opening a dialog about race issues in the Pointes, late last year.  

"Diverse GP came into existence in a very informal way last December, when about nine of us met at Marge's Bar on Mack Avenue," recalls Maria Catalfio, co-founder of the group. 

The group started meeting in response to news stories about a developmentally challenged African American man being videotaped and taunted by Grosse Pointe Park police.

"As people who live in this community, we wanted to help show people that the majority of people living in the Pointes do not want that image of the community to be the one that people see," she says.

The group held a forum on racial diversity and intolerance in March in commemoraton of Martin Luther King's 1968 speech at Grosse Pointe South High School, just a few weeks before his assassination. The event, hosted by WDET's Craig Fahle, brought together over 250 people to the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church.

"It was wildly successful," says Catalfio. "And it became obvious to us that people in the community really want to talk about race. We see three areas that people are concerned about in terms of race: race and the municipal government, how race plays out in our schools, and how race plays out with cross-community interactions."

The group met again on Sunday, June 8th at Higher Grounds Coffee Cafe, a ministry of Higher Ground Ministries, for a discussion on racial healing. The meeting was facilitated by author and radio host Sharon E. Davis.  Approximately 50 people of all creeds crammed into the tiny space to share their thoughts and difficulties on racial healing.

In attendance was Katie Elsila, who moved into the community with her husband and children in 1974.  Elsila was initially hesitant to move into the Pointes because of it's reputation for exclusivity, but soon connected with the Grosse Pointe Interfaith Center for Racial Justice, which she began volunteering for and eventually co-directed. She says the community, while not perfect, is more open today than it was in years past, and is glad to see Diverse GP emerge as a new group in the community to carry on that work.

"In general I am proud that we had a hand in at least maybe fertilizing the ground," says Elsila. "There are so many good things about living in Grosse Pointe, such as the beauty, the school system and the parks, and we want to make sure that everybody feels welcome. Knowing that groups like Diverse GP exist lets people know that there are people who are aware and feel that being exclusive is not the way to go."

The meeting was also attended by Frank Joyce, another long-time Grosse Pointe resident and civil rights advocate. He moved into Grosse Pointe Park in 1989 as a single parent in order to send his children to the schools. Joyce is unequivocal in his view that the increase in racial diversity in the Pointes is a good thing.

"There are now many African American families both on our street and in our immediate neighborhood," says Joyce. "And I have been saying ever since that started about 5-8 years ago that that Grosse Pointe was getting better and better all the time, and I believe that strongly. I think integrated communities are better communities in all kinds of ways.  One of the most ignored components of the racism that we still experience in our society is the result of residential segregation, because so many things follow that. Most obviously, if you have residential segregation then you have school segregation. So to see this changing in the Grosse Pointe has been I think terrific."

Addressing increased diversity in the schools has become a priority in recent years, according to Rebecca Fannon, Community Relations Specialist with the district.

"The Grosse Pointe Schools have begun addressing the increased diversity in a number of ways," says Fannon. "Diversity committees have started at four elementary schools, and the school system has a curriculum committee that reviews curriculum materials for racial sensitivity. The district is excited to see the increase in diversity because we feel you can't raise global leaders without exposing them to people of different experiences."

Jetaun Perkins is a parent and member of the diversity committee at Trombly elementary school, where last year parents organized lunchtime presentations and discussions to help educate children about diverse races and ethnicities. 

"It was obvious that it was needed due to a very low diversity of staff in the schools, but a growing diversity among the children," says Perkins. "We recognize that gap and are trying to fill it. This program has provided a platform for us and the administration to discuss how to develop and improve upon the situation."

Still, many feel the community has a long way to go to overcome it's history and become truly welcoming to diverse populations.

"Seeing this change is good, but I also have been around long enough to know that there are people who are not especially happy about it," says Joyce. "And I know that even though this change is taking place, it is not automatic that critical institutions like the police, teachers and administrators, or local government will begin to be reflective of the community make-up. There should be African Americans on the police forces of all of the Grosse Pointes. There should be a substantial number of African American teachers and administrators in the schools. There should be African-American ministers."

These things will take time, but change is coming, according to Perkins.

"Some people are ready, some are not, but it’s happening," says Perkins. " So people can join us or just watch us as we work."

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a metro-Detroit-based freelance writer and editor,  frequent contributor to Metromode and Model D, and a former Grosse Pointer.

All Photos by Chris Gerard
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