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Over objection of family, MSU renames building that honored alleged Klansman


Kim Kozlowski   | The Detroit News

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Trustee Melanie Foster's last name. 

Over the objections of his family, Michigan State University on Friday renamed a building that bore the name of a former trustee who President Samuel Stanley said was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The building — which houses some of the College of Social Science and the Human Resources department — was named in 1974 after Stephen S. Nisbet, an MSU trustee from 1964-70, education administrator and the man who presided over the rewriting of the Michigan Constitution in 1961-62.

The building was renamed 1407 S. Harrison, following unanimous approval by the Board of Trustees, and it could take on the name of someone else in the future.

Behind the story: MSU, Alma erased his name. But was Stephen Nisbet really a racist?

"We cannot condone a link to the KKK on our campus in the form of this building's name," Stanley said.

Last week, Nisbet's name was taken down from a residence hall named in his honor on Alma College's campus. The college based its decision on MSU's findings of Nisbet's membership in the KKK and a vote last Friday by the executive committee of the Alma College Board of Trustees. Officials gave the dorm an interim name of Brazell West Hall and expect to rename it before the end of the 2020-21 school year.

"As we continue to learn and foster a campus environment built on our shared values, it’s important that we have critical conversations about how and why we honor certain individuals," Alma College President Jeff Abernathy said. "Alma College denounces racism in all forms and is committed to creating a climate where everyone is safe and free to grow intellectually, spiritually and emotionally."

But during MSU's meeting on Friday, Stephen P. Nisbet, the grandson of Nisbet, questioned MSU's research and suggested his relative was not a racist.

He asked how many trustees read the book about the background and politics of the KKK in rural Michigan that prompted MSU to make the change.

Nisbet was referring to the book “Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan,” by Craig Fox, in which his grandfather was named. The book was published by the Michigan State University Press in 2011.

"If you have read the book, you know the author, Craig Fox, described the Michigan KKK of nearly 100 years ago akin to a benign civic organization similar to the Masons, Moose or Lions clubs in their communities," Nisbet said. "Many persons were invited to join in those rural Michigan towns. It certainly did not include any of the violence perpetrated by the KKK later in the South, nor did it hold the negative stigma that it does today."

Nisbet , 70, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., said his grandfather never spoke of a KKK affiliation, nor did he ever see any evidence of it in his home. He also said he wished MSU had contacted the family and noted that the membership card upon which MSU had partly made its decision was "fraudulent" because it includedan incorrect spelling of his grandfather's first name — Steven versus his correctly spelled name of Stephen. There is also an incorrect address on the card of 223, Nisbet said, when his grandfather lived at 332 E Main St., Fremont. Nisbet also said it was not his grandfather's signature, and no where on the card did it indicate it was a KKK membership card.

"It could be any membership card," he said.

Nisbet's alleged Klan membership card is on file at the Central Michigan University Clarke Historical Library and it was part of the information in the MSU trustees' packet. It was unclear if Nesbit was talking about the same card. He could not be reached by phone afterward.

"It was strong belief that some unknown person completed that card," Nisbet said during the meeting. "It was widely know that persons were signed up without their knowledge."

He also asked the board to table its vote so that an investigation could be conducted by a professional historian.

"Why was it necessary to tarnish the name and reputation of my grandfather, a very good man who gave much in service to the state of Michigan and Michigan State University?" Nisbet said.

Stanley said he brought the issue before the university's naming committee, which recommended changing the name of the building and said credible evidence existed that Nisbet was a member of the Klan.

The MSU president said it was unfortunate the impact the move had on Nisbet's family.

"Our decision is not about Mr. Nisbet's family, or even his contributions to education and public life in Michigan," Stanley said. "It's about acknowledging that the KKK has been engaged in extreme racism and horrific violence toward Black Americans from the end of the Civil War until today. ."

The Board of Trustees unanimously approved the removal of Nisbet's name from the building with little discussion.

"I agree with the process, it is a recommendation to the board," said Vice Chair Dan Kelly. "It is unfortunate, given the comments from the family members. But I am satisfied that the appropriate steps were taken by the college and the research into it. It is a difficult decision for me but I will support it."

Trustee Melanie Foster noted that as a member of the MSU board, Nisbet supported the appointment of former MSU President Clifton Wharton, who became the first Black president of a major U.S. research university with a 5-3 vote in 1969. 

"(Wharton) did not receive unanimous support from this board but Mr. Nisbet was one that did support him," Foster said.

Reached by phone, Foster said she knew of Nisbet's support because she had read the autobiography of Wharton, who served during a tumultuous period at MSU and under a split board. 

But Foster said she supported the move to remove Nisbet's name from the MSU building.

“I have empathy for the family,” said Foster. “But given the point of society we are in right now, it’s appropriate to distance ourselves from anyone who had an affiliation with the KKK.”

After the meeting, Stanley said that the university made numerous efforts to identify and contact family members of Nisbet.

He also said it was brought to the attention of the university three or four months ago by a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous. The research process involved going to a number of sources which included the book and also documents in a library.

"Putting those things together to come to the conclusion that Stephen Nisbet had been a member of the Klu Klux Klan and had been an active member at one time," said Stanley. "We felt we had done adequate research to move this ahead."

Nisbet served as president of the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1961-62, which rewrote the state's constitution to its current version. According to his convention biography, he was born in 1895 in Tawas City, served as a seaman in the U.S. Navy and was a member of the American Legion, Masons and Fremont Congregational Church.

He was a school principal, a superintendent, president of the Michigan Education Association, a member and leader of the State Board of Education, a member of Michigan State University’s first elected Board of Trustees, a member of Alma College’s Board of Trustees, and an executive with Gerber Products Company. He died in 1986.

The Fox book was based on rare records on the KKK in Newaygo County.

In 1992, auction workers searching the attic of a farmhouse near Fremont discovered three trunks full of KKK records and artifacts from the 1920s. Among the 169 items found were white robes, photos and the names of at least 679 dues-paying members of Newaygo County Klan No. 29 of the Invisible empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, according to a Detroit News account at the time.

In October of that year, the membership cards were sold at auction to the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.

"The Newaygo County Sunday Schools Association, which sent  representatives to participate in statewide gatherings and events, was also replete with Klan names, including among others, Stephen S. Nisbet as head of the young people's division," according to the book. 

He was also a Newaygo County delegate to the Republican National Convention, according to the book.