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MSU, Alma erased his name from their buildings. But was Stephen Nisbet really a racist?

Kim Kozlowski   | The Detroit News

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

Was Stephen S. Nisbet a racist?

His family insists that he wasn't. But two Michigan colleges removed his name from buildings this month, nine years after a book reported his involvement with the Newaygo County Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

A prominent Michigan education and business leader in the 1950s and '60s, Nisbet presided over the convention that revised Michigan's Constitution in 1963 to include among the strongest civil rights language in the nation. In 1969, he cast a deciding vote to make Clifton Wharton president of MSU, and thus the first Black president at a major U.S. research institution.

But 34 years after Nisbet's death, MSU President Samuel Stanley was alerted to his alleged past and university trustees voted unanimously Friday to remove his name from the building on which it has appeared since 1974. Alma College, his alma mater and on whose board he served for 42 years, removed his name from a residence hall earlier this week.

At a time of a national reckoning over race relations, the moves distance the institutions from an organization responsible for horrific racial violence. But for the family, they are a rush to renege on an honor without considering the reputations that will lay in ruins.

"They couldn't have delayed this for a month? They couldn't have given consideration to our family?" asked Stephen P. Nisbet, the statesman's grandson, from Myrtle Beach, S.C. "I just think it's outrageous. What are we becoming when we do this?"

MSU renamed the building after its address, 1407 S. Harrison, with an understanding it could take on the name of someone else in the future.

"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."

As coincidence would have it, the unlikely events that led to Friday's action were launched right across the street from the Nisbet building, at the Michigan State University Press. In 2011, it published a book by Craig Fox called “Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan.”

It was based on rare secret KKK records discovered in an old farmhouse near Fremont in Newaygo County.

In 1992, auction workers searching the attic discovered three trunks of records and artifacts from the 1920s. Among the 169 items found were 40 white robes, photos and 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.

Aside from the trinkets of terror, academics realized that the real historical value in the collection were likely to be the membership rolls.

So did the auctioneer, Sherri Beyer.

"She argued that to allow the public inspection of the membership files could be an invasion of privacy and therefore only the eventual purchaser would see the documents," according to a 1993 newsletter of Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library.

The Clarke library successfully purchased the files, including an apparent membership card for "Steven S. Nisbet," 29, who is listed as the superintendent of Fremont schools and living on Dayton Street, who paid $10. Nisbet was the superintendent at that time and did live in Fremont. His first name, however, is misspelled on the card, which carries no signature. And the home address is wrong, saying he lived at 233 Dayton St. The actual residence was 332 E. Main St., his grandson says.

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

He asked MSU's board to table its vote so that a proper investigation could be conducted by a professional historian.

Fox's book discusses the interplay of various figures of the Newaygo County communities in that time and makes some unusual findings, according to University of York, the United Kingdom school where the author earned his PhD.

"Much of what Craig has found out about the Klan is rather different from the image people might expect," the university notes on a web page. "In 1920s middle America, the Klan gained popularity not by appealing to the fanatical fringes of society, but by attracting the interest of 'average' citizens. During this period, the Klan recruited members through the same unexceptional channels as any other organization or club, becoming for many a respectable public presence, a vehicle for civic activism, or the source of varied social interaction."

During MSU's meeting on Friday, Stephen P. Nisbet, the grandson, questioned MSU's research, and asked how many trustees read the book about the background and politics of the KKK organization in rural Michigan.

"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," Nesbit said. "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, said his grandfather never spoke of a KKK affiliation, nor did he ever see any evidence of it in his home. He said his grandfather never displayed any racial animus, he was always respectful and served his community for decades. He said the KKK in Newaygo County only lasted for two years and then it disbanded.

He also said he wished MSU had contacted the family. 

After a faculty member brought the issue to Stanley's attention three or four months ago, the university's naming committee looked into it and said credible evidence existed that Nisbet was a member of the Klan, Stanley said, and that is why he recommended that the board take action.

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

"It is unfortunate, given the comments from the family members," said Vice Chair Dan Kelly. "But I am satisfied that the appropriate steps were taken by the college and the research into it."

Trustee Melanie Foster noted Nisbet's support of the appointment of Wharton as president. Nisbet voted with the majority in a 5-3 decision that appointed the 43-year-old African American. 

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

But Foster still supported the move to remove Nisbet's name.

“I have empathy for the family,” she said. “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.”

In addition to the Wharton vote, Nisbet served as president of the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1961-62, which rewrote the state's constitution to its current form. That Constitution created the nation's first state Civil Rights Commission and language outlawing segregation that some regard as stronger than federal laws.

His convention biography shows Nisbet served as a seaman in the U.S. Navy during World War I and identifies his affiliations with 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 and an executive with Gerber Products Company, which was founded in Fremont in 1927.

Stanley contended that the university made numerous efforts to identify and contact family members of Nisbet.

Nisbet's grandson wrote another letter to Stanley after the vote, and told him that he has engaged a professional academic historian whose preliminary research showed no evidence of his grandfather being a member of the KKK.

"I will ask this person to continue his search to its conclusion," wrote Nisbet. "If he determines no evidence is found, I will demand that you & the Board make a public apology & return my grandfather’s name to the building." 

Nisbet insists he and his family have been blindsided and that his grandfather was "absolutely not" a racist.

"It seems to overwhelm all of the service my grandfather gave to the state of Michigan and Michigan State University," Nisbet continued. "Even if it turns out he was a member, for two years, and very benign, you are going to remove his name and publicly embarrass his family?"