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Community Advocacy Organization

The History of Riddle Elementary School

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

By Bettye Thomas-Gilkey

Courtesy Photo-Vivian Riddle

A key factor that gave rise to the construction of Riddle Elementary School was the poor and nearly dilapidated quality of the Logan and Michigan Avenue School on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Logan Street (currently referred to as Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) in Lansing, Michigan.

Barbara Roberts Mason was a Speech Therapist with the Lansing School District at the time and recalls how she and staff person Gwen Macintosh encouraged parents to sign a petition to “fix IT UP, build A NEW SCHOOL and CLOSE IT DOWN”. The school was in such inferior quality that a few students, Roberts’ son being one of them, was bussed to a neighboring white school.

Her young nephew, Steve Roberts was already a product of Lansing’s one-way bussing and would “hide behind the school when the bus dropped him off in the morning at Wexford Elementary and until the bus picked them up, because the white students were so mean, and fights often ensued.”

This reflected the life and times of early integration not only in Lansing, Michigan, but across the nation. Many whites were deeply opposed to social change at this level. Meanwhile, Nellie Nusdorf, an ardent white advocate for education and a Lansing School Board member, was dying of cancer but remained vehemently opposed to white students being bussed into Michigan Avenue School. She contended that “white parents will NEVER let their kids be bussed to THAT school!”

Roberts was determined, however and retorted, “If the school is not good enough for white children, it is not good enough for black students! The district should build a new, quality school in the neighborhood. But in the meantime, children attending Michigan Avenue should receive a quality education. FIX IT UP! BUILD A NEW SCHOOL! THEN TEAR MICHIGAN AVENUE SHOOL DOWN!” Although Roberts was allowed by principal Semrau to select the paint for the school’s facelift, the bright yellow color did not bring the school up to par nor prevent the shuttering of its doors.

At the same time, Dr. Eva Evans, Director of Elementary Education for the Lansing School District helped write the desegregation plan that was modeled after the progressive Kalamazoo School District’s plan. Mason authored the plan from the LSEA/MEA Executive staff perspective in 1971. Together, from different vantage points but united in purpose, they fought aggressively against one-way bussing. It was decided that if black children were going to perform optimally, a new school with quality facilities was imperative. The Board of Education had considered building a new school on the West Side anyway. Plans were then launched to build the new edifice whose name of Lincoln Kalamazoo Street/Michigan Avenue Elementary School was initially debated.

During this time, Mrs. Vivian Riddle, a West Junior High School graduate, Sexton High School valedictorian and Michigan State University alumnae, as well as the first African American student inducted into MSU’s Tower Guard Honorary Society, began her teaching career at Pattengill Junior High School and was currently teaching English, Spanish and Social Studies at Everett High School. Additionally, Riddle was one of four Michigan teachers chosen to serve as a Special Consultant/Instructor to the MSU College of Education where she worked with prospective teachers interested in problems of urban schools. She “also attended one of the first language institutes at MSU sponsored by the federal government.” “John Marrs, spokesman for the school district (at the time) said Mrs. Riddle had been ‘a strong leader in the black community.’ Besides, the Riddle family, which became hers by marriage, has been in Lansing since the early 1900s. In fact, there was a Lansing High School team back in the early part of the century that once beat Michigan Agricultural College, and one of the Riddles played on the Lansing team.” The mother of three who was an active member of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), National Education Association (NEA), Trinity A.M.E. Church and the Lansing N.A.A.C.P. became very ill and passed away on January 8, 1973, after 16 years of service with the Lansing School District.

She had been recognized over the years with numerous awards and accolades for her stellar service to students in the greater Lansing community including “Teacher of the Year "from the Lansing Civitan Club. Riddle was also an active member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. – Delta Tau Omega Chapter.

When sorority member and elementary school teacher/principal Dr. Ruby Helton, suggested naming the school in honor of Vivian Riddle, it was approved unanimously by the membership. Dr. Evans then wrote up the recommendation proposal while Helton investigated necessary procedures bringing the plan to fruition. In her research, Helton learned that the street name also had to be changed for renaming the school. Helton did the legwork and plans were under way for Vivian Riddle Elementary School to be erected on Vivian Riddle Court.

On February 6, 1975, at a regular meeting of the Lansing Board of Education, a motion was made to rename the elementary school after Vivian Riddle. The motion passed. Simultaneously, Ruth Richardson who owned a neighborhood pre-school, relocated her business on the same property as well. Three names had been recommended by the West Side Facility Committee for the school that included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“Construction on the new school, expected to cost $2.5 million”, started around April 1975, and was slated to open by September 1976. The second millage bond totaling $10 million was used to pay for the building.

According to recent statistics, Riddle Elementary School serves 186 students in grades Pk-3. Its student:teacher ratio of 12:1 is lower than the Michigan average of 18:1. Minority enrollment is 70% of the student body with the majority of students being of African American descent. This is 32% higher than the statewide average. The student population has increased by 25% over the past five years. Riddle Magnet School’s diversity score of 0.67 is higher than the state average of 0.27. Their diversity has remained relatively consistent over the past five years. Lansing School District’s spending per student of $14,919 is higher than the state average of $12,269. This spending has increased by 10% over four years. There are 28 schools in the Lansing School District.

At the beginning of the school year in 2002, it became the Vivian Riddle Middle Magnet School for Visual and Performing Arts and was recognized as an “inspirational model of achievement for all students, especially those attending the school. We, the Riddle family, dedicate the school year and yearbook in honor of the 30th Anniversary of her homegoing.” Several additional names have resonated in the success of this initiative. They include the Delta Tau Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Hortense Canady (Chairperson of Lansing NAACP Education Committee), Dr. John Porter (State Superintendent of Schools), Dr. Matthew Prophet (Deputy Superintendent of Lansing Schools), Carl Candoli (Superintendent of Lansing School District).

The Riddle Family: Ralph Sr. (husband), Ralph Jr. (son), Anita (daughter) and Natalie (daughter) and numerous grandchildren/great grandchildren of Vivian Riddle express their humble appreciation to everyone who contributed to chronicling this historic event that honors their wife, mother and grandmother. This legacy and tribute shall remain a source of pride for generations to come.

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