Mary Potter Sharp - An East Lansing Trailblazer Who Advocated for Equality & Civil Rights
Every once in a while someone comes along who makes a significant difference in the quality of life of a community. Mary P. Sharp, who died in February 2006, was such a person in the life of East Lansing. At a time when East Lansing was not a community that prided itself on its diversity, Mary championed open housing laws for all people. She fervently believed it was a civil right and strove to achieve it, despite personal consequences.
Mary was born on January 10, 1917. She grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Law School. She graduated at age 22, in the top 10% of her class, with her Doctor of Jurisprudence. In 1939 she married the love of her life, Mahlon Sharp. They were present on Oahu, Hawaii during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Dr. Mahlon Sharp completed his five-year tour of duty in the South Pacific while Mary returned to the mainland and lived with her parents while giving birth to their first child.
After Dr. Sharp completed his medical training in Detroit they moved to East Lansing, where they raised their four children, Caroline, Michael, Samuel and Mary, all graduates of East Lansing High School. Mary was a long-term member of All Saints Episcopal church and her faith was instrumental in pulling her through treatment for breast cancer at age 39.
Considered by friends to be a forward thinking individual, she was known for her vitality, sense of humor, intelligence and straight forward style of communication. Today, Mary is remembered for her tremendous courage and leadership in the battles against a number of unethical practices she felt a call to rectify in the Greater Lansing community. She was a civil rights leader who took an early aggressive stance on open housing, which resulted in a ban against discriminatory practices that kept racial minorities from buying homes in East Lansing. Mary’s passion for open housing advocacy led to her long, dedicated service on the East Lansing City Council from 1965-1977 and her subsequent service to Michigan State University as the first legal counsel on human rights to the President. She also helped write the original legislation mandating community involvement with suspected child abuse and served as a member of the Michigan Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the Greater Lansing Urban League, among many other state and community activities.
Never letting criticism stand in the way of doing what she believed was right, Mary tirelessly served the East Lansing community, advocating equality and civil rights for all. She was controversial in her time, but much beloved now by a community that has benefited greatly from her life and service.