Detroit is a predominantly black city, and its history, like many cities across America and beyond, is one that includes racism and segregation — which largely affect its residents to this day.
One such reminder of Detroit’s racial disparity is a six-foot-tall concrete wall on Eight Mile Road and Wyoming on Detroit’s west side. Built in 1941, the Birwood Wall was erected to separate Detroit’s growing population of black homeowners from a new white housing development. Now, 81 years later, that wall is covered in brightly painted murals and black families living on both sides.
This wall received a historic marker on Monday at a dedication ceremony attended by Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s Director of Arts and Culture Rochelle Riley and Detroit City Historian, Jamon Jordan.
DETROIT _ Tune into Detroit Channel 21 and hit Facebook and YouTube to watch@MayorMikeDugganhonor a past legacy of hatred that is now a symbol of progress: the #BirwoodWall, which was built in 1941 to separate black neighbors from white neighbors. We’re live at 11 a.m.! pic.twitter.com/KtfFqS6lGQ
— Rochelle Riley (@rochelleriley) October 10, 2022
At first glance, many questions occurred to me as to why this was happening. Why is this wall cherished? Why not just tear it down? What do people who live in the area think of this?
But reading the marker and listening to the speeches at the press event made me reconsider those thoughts.
During his speech, Mayor Duggan expressed the importance of knowing the city’s history, however unfavorable, because that history still consistently affects the people of Detroit today.
“It’s very true that white neighborhoods were built more heavily because they had the backing of federal loans than black neighborhoods. It’s discrimination that the people of this town know all too well,” Duggan said. “When you think that’s ancient history, it really struck me a few years ago when we bought the land for the new Jeep factory on Mack Ave., and we acquired the old lots and they brought me the deeds. The deeds of some of these plots for the Jeep factory indicated that they could only be sold to Caucasians. The restrictions on acts were still there, they might not be enforceable, but they were still on those acts.
Duggan’s commentary and support for the preservation of Detroit’s authentic history is interesting and timely given that legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools has been a hot topic. Although Detroit educators have largely pushed back against anti-CRT bills, parents and educators in other predominantly white districts continue to support banning education about race.
It can be hard to understand why so many people would still want to ban teachings that systematically explain why Detroit might differ from Southfield or Bloomfield Hills. The answer to this can be seen in the Birwood Wall dedication.
While the story has been told and is kept alive by historians and activists, part of the story that remains a mystery is the name of the white property developer.
If you google the history of Birwood Wall, you will see news articles and broadcasts about it, which simply say the wall was erected by a “white property developer”. There has been speculation about who built it, but never a confirmed source. Is it because said developer has remained a leading force in the Detroit real estate market? Is it because this developer lived a long time and it would be bad for business to know that he created this? Did he have active children in the city or did he choose to follow in their father’s real estate footsteps and continue to champion his racist ideologies?
For whatever reason, this promoter continued to live and potentially work peacefully as Black Detroiters continued to struggle with the housing discrimination that would continue to plague their families generations later.
Telling the story of Birwood Wall is important, and not just to the residents of this neighborhood.
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