By Robin Schwartz | Detroit Jewish News
You don’t have to travel far or look too hard to find a stark reminder of racial segregation in Detroit. Just a short distance from Royal Oak, Oak Park and Southfield, near Eight Mile and Wyoming, there is a park and playground bordered by a mural-filled wall.
The artwork is colorful, whimsical and uplifting with sketches of houses, people and symbols of peace.
But there is more to this scene than meets the eye. The 6-foot concrete wall that traverses the Alfonso Wells Memorial playground along Birwood Street also has an ugly side.
“This is governmentally sanctioned apartheid,” explains Jeff Horner, a senior lecturer with Wayne State University’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “The government actually saw fit to put in a physical barrier to separate the races.”
Detroit’s “Wailing Wall,” also known as the “Eight Mile Wall” or “Birwood Wall,” dates back to 1941. It was built to satisfy the Federal Housing Authority, which would not guarantee housing loans in “undesirable” neighborhoods. At the time, that meant communities with mostly African American or Jewish families. So, a developer proposed building the half-mile wall as a clear dividing line meant to keep black families out. The FHA approved the loans and construction began.
“At least in some parts of history there’s a narrative of the federal government as an agent of progress and there are examples of that,” says Ben Falik, manager of Detroit service initiatives for the Jewish social action group Repair the World. “Then, there are also very concrete examples of when the federal government required and sanctioned segregation, and not just in the South; this is right here in Detroit.”
Falik often brings groups of student volunteers to the wall for a firsthand look at the city’s history. Parts are not covered with art and look exactly as it did 75 years ago. Teresa Moon grew up with the wall. Her family moved to Birwood in 1959, when she was just 6 years old. She still lives on the street today.
“We didn’t know what it was. We had no idea it was a segregation wall,” Moon says. “My parents never talked about it and neither did my grandmother. It wasn’t something we discussed openly.”
Teresa was about 15 when she finally learned why the wall was really there. She says it serves as a painful reminder at a time when our country is still very much divided.
“I can’t take away what it is,” she says. “I can’t not tell the kids who are growing up over here what it is and why they built it and how anybody would have the audacity to build anything so minimal. It’s only 6 feet tall; it’s 12 inches wide; I can get on my tip-toes and look over it.”
While not much is known about the Jewish community’s response or reaction at the time the wall was built, history professor Lila Corwin Berman recounts one instance where a Jewish builder tried to extend the wall for his own benefit. In her book, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race and Religion in Postwar Detroit, Berman writes that Harry Slatkin tried to convince city leaders to go along with the plan.
“Slatkin had hoped he might snake the wall around the property he owned to protect his investment from black settlement,” she writes. “The city rejected his 1953 effort to elongate the wall.”
“Stuff Still Happens”
Moon says while it may be subtler today, “stuff still happens” to keep people apart.
“There are some places in this surrounding community I won’t go because I know I’m not going to be treated fairly, and that’s like a few miles from here,” she says. “Is it ever going to change? Are we ever going to be where the color of my skin is not going to matter? I’m 63 years old and I can’t see that will happen in my lifetime, and that’s sad. It brings tears to my eyes.”
She remains hopeful things will improve, especially for the younger generation. Moon recalls being a junior high school student in 1967, when she met and spoke to white students for the first time.
“That’s when they started busing kids,” Moon recalls. “That was my first experience going to school with white kids — and they were white Jewish kids. It was an experience because neither one of us knew anything about the other one. I hadn’t been close to a white person ever in my life.”
Detroit’s Wailing Wall runs through a community that remains predominantly African American. Horner says, unfortunately, the lingering lesson of the wall is still relevant and timely today, more than seven decades later.
“The lesson is let people live wherever they want to live,” he says. “Eliminate racial prejudice and hatred — and I think everything will be fine.”