NewsNationalTwo Americas

Detroit's Birwood Wall tells a story of segregation and understanding in the West 8 Mile community

Posted at 6:59 PM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 18:59:53-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Between Birwood and Mendota, beneath the rooftops, and behind the trees is a wall with a story.

Black kids on one side and white kids on the other side. Doesn’t mean much to the average passerby.

“I’m glad I lived this long to see it, still standing tall,” said Fred White.

But to the people born and raised in this 8 Mile and Wyoming community, this is Birwood wall, a piece of segregation, still standing.

The wall was constructed back in 1941 by a real estate developer - 6 feet high and a half-mile long. It had one purpose to separate black and white communities.

The story goes that 80 years ago, a developer set out on a mission to construct an all-white housing development.

“The problem was this area was denoted as red on the city maps - red signified hazardous, dangerous as an investment,” said Gerald Van Dusen.

Because of how close it was to an adjacent Black neighborhood the federal housing administration was reluctant to insure bank loans for the new homes, so the developer pitched an idea: build a wall of separation.

“It’s just a remarkable artifact of segregation,” said Gerald Van Dusen.

Gerald Van Dusen, the author behind the book, Detroit's Birwood Wall, brings the wall’s dark history to light.

WXYZ’s Ameera David asked, “Are a lot of people surprised to learn about this to hear that something like this exists in a city like Detroit?”

“There are and have been segregation walls constructed in the south,” said Van Dusen. “To my knowledge, this is the only segregation artifact in the north.”

Fred White is 91 years old but remembers watching the cement trucks as a nine-year-old boy.

“My mother brought my sister and brother here to look at it unaware of what they were putting this wall up for,” said Fred White.

“What did you know about the other side? Did you know there were some rules?” asked David.

“That was called the white sub we had no business down that way unless we were going to the store,” said White.

Hop the wall in the 1940s, and you’d face the wrath of police.

“You’d be harassed, called the N word,” said White.

But by the time, Theresa Moon moved to the neighborhood in 1959.

White flight was taking root, Black families were moving in, and the wall’s purpose had begun to wane.

“The Mendota kids would hop the wall and come to the park. Kids began to use the wall as somewhat of a rite of passage,” said Theresa Moon.

“Mostly guys would do it,” said Moon. “If you could just walk from pillar to pillar.”

Today, you’ll see sections of the wall transformed with images of justice and equality.

The mural kind of helps take away from the connotation as a segregation wall.

Painting over the wall hasn't quite erased the painful past- nor the reality that a physical barrier isn’t needed.

To know segregation - though not enforced by law- does still exist. A recent study shows the Detroit metro area is considered one of the most segregated in the country.

“It’s important that we acknowledge that it existed in the past, but it continues,” said Van Dusen.

“The color of my skin denies me so much, still today,” said Moon.

“You feel that today there’s still places where you’re not welcome?” asked David.

“I know there are. There are places I’m not going to go, I’m not…and that’s not far from my home,” said Moon.

“Do you think you’ll see a different Detroit in your lifetime?” asked David.

“I’m hoping that happens because I don’t intend on going anywhere. I love Detroit! I love my community, so I hope it changes,” said Moon.

The spirit of 8 Mile & Wyoming endures. The wall remains as does hope for a happy ending to a story —that is far from over.