In Detroit, A Colorful Mural Stands As A Reminder Of The City's 'Segregation Wall' Detroit's Birwood Wall is now decorated with murals — children playing, Detroit Tigers, people of all races living in harmony. But when this wall was built in the 1940s, integration was not the goal.
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In Detroit, A Colorful Mural Stands As A Reminder Of The City's 'Segregation Wall'

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In Detroit, A Colorful Mural Stands As A Reminder Of The City's 'Segregation Wall'

In Detroit, A Colorful Mural Stands As A Reminder Of The City's 'Segregation Wall'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we said, the new film "Detroit" is drawing attention to one violent episode in a summer of violence. But even at the time, many argued that what was going on in the streets wasn't the whole story or even the start of the story but the explosive result of decades of tensions that had been building in the city. The police certainly contributed to those tensions, but they weren't all of it, either.

Now, we're going to hear what scholars and residents alike say was a contributing factor. It was housing segregation due to redlining. We headed to a neighborhood in the northwest part of Detroit near 8 Mile Rd., and we ended up at Alfonso Wells playground. On a Thursday morning, it's pretty empty. A man plays a gentle basketball game with a little boy. Two little girls try to run up the playground's plastic slides. Across the green lawn at the far end of the park is a cinderblock wall about 6 feet tall, now covered with colorful murals - children playing with bubbles, Detroit Tigers, a peace sign, people of all races living together in harmony. But when this wall was first built in the 1940s, integration was not the goal.

JEFF HORNER: There is no mistaking why this wall was built.

MARTIN: That's Jeff Horner, director of the urban studies program at Wayne State University in Detroit.

HORNER: The urban uprisings of the 1960s gave rise to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Until that time, until I was 7 years old, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against somebody of color. You didn't have to sell them your house if you didn't like the color of their skin. You didn't have to rent to them.

MARTIN: So the wall was basically to say, this is the white side and this is the black side?

HORNER: Well, yes, but it was more to keep black people from moving into the white neighborhood.

MARTIN: Throughout the 1920s and '30s, Detroit grew. The population swelled by the Great Migration - African-Americans fleeing the South for what they hoped would be better lives and well-paying factory jobs. They moved into a handful of black neighborhoods in the city of Detroit like the one we were visiting. But when a developer wanted to build housing for white people on an undeveloped tract adjacent to this neighborhood, the Federal Housing Authority wouldn't guarantee loans for houses with black neighbors unless there was a segregation wall.

HORNER: Ultimately, what resulted was the so-called compromise to build a wall that separated the undeveloped part of Detroit from this already established black neighborhood that was in the city that had been here since the 1920s, what's referred to as the 8 Mile and Wyoming area. That's the side of the wall that we're on right now.

MARTIN: The wall borders this park but also serves as a backyard fence for the people living here now. Teresa Moon has lived on this block for 59 years. She's now president of the 8 Mile Community Organization and takes care of this park, planting cucumbers and greens in a little box garden, picking up trash and coming out of her house to chat with visitors to the wall like us.

Do you remember this neighborhood when you were growing up, like what was it like?

TERESA MOON: It was just one big happy loving community. The businesses were black owned. Almost everything over here was black owned, you know.

MARTIN: It felt very welcoming.

MOON: It was very warm and comfortable.

MARTIN: Tell me about this wall. What do you know of it now, but what did you think of it then?

MOON: Well, when I was growing up, we didn't know what it was. Our parents didn't talk about it. I guess it was taboo to say what it was. When I was about 12 or 13, I found out. I think I learned at school what it was or someone in school talked about it. And we found out it was a segregation law.

MARTIN: Do you remember how you felt when you heard that or what that meant to you?

MOON: You know, when I was young, it didn't really affect me. You know, it didn't because we were so self-contained over here. I didn't see white people. You know, we went to - there was two movie theaters in our neighborhood. We didn't have to venture out of here for anything. So I wasn't really affected by the fact that it was a segregation wall. Then the '70s came. White kids were bused to our school. And I had the opportunity to interact with them. And we had never seen white people except on TV, you know. Which is really weird because this is - we're talking about the late '60s and '70s. That's - you know, and that's crazy.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the wall still being here? You know, we were talking about this because in a lot of places that - monuments that essentially validate racism, I mean, like the Confederate monuments which, you know, celebrate, you know, Confederate war heroes are being taken down. And people were saying, you know, it's celebrating something that's a stain on our history. And that's an argument for why these should go. And I'm wondering how you feel about it being here knowing the original purpose.

MOON: Well, it's the truth. OK. Anybody that's a part of this community will probably say the same thing because we're asked all the time, how do you feel about it? Do you want it to be torn down? Heck no. No, it's not a stain to me. It's astounding to us that people are astounded by it. A lot of people come and they're tearful, you know, because of what it represents. But, you know, when we started to try to get it made into a historical site years ago, the city was against it because of the stigma of it because of what it says. But now, you know, because all these tours come, it's a thing.

MARTIN: Can I ask a question though, a sensitive question? I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but has it been hard for you to stay here all these years when you see, you know, the houses boarded up and you see, you know - we've - just driving over here, we've seen some beautiful, you know, houses that are beautifully maintained. They have beautiful lawns. The flowers are gorgeous. People are out trimming their, you know, landscaping. And, you know, and they've got picnic tables out. And kids are playing. And then you've got - a couple doors down, you've got houses that are boarded up. People for whatever reason couldn't maintain them, walked away. Has it been hard for you to stay here?

MOON: Yeah. It's been hard to stay in the city of Detroit, you know. In 1967, we had what they called a riot. And maybe it wasn't a riot. Maybe it was the uprising of people being tired of being disenfranchised. That area on 12th and Claremont burned up. They never did anything to bring it back. To stay means a lot. You know, you go downtown now, you run into people that don't look like you and they're talking about the D. You don't know nothing about the D, OK. I'm just saying. That's just how we feel. You know, this is our city. It always will be our city regardless to who comes and what's done. This is our city. We don't want to be forgotten about.

MARTIN: That's Teresa Moon, president of the 8 Mile Community Organization and lifelong resident of Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA'S "SO FAR TO GO")

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