A mural’s moral for Detroit

When I first saw it, I couldn't believe it. I'd hardly lived a sheltered life, and definitely was no stranger to racism, but still. ...

There's something about the Birwood Wall and its history that just kind of knocked me upside the head. You mean an actual wall was built right here in a Detroit neighborhood to separate black residents from white residents? I mean — damn. A friend of mine who took me to see it nearly a decade ago just nodded his head in I-told-you-so fashion. There are a lot of impressive moments in Detroit history, but there are a lot of moments like this as well to remind you just how deeply racism and segregation has always been entrenched in this city — and in this region.

It's not always easy to grow apart from your roots.

I hadn't thought about the Wall for quite a while — some things you just don't want taking up a whole lot of space inside your brain — but a recent Free Press article brought the memory front and center once again. Apparently, the Motor City Blight Busters are working to transform part of the 6-foot-high concrete wall from merely an ugly reminder to a historical work of art. The organization is working with the neighborhood to paint a mural on a 310-foot-long section of the wall, which was constructed in the early 1940s when a developer wanted to build homes for middle-class whites in the area, but our very own U.S. government wouldn't back the mortgages because too many of those dreaded black folks lived in the neighborhood. Being the enterprising sort that he was, and apparently not willing to wave bye-bye to a money-making project quite so quickly, the developer proposed building a wall to show that whites and blacks would not be living together. The federal government was pleased with the idea, the developer was pleased he still had his project, and the wall went up.

Interestingly enough, this all happened about 20 years after the Ossian Sweet case, when none other than the legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow was hired by the NAACP to defend Sweet, a black man who bought a home in a white neighborhood on the city's east side, and was subsequently forced to defend himself and his family against an unruly white mob that had gathered outside his new home in protest within days of his moving in. In the prologue of Phyllis Vine's excellent book, One Man's Castle; Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream, which documents the trial and all the tragic events that led up to it, Vine describes the nation's racial tensions at the time in the following way:

"At no time in American history had the nation come as close to an outright race war as it did in the teens and twenties. By 1925, conflict occurred with such remarkable frequency that newspapers buried stories about racial atrocities. People who wanted to know could find Jim Crow's imprint in accounts of lynchings, riots, massacres, and kangaroo courts, along with state-sponsored legislation to eliminate voting rights, and property rights. Nothing did more to corrupt the American dream, deny hope, and destroy an individual's potential than myths of merit based on race."

Thanks to a brilliant legal strategy employed by Darrow, Sweet, who'd been charged with murder, was ultimately acquitted. It was a powerful legal victory, especially considering that a white man had been killed by a black man during the melee at Sweet's home on the day he, his family and his friends were defending the property with guns.

Unfortunately, the victory was short-lived. Sweet's life seemed to unravel afterward, probably under the weight of all the accumulated stress. He had his home, and was a free man, but the price he was forced to pay simply for standing up for his rights as an American citizen was huge.

Still, one would have hoped that such a celebrated court victory would have at least blown open doors and opened willfully closed eyes throughout Detroit. How could people not be awakened to the truth after all this? Even if the sacrifice ultimately tore Sweet's life apart, at least it should have stood for something more than simply one man's right to defend his home.

But then, years later, there came the Birwood Wall. Two decades after one of the most highly publicized legal battles against racial discrimination and segregation that Detroit — and the nation — had ever seen, a concrete wall was erected to separate white from black so that a developer could safely build homes for middle-class whites. Then, a little more than two decades after that, came the Detroit riots, when racial tensions threatened to burn this city down.

Today, not quite four decades after the riots, metro Detroit is the most segregated area in the nation. The Birwood Wall no longer separates white from black because the whites took off long ago and the neighborhood is now nearly all black. The mural will be a nice touch, and it is certainly important to maintain it as a historical reminder of how things were. But looking around at the remaining evidence of lingering segregation and racial hostility, it may be a while before we can honestly celebrate how far we have come.

It's not easy growing away from your roots. Sometimes you need to plant the tree in new soil.


I received some interesting e-mails in response to my last column about immigration, and though I didn't necessarily agree with the views expressed, there were some interesting points made. Not to lump them all together, but one common thread seemed to be the concern that illegal immigrants are, in fact, illegal. One writer even suggested that, although the immigrants have undoubtedly contributed to the economy and are doing many jobs most Americans don't want to do, that still doesn't necessarily give them the right to demand citizenship after breaking the law.

"I would compare it to stealing money, giving it away to charity and demanding that there should be no punishment," this person wrote. "The problem is not with the actual charity-giving, but the fact that the persons under the mercy of the court are making high demands. Looking at the immigration march on television, I can undoubtedly say that most are illegal Mexicans. Yes, they have contributed to the economy, but their protests sometimes irk me."

This same writer also said that the reason employers hire Mexican immigrants isn't simply about the money, as I stated in my column, but about work ethic. Mexican immigrants will do the job better — and they aren't afraid of hard work.

I can't deny there's some merit to that argument. However, I would also argue that there are a lot of Americans who have no problem putting in a hard day's labor — but not for free. It's easy to get mad at the Mexican immigrants, but why aren't more folks upset at the employers? Without them, the immigrants would have no reason to come here. How about leaning on the employers to pay their workers — all their workers — a decent wage?

Another e-mail suggested that I was encouraging division between blacks and immigrants because I remarked about the high unemployment rate among young African-American males and repeated the argument made by some blacks that the immigrants are taking the kind of low-skilled jobs that these young men could have. First of all, I made it pretty clear I believe blacks and illegal immigrants are in many ways being abused by the same predatory economic system that too frequently exploits those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, therefore it doesn't make sense that we should be fighting one another. Anybody who honestly believes that illegal immigrants are our enemies simply isn't paying attention.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]