Opinion: Detroit’s Birwood Wall is exactly why CRT should be taught in schools

The concrete wall on Eight Mile and Wyoming received a historic marker

click to enlarge A historical marker was dedicated at Detroit's Birwood Wall on Monday. - @rochelleriley, Twitter
@rochelleriley, Twitter
A historical marker was dedicated at Detroit's Birwood Wall on Monday.

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 affects 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 westside. Built in 1941, the Birwood Wall was erected to separate Detroit’s growing Black homeowner population from a new white subdivision. Today, 81 years later, that wall is covered with brightly painted murals and Black families living on both sides.

That wall received an historical marker on Monday in a dedication ceremony that featured Mayor Mike Duggan, the city’s director of arts and culture Rochelle Riley, and the city of Detroit’s historian Jamon Jordan.

At first glance, there were a lot of questions that surfaced for me as to why this was happening. Why is this wall being cherished? Why not just tear it down? How do the people who live in the area feel about this?

But reading the marker and listening to the speeches during the press event made me reconsider those thoughts.

During his speech, Mayor Duggan expressed the importance of knowing the city’s history, no matter how unfavorable, because that history still systemically affects people in the Detroit today.

“It’s very true that the white neighborhoods were built more strongly because they had the backing of federal loans than the Black neighborhoods. It’s discrimination the people of this city know all too well,” said Duggan. “When you think it’s ancient history, it really hit me a few years ago when we bought the land for the new Jeep plant on Mack Ave., and we acquired the old parcels and they brought me the deeds. The deeds to some of those parcels for the Jeep plant said on them, ‘can only be sold to Caucasians.’ The deed restrictions were still there, they may not have been enforceable, but they were still on those deeds.”

click to enlarge The Birwood Wall - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
The Birwood Wall

Duggan’s commentary and support of preserving Detroit’s authentic history are interesting and timely considering legislation banning teaching Critical Race Theory in schools has been a hot topic. Though Detroit educators have largely pushed back against the anti-CRT bills, parents and educators in other predominantly white districts continue to support the banning of teaching about race.

It can be hard to understand why so many would still want to ban the teachings that would explain systemically why Detroit might differ from Southfield or Bloomfield Hills. The answer to that can be seen in the dedication of Birwood Wall.

While the story has been told and is kept alive by historians and activists alike, one part of the history that remains a mystery is the name of the white real estate developer.

If you do a search on Google about Birwood Wall’s history, you’ll see news articles and broadcasts about it, all which simply say the wall was erected by a “white real estate developer.” There was speculation on who built it, but never a confirmed source. Is it because said developer remained a prominent force in the Detroit real estate market? Is it because that developer lived a long life and it would be bad for business to know he created this? Did he have children who are active in the city or chose to follow their father’s real estate footsteps and continue to uphold his racist ideologies?

For whatever the reason, that developer continued to live and potentially work peacefully as Black Detroiters continued to fight against the housing discrimination that would continue to plague their families generations later.

Telling the history of Birwood Wall is important and not just for the people in that neighborhood.

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About The Author

Alex Washington

Born and raised on Detroit's Westside, Alex Washington is about as Detroit as they come. She judges your coney island order and serves a mean side-eye when anything across Eight Mile is called "Detroit." Her writing has been published in Real Detroit Weekly, The Detroit Free Press, Model D, BLAC magazine, and...
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