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The Birwood Wall

April 16, 2024

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This episode features stories of Teresa Moon and Esther Boyd of Detroit and their experiences with the Birwood Wall.

“My dad took me one day. I remember he took me in the backyard and he told me, ‘Put your hand on the wall. Just touch it.’ And I touched the wall with my hand. He said, ‘Don’t ever forget this feeling.’” Detroit resident Esther Boyd remembers it like it was yesterday.

“Then my dad told me, he said, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to cross that wall because you’re Negro.’ Those were his words.”

Picture of young Esther between her parents on sofa.

Picture of young Esther between her parents on sofa.

Black and white photo of Esther sitting on the ground in a dress.

Black and white photo of Esther sitting on the ground in a dress.

The wall in question? A 6-foot-tall, half a mile long cement slab that runs through their neighborhood. It’s known as the Birwood Wall. Esther’s father didn’t see the point in sugar coating it; to underestimate the danger on the other side could prove deadly.

Two young men in front of the wall.

Two young men in front of the wall.

Esther’s family had lived in this neighborhood since it was connected by dirt roads. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was one of the areas of Detroit where Black people were allowed to live. As the city developed and expanded, the surrounding areas were eyed for new developments.

In 1941, a developer hoped to build an all-white housing development but couldn’t obtain funds from the bank. The project was deemed “high risk” due to potential tension between “inharmonious racial groups.” So, he built a wall. It was a literal barrier to the Black, Indigenous and immigrant families who had been living in the area for decades. But it represented more than that. It was a defining statement about who was welcome in the area and who wasn’t. Who was safe and who wasn’t.

As a house cleaner, Esther’s mother often visited the other side for work, sometimes with Esther in tow. At one point, she had to carry a worker’s card that allowed her to be on the other side of the wall. Without that card, she could be thrown in jail … or worse.

“The other day I was looking through some paper. I found that card…” Esther said. “And I tore it up. I did. I tore it up. I don’t never wanna see that again.”

Esther’s full family photo.

Esther’s full family photo.

Teresa Moon grew up next to the Birwood Wall, too. For her, it was just part of the neighborhood, not something that was explained to her. In fact, for most of her life, she never gave it much thought.

“When I was growing up, the wall was something that we used as, you know, something to play on. You know, you walk the wall and, you know, for a certain amount of feet and it was a rite of passage,” she said.

Teresa relaxed on a front lawn.

Teresa relaxed on a front lawn.

Black and white group photo.

Black and white group photo.

Teresa still lives in the neighborhood and, to be frank, she’s kind of a big deal.

“They call me Miss Teresa, the kids do. I’m kind of like a community leader, you know. My role is to be a person that can be relied on for information and just keep my community alive.”

It was a busload of white tourists that piqued her interest in the wall. Despite the wall being built as a means to bring white folks into the area, these days, very few white people live in, or even visit, the area. And yet, here was a whole group of them, standing around the wall – clearly interested in it.

“And that just amazed me that white people were at the park. Okay. Cause that’s not something we saw at all,” she said. “So I went over there and just casually asked ‘em, ‘What’s up?’ . . . And they said they were from a church. They had come to visit the wall. And I was like, wow. That’s amazing.”

Teresa wearing 8 Mile Survivor shirt at the front of a group photo.

Teresa wearing 8 Mile Survivor shirt at the front of a group photo.

So she started researching the wall and was shocked by its history. Especially considering how tight knit the community is, this structure meant to divide seemed particularly out of place.

For many, it may be hard to imagine growing up with a symbol of hate, directed at you, right in your own back yard. For Esther, Teresa and their neighbors, it was just part of their lives. For some, it may be even harder to imagine fighting for that symbol to be preserved, even designated as a historical site. But that’s exactly what they did.

To hear how the Birwood Wall went from a symbol of hate to the heart of a neighborhood, listen to “The Birwood Wall” now.

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Episode Transcript

Stephanie: Picture this. A Wall. A big gray cement Wall.  It's 6 feet high. A foot thick. And a half mile long. Yes, a half mile long. It goes right through the Eight Mile - Wyoming neighborhood in Detroit. Esther Boyd knows this Wall well. It runs right behind the house she grew up in.

Esther: My dad took me one day. I remember he took me in the backyard and he told me, put your hand on the Wall. Just touch it. And I touched the Wall with my hand. He said, don't ever forget this feeling. Then my dad told me, he said, you know, you're not supposed to cross that Wall because you're Negro. Those were his words.

That's when he brought me back in front of the house and we sat on our porch and he told me everything that he had to go through, that they had to go through for us to have the opportunity just to live in this house.

Stephanie: The wall that Esther had her hand on is called the Birwood Wall. It was built in 1941 to keep people apart. Black people on one side of the Wall. White people on the other. But sometimes, things don’t go as planned.

Stephanie: This is Home. Made. An original podcast by Rocket Mortgage about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode: the Wall that brought a community together.

Stephanie: Esther Boyd’s family has lived in Detroit’s Eight Mile neighborhood for generations.

Esther: When I was younger, my father and his siblings, my aunts and uncles, they set all of us down and they taught us the history.

Stephanie: Back in the 1920s and 30s, Black people were only allowed to live in certain parts of Detroit. One of those places was on the northern edge of the city, around Eight Mile Road - a road that was eight miles from the city center.

At that time, it was kind of a no-man’s land, a place where a mix of impoverished Blacks, Native Americans and immigrants settled. The area had dirt roads winding through woods and farms. Many residents, like Esther’s grandfather, built their own very small, simple homes there.

He worked at the Ford Motor Company, in Dearborn, Michigan, building Model-Ts. Every day, he’d take the trolley to work. And when he came home at night, her grandmother would meet him at the trolley – carrying a shotgun.

Esther: One day they were coming back and my grandmother, she, um, they got so close to the house, they saw all this smoke billowing, just billowing, and it was getting dark.

And when they got closer to their home, it was a cross burning, a big, huge cross. And my grandmother just, you know, she just wasn't gonna take it anymore. So she came out like granny, with that shotgun and she started blasting all in the air. 

Stephanie: Wow.

Esther: Uh-huh.

Stephanie: Eventually, Real estate developers wanted to make this area of Detroit more urban. Many Black families were forced out of their homes. And around 1940, a wealthy developer named James T. McMillan wanted to build a whites-only subdivision here, right next door to the existing Black neighborhood. But when he sought a loan from the Federal Housing Administration, he hit a wall, so to speak.

I’d like to read something to you. It’s short. And, it comes from the 1936 Federal Housing Administration Underwriting manual. It’s basically a long, dense document that lays out how the FHA granted mortgages back then.

Here’s the snippet:  "Natural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood from adverse influences, including the infiltration of inharmonious racial groups.”

“Inharmonious racial groups.” So, yeah. The FHA was explicit: segregate white and black neighborhoods. A wall could do the job.

So that’s what McMillan would do. He proposed building a huge wall and named it the Birwood Wall, after a nearby street. It worked: the FHA approved funding for the new neighborhood, called Blackstone Park.

The Wall went up in 1941, effectively segregating the new white neighborhood from the old Black one.

Esther was born twelve years later. Her grandparents lived near the Wall… but she, her parents and her brothers lived in a housing project in Oakland County, northwest of the city. Like her grandpa, her dad worked long hours in a Ford factory. And he was hatching a plan. But he kept it a secret.

Esther: None of us knew. My mom didn't know. I didn't know.

Stephanie: Even her older brothers didn’t know. And then came the day. Esther was six years old.

Esther:  He said, everybody get in the car. I wanna show you something.

Stephanie: They drove away from the projects. They got closer and closer to Eight Mile. Closer to the Birwood Wall, and closer to the white neighborhood.

Esther: My brothers got scared. They said, um, we, we are not, we can't go over there. We can't go where, where, where are we going? We can't go over there. He said, we can now.

Stephanie: Esther’s dad drove down Birwood Avenue. He parked in front of a house. Their house. A brand new one. Her dad had purchased it under the G.I. Bill. The whole family - they couldn’t believe it. And they jumped out of the car to go look.

Esther: You know, it's just a little three-bedroom home, nothing fantastic or, or fabulous, but it was like they had gave us a million dollars.

Stephanie: The Boyds moved into their home in 1959. The Birwood Wall ran right through the backyard. If you were tall enough, you could peek over the top and see the white neighborhood just on the other side.

Esther remembers that, on the other side, the neighborhood had all kinds of things. A couple of grocery stores, a drive-in, a roller skating rink… She only remembers a few stores in her neighborhood. It was different.

Playing as a kid was different too. On the Black side of the Wall, she’d get into the kind of trouble kids got into that age.

Esther: I was like a tomboy, you know, climbing in trees and doing all of this and that.

Stephanie: But sometimes, she got to visit the other side.

Esther: My mother was a day worker. She cleaned people’s houses. At one point, she had to carry a card, a work card that would allow her to go right on the other side of the Wall to do her day work.

Stephanie: If her mom didn’t have that card,

Esther: She faced the penalty of going to jail.

Stephanie: Sometimes, Esther would join her at work. In one of the houses, there was a little girl the same age as her.

Esther: And we were friends, you know, little girls just playing. I would go over there when my mom would clean the house and we could play, but as far as me getting on a bicycle or trying to walk over there, I could not do that, I couldn’t cross over that Wall to play with her daughter. We knew what we could and could not do.

Stephanie: If you were black in the white neighborhood, you had to prove you were allowed to be there. Her dad got a ticket once when he was passing through the white area. The officer forced him to provide paperwork to show he owned a house nearby. Those memories are dark for her – cards and papers to prove your right to exist.

Esther: And the other day I was looking through some paper. I found that card…

Stephanie: Wow.

Esther: …and I tore it up. I did. I tore it up. I don't never wanna see that again.

Stephanie: The Birwood Wall did its job, and people like Esther vividly remember what it was like to live on the border between two communities. But its power to divide was short-lived.

Throughout the 1960s, a number of laws and court cases invalidated housing discrimination in Detroit. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, making it illegal to segregate housing on the basis of race. White flight also emptied the neighborhood on the other side of the Wall, as families decamped for the suburbs. Both sides of the Wall became majority Black.

But the Birwood Wall remained. Untouched. A hulking, physical reminder of racism.

Teresa: From the time we moved over here, the Wall was always visible to us. I can look out my living room window and see the Wall every day. So it's always been there. It's always been right in front of me.

Stephanie: That's Teresa Moon. She's lived next to the Wall since 1959. Same year as when Esther’s family moved into their new home. Unlike Esther, Teresa's parents never told her about the meaning of the Birwood Wall. It was just part of the landscape.

Teresa: When I was growing up, the Wall was something that we used as, you know, something to play on. You know, you walk the Wall and, you know, for a certain amount of, of feet, and it was a rite of passage.

Stephanie: These days, Teresa is that person in the neighborhood who knows all the names of the local kids, talks to everybody, picks up trash, calls the city when she notices a swing set in the park that needs to be repaired. She’s the unofficial Mayor of her block.

Teresa: They call me Miss Teresa, the kids do. I’m kind of like a community leader, you know. My role is to be a person that can be relied on for information and just keep my community alive.

Stephanie: A very important role.

Teresa: It’s a beautiful thing to do.

Stephanie: Teresa never gave the Wall much thought. And then, a few years ago, she saw a bus pull up to the Wall. A group of white people got out and started snapping pictures.

Teresa: And that just amazed me that white people were at the park. Okay. Cause that's not something we saw at all.

Stephanie: Ok.

Teresa: And they were standing by the Wall, you know? So I went over there and just casually asked 'em, what's up? You know, what's going on? And they said they were from a church. They had come to visit the Wall. And I was like, wow. That's amazing.

Stephanie: The Wall had become a tourist attraction for visitors to Detroit. That’s when Teresa thought: Busloads of people visiting Birwood Wall? That’s a little strange. I better look into this.

Teresa: Right? That's when I really wanted to know more about it. I didn't want people to come over here and go to the Wall and stand there and look at it and not have any information. So I started educating myself. I just googled the Birwood Wall.

Stephanie: Um, what was one of the things that surprised you the most when you started Googling?

Teresa: Well, it’s just the audacity of putting a structure like that to separate this group of people from that group of people because somebody said, this group of people will taint you, or they're bad, or nothing's ever gonna come of them, you know? So, yeah. That's weird to me.

The more I learn about the history in America of Black people, the angrier I get. The things that were done to Black people because they were Black people. The only reason.

Stephanie: Yeah.

Teresa: You know? It's horrible.

Stephanie: Was there a point at which you sort of got pissed off by the Wall?

Teresa: No.

Stephanie: Mm. It's really interesting to me that, like, your anger never went to the Wall.

Teresa: Mm-hmm. No, it never went to the Wall. Not at all.

Stephanie: The thing is – even though the Wall was built expressly to divide people…it doesn’t. It hasn’t for as long as most people can remember. Over time, this half mile long cement slab became a symbol of everything this community had overcome. So, no, many people in the neighborhood -- like Teresa -- are not mad at the Wall. Esther Boyd isn’t angry either.

Esther: No, no, no, no. After you learn the history of this Wall, you can't do anything but respect it.

Stephanie: So you don't think you were ever hurt by the wall?

Esther: Not really. The wall was an opportunity for us. That's the way we looked at it back then. It was a stepping stone up from // living in the projects.

Stephanie: The Wall has been a familiar member of a community that cares for each other. It’s a community that shovels snow for their neighbors in the winter, and that keeps lawns looking sharp in summer. It’s a place where everybody takes care of the kids. Teresa really felt this when she was 15, when her mother died.

Teresa: I didn't have a mother growing up as a teenager, but there were so many people on this block, like Mrs. Scott, who lived down the street. She was one of my mother's best friends. She made sure that we were all right. Mrs. Moore, who lived next door to my grandmother, she stepped in like that. So, yeah, I mean, It's bringing tears to my eyes just to think about how being in this community and the people around here, how, you know, we all, everybody stuck up for each other. So--

Stephanie: Yeah.

Teresa: That kind of brought tears to my eyes. Nah, you made me cry. I'm thinking about that.

Stephanie: And because of this closeness, many people don’t leave.

Teresa: My best friend still lives down the street, and then my other friend lives on the street behind me, um, from first grade. I've known him since the first grade.

Stephanie: It’s the same for Esther - she still runs with her pack from Elementary school.

Esther: Yes. We have a saying in our neighborhood that we're Eight Mile for life. And we're proud of that.

Stephanie: Mm-hmm.

Stephanie: It’s also a neighborhood that likes to party. Easter, Halloween, one event called Everybody Eats, which is self-explanatory. And in June, one of the biggest is a community gathering that takes place at the Wall. There’s storytelling, live music, and a basketball tournament. It’s such a good party, that anyone who has moved away travels back for it. Teresa calls it a “love fest”.

Teresa:  It involves everybody. We have a petting zoo, we have a clown. We have a little train that goes around the park. We cook hot dogs and hamburgers and feed all of the kids.

Stephanie: Your neighborhood sounds really fun.

Teresa: It's cool over here. I'm telling you.

Stephanie: Honestly the neighborhood around the Wall just…seems like a really nice place to live. It’s been a nice place to live for so long, that the Wall has just become a Wall.

Teresa: So that Wall is, I mean, it is what it is. But there's so many other things that I'm mad about. There's so many different components to how we have to exist as black people in America. I have a son who's 42 years old and he's a grown man, but I'm afraid every time he goes out the door that he's not gonna come back.

Stephanie: On a chilly day this past March, Esther and Teresa walked out to the Wall together.

Stephanie: They surveyed it. Big, hulking, a Wall that doesn't come down easy, even if someone wanted it to. They got to a spot where someone tried. At least, that’s the story in the neighborhood.

Teresa: Yeah. What I heard, Esther, was that the person who lived there knocked the Wall down.

Esther: He did.

Teresa: Cause you see how it's different, the cinder blocks where all of this is solid, you know, because he was, he knocked that down.

Esther: He got so angry about having to come out of his house and he knew what that Wall represented. He took a sledgehammer, that's what it was. And he took it down piece by piece by piece. But see they came right out and they fixed it.

Stephanie: Esther, Teresa, and many other community residents do not want the Birwood Wall torn down. On the contrary, they want to give it a second act.

Esther and Teresa next wandered over to a nearby park. Here, artists and local kids have painted a colorful mural on the Wall. It represents this neighborhood, and the larger story of Black history in America.

Teresa: And, and see the, the picture of the guy with the white hair right there?

Esther: Yeah, right there.

Teresa: You see it? That's Mr. Alfonso Wells. That's who this park is named after.

Stephanie: There’s also a scene from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, kids blowing bubbles, and lots of houses painted in different colors. After that park visit, Teresa spoke about her favorite part of the mural.

Teresa:  And that's the part where Harriet Tubman is leading the slaves. Through the forest, she's got a light, like a lantern in her hand, and it's just that part of the Wall is so beautiful. The colors are beautiful. It's like a real royal blue and it's nighttime. So just to look at that is just really, you know, it, the vibe that it gives me is real strong.

Stephanie: The Birwood Wall has become a symbol of what Black people in this neighborhood had to overcome. It's a symbol of the struggle for equal rights. That’s why they want it to stay. Teresa and Esther even fought to have the Wall officially designated as a historical site. And in 2021, it became just that.

Teresa: Having the Wall designated meant a lot to me personally because it indicated, you know, how our country is.

Stephanie: And how things have changed.

Teresa: A little. Not a lot, but a little.

Stephanie: Now, when the unofficial mayor of her block sees a busload of people pulling up, she doesn't let them just take pictures. She walks over. She talks to them. She shares the story of the Wall.

Stephanie: Um, so what do you want people, what do you want them to take away now when they see that Wall?

Teresa: For me it's a symbol of standing your ground. You know, this is our community, this is our neighborhood. We're gonna stay. and build your Wall, we don't care. We're still gonna be here.

Stephanie: Both Teresa and Esther are still there. In fact, both still live in the houses they grew up in.

Esther: This is the house. This is the home where four, four generations of grandkids, everybody has lived in this little house at some time. It's not a lot. You don't have to have a lot to show love. I feel the love when my kids come in here, when my grandkids come in here.

Stephanie: Mm-hmm.

Esther: My grandmother, she lived in this home with us for a long time. She planted a tree in front of our house. It was just a little, like a little stem of a tree. She nurtured that tree until it grew, Ooh, so tall. That's a symbol of what our neighborhood is about.

Stephanie: Esther has passed down the story of the Wall to her children and grandchildren, just like her father did for her.  And sometimes she walks up to the Wall in her backyard and touches it, just like her dad told her to so many years ago. And she feels the history - the neighborhood history, her family history.

Esther: My dad he told me when I was young, he said, you know, you have to fight for everything you want. I look back on some of the things that we went through, what my dad and them had to go through. What other parents around here went through just to give their children a better life. I respect that. I respect that. All of that history, it just overwhelms you. it's hard to explain, but it's a, it is just a feeling that you get. I go out there to the Wall and It's so much overgrowth back there, but in certain places where you look as flowers, wild flowers, all over the Wall.

Stephanie: It's interesting that the Wall has all these paintings and wildflowers on it now, um, because before it was something almost to be feared and now it's turned into something almost kind of beautiful.

Esther: We turned it into that. It was from the people, the love they have for this area. We turned it into that. Nothing else. We did it.

Stephanie: Right.

Esther: Our strength, our respect, dignity for our parents, and what a lot of us went through. Um, it's just the history of it in itself. Some people say, oh, I don't want to hear that. I don't want to hear that. But when, when they hear it, it's like a light goes off. You know, I've seen people walk away from that Wall down there in tears.

Stephanie: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. This episode was written by Sarah Kate Kramer. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade or find a link in the show notes to this episode.

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