Some Racial Barriers Just Never Go Away

By Stan Friedman

DETROIT, MI (June 27, 2013) – The wall is called by different names – the Birwood Wall for the neighborhood in which it exists, Detroit’s Berlin Wall for the segregation it enforced, and the Wailing Wall for the racial tensions it recalls and that still exist.

A group of Mission Detroit participants stopped by the six-foot-high, one-foot thick, half-mile long concrete wall that once was a barrier between black and white neighborhoods. It runs from a playground (not there at the time the wall was built) to just south of 8 Mile Road.

It was built in response to federal government policies.

In the 1940s, the Federal Home Administration would only back mortgages for homes in homogenous neighborhoods. Otherwise, it believed, homes would not hold their values. In addition to separating blacks and whites, it also was meant to keep Jews away from others.

Here in Detroit, a developer who wanted to build homes near an existing black community wasn’t able to get a loan until after he conceived the idea to build the wall. In recent years, an artist led a mural project to announce a better future is possible and one to be worked towards.

It is a history largely forgotten. Even a man named Emery, a resident whose home is next to the end of the wall, told the group he had been unaware of its history until a student working on a report explained its history.

Harvey Carey, pastor of Citadel of Faith Covenant Church, the fastest-growing multicultural church in the region, became an impromptu speaker to the group – and they asked him questions.

Carey, who served 20 years as the youth and assistant pastor at of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, was asked by someone in the group to compare issues of race between the two cities. He responded that the greatest difference was rooted in the lack of ethnic diversity and broader economic disparity.

Detroit is more than 80 percent African American, according to the most recent U.S. Census Data. “Here, you can literally go days and days and days without meeting someone of a different culture,” Carey said.

“The disparities are so defined here,” Carey added. The poor live in the city, while most people who have been able to afford to leave have done so.

The Birwood Wall was a physical barrier to keeping people apart, but now 8 Mile Road acts as a demarcation line. “8 Mile Road is a euphemism,” Carey said. Many non-African Americans say they won’t go south of 8 Mile Road.”

“A lot of churches would rather give money to China than cross 8 Mile Road,” said Bob Hoey, pastor of Messiah Covenant Church.

The physical and cultural separation, historical remembrance, and misunderstanding have led to a level of mistrust that is much higher in Detroit than in Chicago, Carey said.

Attitudes and life realities only further the divide. Carey noted that he would rather drive to a large home supply store in the suburbs rather than one located in the city.

In the city, everyone is checked by security as they leave, while there is no such hassle in the suburban store. “I understand it, but I don’t want to have to go through it,” he said.

But for the people who must shop in the city limits, “It adds to their humiliation.”

Elsewhere in the city, some 250 Mission Detroit participants were working to help provide medical care at mobile trailers operated by Covenant Community Care, cleaning streets where grass and weeds had grown several feet high, and boarding up abandoned buildings.

Fernando Ramirez, a member of Esperanza Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, helped with the cleanup crew at one site even though his left arm was in a thick sling as he recovers from rotator cuff surgery he underwent six weeks earlier. His reason for participating was simple. “I just wanted to help.”

Asked if his doctor would approve, he responded with a laugh saying, “I don’t think so.”

Later in the evening, the Mission Detroit teams gathered for dinner and worship at Citadel of Faith. Teams continued their work Thursday morning.

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