Wall built to separate white, black people near 8 Mile stays strong, colorful & relevant

8 Mile Wall_2536When Emory moved into his modest home in northwest Detroit four years ago, he had no idea the six-foot concrete wall in his backyard was erected to keep people like him out.

In 1940, the Federal Housing Administration refused to back a loan for a new housing development just south of 8 Mile on Birwood unless the developer erected a half-mile-long wall to keep out a growing number of black families who were trying to become homeowners. At the time, the federal government routinely denied mortgage assistance in areas considered too close to black communities.

That was about 20 years before Emory was born. Now it’s hard finding anyone who wants to live on either side of the buffer known as “Birwood Wall,” “8 Mile Wall” and “Wailing Wall.”  Decades of white flight and discrimination have left the area devastated. A long-abandoned boat rots in the backyard of a house spray painted with the words, “Keep out!” Many homes are burned out or scrapped.

But Emory keeps up his home. He’s eager to show visitors the mural on the concrete wall in his back yard. It depicts three children escaping slavery in the Underground Railroad. The KKK looks on.

“You’re not prejudiced or nothing?” he asked me. “I think we were all just born to have families and work and do positive things,” Emory told me. “I don’t think I’m any better than you, and I don’t think you’re better than me. We’re equals.”

Next to Emory’s house is Alfonso Wells Memorial Park, where the gray wall is painted with images of smiling children, diversity and the civil rights struggle.

Click the first photo to begin a tour.

All photos by Steve Neavling.

Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at sneavling@gmail.com. 

Steve Neavling, who lives on the city’s east side, is an investigative journalist, a freelance reporter for Reuters and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Neavling explores corruption, Detroit’s unsung heroes and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.