Birwood Wall
(Király-Seth via Wikimedia)

On Nov. 4, Einhorn did a presentation on Zoom for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, “Detroit Jews, Segregation and the Birwood Wall.”

A wall runs half a mile south from Eight Mile Road to Pembroke Avenue. The Birwood Wall is easy to miss. It runs down an alley between backyards, and it does not cross any intersections. The physical wall seems inconspicuous, but it has a heavy history. The Birwood Wall is a segregation wall, one of the few of its kind still standing. 

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

NBC News Reporter Erin Einhorn and Olivia Lewis of BridgeDetroit explored the disturbing history of this wall in a joint special of NBC news and BridgeDetroit published on July 19. 

On Nov. 4, Einhorn did a presentation on Zoom for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, “Detroit Jews, Segregation and the Birwood Wall.” 

Einhorn explains, “One of the reasons I wanted to do this presentation is . . . my reporting uncovered a lot of interesting Jewish angles . . . that were interesting to me as Jew from Metro Detroit.”

Einhorn grew up West Bloomfield, “which at the time was very diverse ethnically, but not racially.” She notes that “the vast majority of America, Black or white, grew up in a segregated neighborhood with people who look like themselves.” 

How did that happen? 

“There’s a myth out there that people live in segregated neighborhoods because they choose to, because they want to live around people who look like themselves,” Einhorn explains. “In reality, there are decades and decades of federal housing policy, regional policy and urban policy that deliberately separated people, and the wall is a really concrete example.

“The wall was actually built in response to federal housing policies that date back to the New Deal under Roosevelt,” she adds.

The well-known federal housing policies, mortgage guarantees that enabled working and middle-class families to own their own homes, worked for white families but explicitly shut Black families out. 

A History of Discrimination

In the first decades of the 20th century, Detroit’s population tripled, as workers surged into the area attracted by plentiful manufacturing jobs. Black people came up from the South in the Great Migration; white people came from across the country; Jews and others who could escape Europe also came to Detroit. The housing supply did not grow fast enough to accommodate the influx of people. 

But federal lenders would not lend for housing in Black neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods were redlined, meaning that a buyer could not get help with a mortgage in those neighborhoods. Buyers would resort to predatory loans or a land contract, which put the borrower at a big disadvantage. Deeds in white neighborhoods often had restrictive covenants, prohibiting sale to Black people and sometimes to Jews. In this neighborhood, the clause read ““by any persons not of pure, unmixed, white Caucasian race.”

Eventually, the federal government, as part of the New Deal, provided a network of programs to help lift working-class white families into home ownership — but not Black families. The problem was older than the New Deal. In 1925, when a developer wanted to put middle-class housing (Blackstone Park No. 6) in Greenfield Township, then just outside of Detroit, he couldn’t get financing because the area was too close to land owned by Black families. 

Black families, escaping overcrowding in Paradise Valley and Black Bottom in Detroit, had purchased land and put-up temporary housing in Greenfield Township, saving up to build more permanent structures. Bankers would not lend to housing so close to the Black neighborhood, that at least one resident called “shacktown.”

The Birwood Wall shortly after construction in 1941
The Birwood Wall shortly after construction in 1941 Library of Congress
The Birwood Wall

In 1941, the developers built a wall separating the Black community to the east from the new housing in the west. With the symbolic physical barrier in place, they could finance luxury housing west of the wall for white purchasers, without considering the proximity of Black families. The NBC News and BridgeDetroit researchers confirmed that James T. McMillan, head of a leading Detroit family, arranged to build the wall. 

At the time the wall was built, many neighborhoods were off limits to Jews. The white side of this wall was not such a neighborhood. “This was a part of the city where Jews could live. Actually, my father grew up not far from there,” Einhorn says. 

In her research, Einhorn interviewed dozens of people who lived on either side of the wall. “Among the white folks that I interviewed who grew up like a block or two from that wall, none of them even knew what was there,” she says, “but maybe their parents knew it was there.” The Black families knew what the wall meant. 

“Jews at that time . . . didn’t have all their rights, but they were benefiting from these federal housing policies in ways that Black folks couldn’t,” Einhorn says. 

Living on the wrong side of the wall had consequences for building intergenerational wealth and also for education, medical care and employment opportunities. The wall itself became less significant in1948 when the Supreme Court declared it illegal to enforce restrictive covenants. Black people could then buy on both sides of the Birwood Wall, but other obstacles continued to limit opportunities for Black buyers, as whites moved to the suburbs. Detroit remains one of the most segregated cities in the country.

Einhorn summarizes: “And none of that was an accident.” 

Even people who have learned about redlining and restrictive covenants still can feel that this story has nothing to do with them. 

“They’ve operated their lives assuming that everything that they have and all the ways they’ve succeeded, are directly a result of their own hard work,” she says. 

Some of the people who lived on the white side of the wall, many, in fact, were victims of antisemitism; and they did work hard. They might, Einhorn notes, “be offended if you suggest that they have also benefited from a racist policy.” 

But they did.  

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