8 Mile 4 Life
Trymaine Lee: Racism and discrimination can leave ugly scars. Some are more visible than others. We can see it in our school systems, mass incarceration, our healthcare system, but sometimes it's made of brick and mortar. One of the most visible manifestations of this legacy of ours still standing today is a wall in Detroit.
The Eight Mile Wall was built in 1941 to separate Black people from white people in what is now Detroit's Wyoming neighborhood. Despite the name it runs about a half a mile long, from Eight Mile Road to Pembroke Avenue. It's also sometimes called the Birwood Wall or the Wailing Wall of Detroit. And while legal segregation has been undone, Detroit's Eight Mile Wall remains a symbol of the barriers that still stand.
Erin Einhorn: The wall was going to happen because we didn't have the power to do anything about it.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today we're bringing you the story of the Eight Mile Wall and how it's shaped the lives of generations of Detroit residents. To get the back story of this, I talked with Erin Einhorn, a national reporter for NBC News, and Olivia Lewis, a reporter for a local nonprofit news room called Bridge Detroit.
Both are based in the city, and they teamed up recently to research the Eight Mile Wall and its impact. They told me about how the Eight Mile community started as Black enclave just North of Detroit known as Shacktown. Olivia says it all started in the 1910s with the great migration.
Olivia Lewis: There was this family, the Cruz (PH) family. They were one of the first families to move there. And much like other Black people for decades were a part of the great migration of this leaving the South in search of jobs, housing, you know, following other family members to Northern and Midwestern cities.
And so they started this neighborhood called Shacktown. It was an area was nothing. There was nothing there, and so they were able to build these tar paper shacks they could build onto later. So day by day, you build on a little bit more to your home, and it became this small neighborhood that was eventually called Shacktown. But it was a Black neighborhood at first.
Lee: You know, I wanted to ask you about that, Erin. So we often speak broadly about kind of how Black communities, especially back in the era were bound up by Jim Crow and the redlining. But talk to us about the illegal impositions on these communities and what that actually looked like.
Einhorn: You know, in the '30s, you had the New Deal. You had these housing policies that existed to try to pull the nation out of the Depression. You know, we're gonna make it affordable for working people to own their own home. We're gonna have these federally backed mortgages.
But those federally backed mortgages weren't available in every neighborhood. The federal government used these color-coded maps, and if your neighborhood was color-coded blue or green, you could qualify for these federally backed mortgages or these loans and this financing.
And if your neighborhood was colored red, and the vast majority of Black neighborhoods in the country were colored red, you couldn't get those loans. And your only way to get financing to take your shack and make it home was to go to predatory lenders or, you know, know a guy.
And you couldn't move to the blue neighborhood or the green neighborhood where you could get those loans, because a lotta those neighborhoods had restrictive deeds, restrictive covenants in their deeds that said, you know, "If you weren't white, you couldn't live here." And that was the case in this community that we're writing about as well.
Lee: Well, let me ask you this, Olivia. So you have Shacktown. You have a bunch of folks who were hoping to find some freedom and some land that they can build and grow on. But when did this area catch the attention of white developers, and what happened next?
Lewis: Yeah, so I would say that was around 1920s. There were news reports that said that they were going to be developing this area and that it would be this grand neighborhood. And it's not that it specifically said that "it's just for white people," like, in the paper. But it's just that, oh, we're gonna have this grand neighborhood, that there will be space and these new homes and new development, and it sounds just so amazing to live here.
But unfortunately, it's right next to this Black neighborhood of Shacktown. And so the wall wasn't actually completed until 1941, but it was put there because it was too close, this new development was just too close to this Black neighborhood.
Lee: In the course of their reporting, Erin and Olivia discovered that one of Detroit's most prominent families, the McMillans, built the wall and developed the white neighborhood on the West Side. It was news that members of the McMillan family, still power players in Detroit today say they didn't know until now. Here's Erin again.
Einhorn: I think one of the things that surprised us as we were doing the reporting is that, you know, it turns out that if you were trying to build a new development near a red-line community you couldn't get funding either. And so the way the federal policy was set up at the time, you know, if you built a physical barrier between a new development and a red-lined area, you could go ahead and get funding.
You know, so they in 1941 come and they dig a trench, and they put in a concrete wall, six feet high, half a mile long. It's, you know, four inches thick. And, you know, it didn't keep anybody in or out necessarily. It didn't, like, go across the streets. So you had cross streets running through it. You could walk down around it, but it was a very, very clear symbol about, you know, who was welcome on the other side of the wall.
Rose Mckinney-james: It was a message, "Be careful about how you tread, be careful about what you dream for, be careful about what you aspire to, because there will be those who are going to make very significant efforts to block that progress."
Lee: This is Rose McKinney-James, a 69-year-old woman whose great-grandparents were among the early settlers in what was then Shacktown. Ms. Rose lives in Las Vegas now, but she still has a lot of love for her hometown.
Mckinney-james: I had to give up the snow, but I still have wonderful, fond memories and great affection for both the state of my birth and the city of my beginning.
Lee: What are some of your fondest memories of Detroit when you think back to those early days in the D? What are some of your favorite memories?
Mckinney-james: Well, you know, growing up with my grandparents, I had a pretty significant foundation around community. I remember church outings and my neighbors very fondly. And I actually had an opportunity to spend some time with my neighbor not too long ago givin' a visit to Detroit. And she's 101 years old. There's a richness about family and community there.
Lee: So you think back to family and fellowship and those beautiful neighbors of yours, and then also in the neighborhood is this big old conspicuous wall. And I want to ask you about your earliest memories of the wall and what it meant to you beginning to understand the world around you.
Mckinney-james: I have to say that there was a sadness associated with the wall, because I could tell, based on my grandmother's reactions to it that it was something that brought her painful memories. For me as a youngster, it was a very intimidating physical representation of the separateness of life. And I couldn't quite understand all of the basis for it.
Lee: What do you remember hearing from your grandmother or seeing in her face that it was clear to you even as a child that this big old thing stirred something in her and disturbed her?
Mckinney-james: Well, I can recall vividly on our trips to church, given the fact that either we would pass it or she would make a specific effort to drive by it that she would share stories about the work that the community had undertaken together to try to advance their opportunity to have a home. And how there were those who were steadfastly opposed to that, and that the wall was a symbol of their not just reluctance, but their unwillingness to allow Black families to establish homes in the area.
Lee: Ms. Rose's grandmother, Burniece Avery, became an activist and helped lead community efforts against the wall and other discriminatory practices.
Mckinney-james: She was a really gentle creature, but she was also someone who felt very strongly about right and wrong. She knew how important it was for my great-grandparents to find a place to call their own, because they'd been sharecroppers in the South. They wanted her to have an education.
They wanted her to find opportunities that had not been available to them. My great-grandparents were amongst many families who sought her out as someone who could be a spokesperson. Her view was that as a community they had more power than they would as individuals. So she helped them to organize, and she created a community council and used that as a way to express their desire to see change occur in the way that they were being treated relative to fair housing.
Lee: And in fighting housing discrimination as we understand now that there is an overlap, right. It all begins with housing segregation, your access to quality healthcare and quality education, the air you breathe, the water you drink. It all kinda begins with where you live and where your house is. And I know your grandmother's focus on this, you know, was important to her and the community. And I know that she wrote about some of this in her memoir. And I would love you to share a little bit from her memoir for us.
Mckinney-james: Okay. I actually have a couple of passages. Let me just read one that I found as I was preparing to chat with you. "Homes to the East of us, homes to the South of us, homes for the West of us, but nothing for us was the way the home seekers summed it up."
And then she goes on to say, "So the six-foot concrete wall remained on the line of the alley at the rear of Birwood, but the humiliating did not phase them." Sort of an indication of their willingness to stand up and step up against what was both the humiliation of the wall as well as the barrier that it presented toward them achieving their goals.
This is a fundamental part of what has been described as the American dream. And we were being deprived of that. Black families were being deprived of that dream that said, "If you work hard, if you present yourself in a certain fashion, you are going to be given the opportunity to receive a return on that investment."
Lee: How did, from what you understand of your grandmother and I would say the community at large, how do you think that they summoned the strength, the courage, the fortitude to push forward even in the face of a massive wall, a literal wall?
Mckinney-james: I don't know where they found it. They probably don't know either. But it was obviously very deeply seated. And it had to do with their commitment to community, their commitment to family, and their commitment to fairness.
Lee: So the fight can be won on many fronts, right, and there are battles that are won and some that are lost. And that wall is still standing. But I wonder in this broader war for equality and fairness in housing if your grandmother won some other victory? Because again the wall's still there, but in her fight and her pursuit for equality, were there other victories?
Mckinney-james: I'd say there were ultimate victories, because at the end of the day, my great-grandparents, my grandmother owned their own homes. They were, in fact, able to build homes. The wall was still their, but they were able to advance that aspect of their dream, and they were able to continue to be contributing members of their communities, their church communities, the community at large.
Lee: So ultimately, your family left the Eight Mile neighborhood in Detroit. Talk to us about how your family ended up leaving and why.
Mckinney-james: My grandmother's dream was that they would have a home big enough to house everyone. And then, of course, I came along and my brother came along, and so they needed more room. I think that was one of the motivating factors. The move to Longfellow, to the Boston-Edison area of Detroit was something that fulfilled this lifetime goal of my grandmother's and allowed me to attend elementary school in an area that was at that point quite integrated and allowed me to turn a corner for my own personal development by being exposed to people and experiences that were different.
And for the first time in my life, I recognized that my neighbors looked different. They were of different backgrounds, different ethnicities. But I think my grandmother was making a bigger statement with respect to her view of housing, that integration was an important step toward helping society acknowledge that we could in fact live together comfortably and, you know, without conflict.
Lee: Do you think that thing should come down? Or do you think it should stand as a reminder of where we've been?
Mckinney-james: My view is it should stand until it crumbles over time. And I think it will crumble over time. But I think the fact that the city has recognized it, surrounded it with a park, given people an opportunity to see it so they can reflect on what it means, I think that's an important step.
And I have to say, my grandmother was 6'1", a very significant presence, if you will. I didn't quite make it to 6'1", but I'm almost six feet. And when I went to see the wall recently, I realized that I could look over that wall. As an adult I can look over and beyond that wall. I believe the wall is symbolic. We've been able to achieve great and significant improvements over time.
Lee: You know, I love what you said right there and the idea of this wall as an allusion towards the other many walls that are before us in America as Black people. But we are tall people with our backs erect, and we can see over that wall. I love the way you say that, because at six-foot tall, your grandmother could see over that, and we can see the opportunities. And despite those walls, we continue to build over, climbing under, around, and makin' a way where there is no way.
Lee: We'll be right back.
Teresa Moon: A lot of us wear a bracelet that says Eight Mile For Life.
Lee: Teresa Moon is one of the Eight Mile neighborhood's biggest cheerleaders.
Moon: I have about 30 T-shirts that say something in regards to this neighborhood, like, "I was born and raised on Eight Mile," "My roots are on Eight Mile." You know, it's just, I think it was what our parents instilled in us.
Lee: Ms. Teresa's family moved to the neighborhood in 1959, just as Ms. Rose's was moving out. By the time they arrived, white flight had taken hold, and both sides of the wall were Black.
Moon: There was a playground right across the street from where I lived. That's where the wall is. And everybody played over there. I mean, the big kids, the little kids, the parents sat on the porch in the summertime. Parents visited each other's houses, and it was just really like a big family over here.
You know, one of the things about this community is the resilience of it, the resilience of the people out here. We're, like, "No, this is our community, and we want to stay." And that same commitment and passion still is prevalent over here.
Lee: I wanna ask you about your earliest memories of the wall and what the wall symbolized to you.
Moon: I didn't really know about the wall until I was a teenager, like, 15 or 16 years old. And at that time, the country was goin' through a lot at that time. Vietnamese war, you know, all that kinda stuff was goin' on. So to learn about the wall and put it in perspective, oh yeah, it angered me. It angered me that someone had the audacity to do that, to put up a wall that I could stand on my tiptoes and look over to separate me from white people. I mean, that's the craziest thing I ever heard.
Lee: How far was the wall from, like, the house where your family grew up? Were you seeing this wall and just assumed it was just a wall? What was the experience like before you knew what was going on?
Moon: I can look out my front window and see it right now. It's right across the street from me. There used to be houses over there, but there weren't many. There were maybe on that side of the block maybe six or seven houses, if that many. And those houses were torn down, and they made it a park.
And actually there were two streets, because the street where the wall is is Birwood Street. They turned that street into their cul-de-sacs, so that encapsulates the park. But the wall was just a wall. That's all we ever called it was the wall, you know. And to find out later on what it really represented was, like, wow. That's crazy, you know.
Lee: Ms. Teresa made a career working for the city, but now her unofficial job is to care for her neighborhood.
Moon: I retired from the city eight years ago goin' on nine years. And when I retired, I said, "I'm goin' back to my community and I'm gonna do somethin'." And it just, like, it's just a constant flow of tryin' to make things better over here.
Lee: She pointed to that playground right outside of her window.
Moon: That has been a playground for as long as I can remember, and it's got a name now, because there was a guy in our neighborhood, Mr. Wells. He was a really big community activist. I think part of my passion comes from growin' up around him, you know.
I mean, I don't know how you grew up, but for me to go over there and tend to and to take care of it and make sure that, you know, I go every morning and pick up the trash. You know, I have a flower garden over there. You know, I have such a connection with the parks and rec department that I can call them and say, "Hey look, you know, such and such needs to be taken care of," and they come and take care of it.
Lee: Years ago, the City of Detroit commissioned a mural for the wall painted by local artist Chaz Miller and the nonprofit Motor City Blight Busters.
Moon: You know, when I was growin' up, it was just a gray concrete wall, but it's got this beautiful mural on it. It's painted a sky blue background. It depicts pictures of kids playing, bubbles. There's a scene of Rosa Parks gettin' on a bus. There's a picture of Mr. Alfonso Wells who was our community activist.
There's another portion with Harriet Tubman on it leading slaves, you know, to the Underground Railroad. And so it's beautiful. I mean, they did that in 2006, and it's still as vibrant and as, you know, colorful as it was when they did it. And when you think about what it represented when it was originally put there, and someone took the time to make it beautiful for us, I'm just really appreciative.
Lee: The wall is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places through the National Park Service, and it's become a tourist attraction.
Moon: Initially when this first started happenin', you know, people started visitin' the wall, I was just a little taken aback that it was even bein' recognized for what it was. And I took it upon myself to be the ambassador for it, you know, 'cause I didn't want people to go over there and stand there and look at it and not have anybody to say to them how they feel about it, how I feel about it as a Black person, you know.
A lotta Black people that come just want the history, because it's important to them. You know, most of the white people who come to visit have a real solemn kinda, "I'm sorry" type of, you know, feeling about it. And some of 'em cry, like, "I'm sorry this happened to you."
I mean, crying and saying you're sorry doesn't negate what it is and what still happens in America today. My thing is that, it's not our job as a Black community to make a change. It's white people that need to make the change, okay. They need to start to turn things around. We've been standing here patiently waiting for that, you know. Patiently waiting to be recognized as human beings, as people who contribute. So give us our recognition.
Lee: Do you think that the wall should be torn down? Should that wall exist there?
Moon: Yeah, it should.
Moon: People need to know about that barrier. People need to know that that happened. And I'm glad that they made it a historical landmark, you know. I'm glad that they did, because, you know, it gives credence to this community and this neighborhood this side of town.
Lee: What is special about this community when you describe the sense of togetherness and feeling of fellowship and homecoming? But what is it about this neighborhood, this community that is so special?
Moon: You know, I wish I could put my finger on it and give you a real defined answer. It's just Eight Mile. My roots are on Eight Mile. I think it was what our parents instilled in us when we were growin' up about the ownership, about taking care of each other, about being concerned about who you are, where you are and what you say, you know, and how you speak your truth.
I mean, it's just a part of us. This neighborhood has been such a big part of my life, it's, like, in my DNA. So things have changed a lot and for a lotta reasons, but one thing I can say about the Eight Mile Wyoming community is that there's a lotta love over here and there's a lotta compassion. I mean, like, we all beat as one heart over here. When you talk about Eight Mile to somebody, it speaks in one voice. I mean, like I said, I guess it came from how we were raised to claim, you know, what's ours. And this is ours over here. (MUSIC)
Lee: That was Teresa Moon and Rose McKinney-James. You can read more of Erin Einhorn and Olivia Lewis's reporting at NBCNews.com. There's also a new NBC digital documentary to complement the story. We'll drop those links in our show notes. If there are stories in your neighborhood that you think we should know about, just get in touch.
As always, you can tweet me at Trymaine Lee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or write to us IntoAmerica@NBCUni.com. That was IntoAmerica@NBC and the letters U-N-I dot com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Shaka Tafari, and Aisha Turner. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next week.