Reflecting on the past to move forward: 5 key places, moments in Detroit's history of racial tension

Bob Hoey and his family lived a couple of miles away from the Birwood Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall and the Eight Mile Wall) on the northwest side of Detroit.


The half-mile-long, 6-foot-tall wall is a symbol of redlining and a literal barrier that separated communities of color from white neighborhoods.


But growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, Hoey, who is white, says he was unaware of it and the racism it represented.


“I had really very little awareness of the bigger picture of racial disparity,” he says.


As he grew older, he says his “conscience woke up.” In high school, he joined a student group called SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) and started reading books and discussing race.


“That's when an awakening began,” he says.


It’s an awakening that has led to years of advocating for justice. Today, Hoey, an Evangelical Covenant pastor with Hope Community Church, leads small groups on tours that explore the city’s history of systemic racism, and one of the stops on the itinerary is the Birwood Wall.


In 2013, Hoey developed what is called the Arc of Justice tour, which takes its name from the book of the same name about Dr. Ossian Sweet (his house, a national landmark, is also on the tour), with the goal of bringing churches and individuals together to learn about defining moments in Detroit’s history of racial tensions and creating understanding of why racism persists today.


Hoey explains the Evangelical Covenant Church emphasizes “racial righteousness.”

“And they call it righteousness rather than reconciliation, because reconciliation implies that there was a time when it was right,” he says.


Hoey still co-facilitates the tour but today he gives more of the historical perspective while letting Black Detroiters, or stakeholders as he says, share their stories.


“We need to listen. And if our goal is really the well-being of all, we need others to tell us what's required to make things well, and, what can make things right. So that's why we have the tour. Each tour has been different. They have some similar themes, but it's a listening opportunity and a reflecting opportunity to grow toward a more just Detroit.”


On a recent hot July morning, Hoey, joined by Jason Ridgeway and Chris Turner, took Model D on the Arc of Justice Tour. Ridgeway is a retired Detroit firefighter and Turner is a native Detroiter whose father was a Detroit police officer.



Stop 1: Redlining in Detroit: Eight Mile Road and The Birwood Wall

Participants take in the Birwood Wall during a tour in June.

Black residents started moving in the area south of Eight Mile near Wyoming in the 1930s and 1940s eager for the opportunity to build their own homes.


“Some Blacks found that they could move out here to the northwest edge of Detroit and be left alone,” Hoey says.


In the early 1940s a white developer wanted to build there. The Federal Housing Administration didn’t want to back loans in a “risky” neighborhood, i.e. a neighborhood close to Black residents.


“They would mark areas that they considered risky with red, which … [led to] redlining,” Hoey says.


The developer’s solution? Build a wall to separate the Black community from the new white development.


“The community over the years has chosen to keep this wall as a remembrance,” Hoey says. “…[There are] murals on it now depicting many heroic lives lived in the African American community and the struggle. It's a work of art really, but it's also a marker that this happened.”


These discriminatory policies prohibited Black Detroiters from building wealth, families like Ridgeway’s, not just in northwest Detroit but all over the city.


In 1957, his father purchased the home where he grew up at 30th and Buchanan Streets in Southwest Detroit for $8,000. Ridgeway’s father would go on to purchase seven houses between 1957 and 1970. When his father passed away, Ridgeway says the family got $120,000 — for all of them.


“In 1957 that $8,000 with a 3.6% inflation rate in 2020, that $8,000 will be worth $74,000 today,” Ridgeway says. “When we sold the house in 2003 we got $20,000 for it. So that house actually sold for less than what my father paid.”


When they sold the houses, Ridgeway says, the average price of a house was $181,000. If they had sold the houses at that price (and considering two of the properties were four-unit buildings and worth more), he calculates they should’ve gotten nearly $1.1 million.


“Instead, because of where they were located and because of the system of racism, we received about $120,000.”


“So the wall doesn’t just represent physical separation. The wall to me is a physical manifestation of systemic racism. When you look at the wall, you should be able to see what our government did to ensure that white people [were] able to increase their wealth and black people couldn't.”

Stop 2: Rosa Parks (12th) and Clairmount: The civil unrest of 1967


At the corner of Rosa Parks and Clairmount is Gordon Park, which features checkerboards built into tabletops, a wooden stage, and a playground and fitness equipment. On this hot Wednesday morning, it’s empty.


In 1967, on another hot July day, it was the epicenter of the 1967 civil unrest when police raided a blind pig in the early morning hours. People filled the avenue in an attempt to cool off in the midst of a brutal heat wave. A crowd gathered as police took people at the blind pig into custody, and a brick thrown at a police cruiser sparked what would become “the largest civil disturbance of twentieth century America.”


Over the course of five days, more than 40 people were killed, including three teenagers at the Algiers Motel, which was captured in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 movie, “Detroit;” hundreds injured, and more than 7,000 arrested, not to mention hundreds of fires that devastated the city, scars of which haven’t healed to this day.


A plaque at the park says that while the incidents of violence were “spontaneous, they were in response to poverty, segregation, racism, unemployment, ‘frustration of powerlessness’ and police actions that enforced a double standard for how people of different races were treated.”


“People tend to look at riots as a singular event, that they happen with no context, no precursor,” Turner says. “And nothing can be further from the truth.”


“The context is that people want to act like this thing comes from out of nowhere. It never does. It never will. Someone tried to tell you several times, but people didn't listen. And so, as with anything else, if people continually don't listen to you about something that is very serious, then eventually they'll get pissed off. And eventually, something gets set on fire. But even in that context, the stuff that got burned down here was primarily the result of how the police responded.”


Ridgeway says during the Great Migration, people came to Detroit in search of a better life.


“A lot of those people fled the South not just in search of better jobs, they fled terror. So you flee terror in the south, from the Klan, from white supremacy groups, people who post-Reconstruction wanted to keep you down or in your place. Now you come north, you do get a better job, but you still face the same thing. And then you start to lose those jobs. You start to not be able to get adequate housing, and it leads to something like the riots.”


In this moment as the country faces a reckoning on race in recent weeks after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police, Turner wonders how long it will take for people to actually listen.


At this particular stop on the tour, both Ridgeway and Turner reflect on instances when they were confronted by police. Ridgeway turned the wrong way on a one-way street and found himself at the end of an officer’s pistol in front of his house, and Turner was pulled over because he “pulled onto the freeway too quickly.”


“We are always worried about a violent outcome when we deal with the police,” Turner says. “We're just always worried about it. And my dad was a cop, and he was the main one telling me that.”


Stop 3: The Ossian Sweet house

A two-story, four-bedroom brick Craftsman-style bungalow stands at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix. It looks like any middle-class family home, and it was once the home of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family. Sweet purchased the home in May 1925 for $18,500, and he was drawn to the east-side neighborhood because Black Bottom was getting crowded, and he wanted a better life for his young family.


The white residents in the neighborhood didn’t see it that way.


The Sweets moved into their home on Garland Street on Sept. 8, 1925, and were met with a hostile crowd, which gathered outside.


Sweet famously said he could live as a man or die as a coward, and he made the choice to live as the former, so he had friends and relatives stay in the house. They had guns and ammo to protect themselves and the house.


The next day, the crowd swelled to a mob of several hundred people who began hurling rocks and bottles at the house. By evening, several shots were fired from the house into the crowd, and two men were shot, one fatally. Everyone in the house was arrested on charges of first-degree murder.


The NAACP brought in lawyer Clarence Darrow, fresh off the Scopes trial, who argued that people, regardless of race, had the right to protect their homes. The first trial ended with a mistrial and the second ended in acquittal.


Sweet moved back into the house in 1928 and lived there for the next 30 years. Tragically he lost his wife and his brother to illness, and died of an apparent suicide in 1960.


The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Today it’s owned by Daniel Baxter, who grew up in the home and worked to get the home’s historical designation. The goal is to create a museum that pays homage to the house’s history.


Stop 4: Black Bottom/Lafayette Park

Standing in the parking lot of the Lafayette Towers Center shopping center, “we are right in the Black Bottom, Paradise Valley neighborhoods,” Hoey says. “And these were the areas where Blacks were restricted to be, which is ironic. Now, Comerica Park’s in it, Ford Field’s in it. So it has become a desirable community. But this was the most thriving African American community in Detroit.”


Paradise Valley was Detroit’s African American business and entertainment district from the 1930s-50s. Hot spots like 606 Horseshoe Lounge, Club Plantation, and Club 666 played host to the likes of legends such as Duke Ellington. By the 1950s, the strip was famous for its vibrant music scene.


Hastings Street, which ran north-south through Black Bottom, was also where Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, opened New Bethel Baptist Church.


Then came the construction of freeways, which “went right to the heart of the African American community. And this area was razed, the whole Hastings street area was razed.”


In the 1960s, the city launched an “urban renewal” program to combat “urban blight.” Many of the residents moved to public housing projects as a result.


The land was left fallow, Hoey continues, before Lafayette Park, a Mies Van Der Rohe development, was built for the “for the upwardly mobile and initially largely white, although that has since changed over the years. But it was another dagger in the heart of the black community.”


Stop 5: Stones of Remembrance / The Black Presence in Detroit (Detroit Riverfront)

The tour concludes on the Detroit Riverfront, where a circular concrete marker with three black plaques commemorate “The Black Presence in Detroit.” The plaques trace the history of Black people in the city, from when French-speaking Catholics arrived to the 1760s when the British brought slaves to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.


The last line of the third plaque reads: “As you can see around you, revitalization has begun. The struggle to revive Detroit continues and remains the responsibility of all.”


Standing near this “hallowed ground,” Ridgeway recalls the first encounter he had when police stopped him (it would happen again in his 20s and 30s). He was 17, and his mother worked at the Renaissance Center, in one of the upper floors in Tower 400, which offered an excellent view of the Fourth of July fireworks.


“You didn’t have to look up,” he says.


Before the fireworks that year, Ridgeway and his friends were walking around the building when a police officer approached them. Ridgeway had just accepted his football scholarship to Michigan State, and he looked every bit like a football player. The officer asked them what they were doing there; the Renaissance Center was closed that day. Ridgeway said they had passes to watch the fireworks.


The officer wanted to see the passes, and Ridgeway complied. Then the officer took the passes, took the boys to the front door, and said get out.


“ ‘You probably stole those passes,’” Ridgeway recalls, who told the officer, “ ‘I'm not going anywhere. We have passes, we are supposed to be here my mother works here. I'm not leaving.’ And so I walked up, proceeded to take my passes back and he reached back and put his hand on his pistol and told me, ‘Come on, do it, do it. I want you to I want you to.’”


At that point his partner, another white cop, intervened. “He had been watching the whole thing and stepped in and said, ‘Hey, man, that's enough. Leave him alone.’ He took the passes from the guy, gave them back to me and said, ‘Go ahead, y'all get out of here.’”


Later, his mother asked him if he wanted to report the incident and Ridgeway said no. But as he watched the fireworks, he thought about what the Fourth of July symbolized — freedom, independence, equality — and at 17 he realized it didn’t.


Years later, racism still persists, and Ridgeway says he questions his faith at times but he’s not going to stay silent. And he hopes others do the same.


“It's not enough just for you not to be racist. No, you got to be anti-racist, you got to do the same thing that I'm doing. When you see somebody do something, you have to say something about it. When you see a system that's in place that's bringing on inequality … you have to say something about it even when it's benefiting you, and that's the challenge.”

Photos of Jason Ridgeway, Chris Turner, and Bob Hoey at the Ossian Sweet house and Stones of Remembrance by Dorothy Hernandez; all other photos by Sarah Williams

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.
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