A Nation of Walls

The Overlooked History of Race Barriers in the United States

Remnants of a segregation wall in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, built in the late 1930s to separate a newly constructed Black-only public-housing development from a white neighborhood, 2018. [Chat Travieso]

Along NW 12th Avenue from 62nd to 67th Streets in Miami’s Liberty City runs a low concrete wall. Bordering a planted strip that divides the avenue from a parallel service road, this drab-yellow-painted structure might be taken as an unassuming retaining wall. It is in fact a piece of racist infrastructure – the remnant of a barrier built in the late 1930s to isolate a Black neighborhood from a white one. Leonardo Jackson grew up in Liberty City, but learned about the origins of the wall only recently. “I was disappointed in myself,” the seventeen-year-old told an interviewer in 2018. “To have something so historic and important to the Black community’s culture, right here, in my own community, and I didn’t even know about it.” 1

The paradoxical effect of such structures is to highlight and to trivialize the historical oppressions they represent, and the injustices they continue to enact.

Jackson is not alone; in their bluntness and ordinariness, such race barriers or segregation walls tend to hide in plain sight. Yet they are common in American cities and towns. Not unique to the south or to a bygone era, walls and fences like these have been erected for decades by public agencies, developers, and white homeowners, often working in tandem and sanctioned by the courts. In the words of a white public-housing official in Houston in the 1950s, the obstructions were intended to separate the races “psychologically and physically.” 2 Of those that still stand, some continue to demarcate racialized boundaries, while others — like the wall in Liberty City — now run between majority Black areas. Not surprisingly, there remains a deep difference in experience between those who recognize, or are not allowed to forget, a race wall’s meaning; those — like young Mr. Jackson — whose lives are impacted by these built forms without their realizing it; and those who now pass by without a thought. Overall, the paradoxical effect of such structures is to simultaneously highlight and trivialize the historical oppressions they represent, and the injustices they continue to enact.

Immediately west of the Liberty City wall stands Liberty Square, one of the first public-housing projects for African Americans in the United States. 3 The segregated development was constructed in the 1930s in order to relieve substandard conditions in Overtown — then known as Colored Town — “which was set aside in Miami’s original charter (1896) as the one area for African-Americans to settle.” 4 A report preceding the construction of Liberty Square found that, in Overtown, one might see “three to fifteen shacks on a city lot of 50’ x 150’,” and declared that “The living conditions are inconceivable and are a shame and a disgrace to the responsible citizens of Miami.” 5 Motivated less by shame than by the suspicion that domestic workers coming from such overcrowded housing might transmit disease to their white employers, designers sought to establish a self-sufficient community on the city’s outskirts. 6 A collection of one- and two-story buildings with open space between, Liberty Square was praised as an exemplary modern development, featured in the May 1937 issue of Architectural Record. 7

Clipping from The Miami Daily News, showing an architectural rendering of the Liberty Square wall, July 16, 1939. [Chat Travieso]

Yet housing needs remained so dire for Miami’s Black population that the city soon approved an expansion of Liberty Square, prompting bitter objections from white residents who had been promised a 20-acre buffer strip between their neighborhood and the housing project. As a concession in 1939, city officials and the project’s architect, backed by the U.S. Housing Authority, erected the wall and screened it with Australian pines. 8 As historian N.D.B. Connelly observes in his book A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (2014), the Liberty Square barrier “would serve as a model for other builders who, by the end of the 1940s, began including concrete walls as standard features of larger concrete, black-occupied housing projects.” 9

Since 2017, I have been mapping and researching race barriers across the U.S., as well as helping to develop and facilitate a summer youth-arts program in Liberty City, in which young people (including Leonardo Jackson) create site-specific public art that responds to the history of the local wall while speaking to current community issues. 10 On a humid summer day in 2018, the teens and I sat down with Hattie and Phillip Walker, former Liberty Square residents and founders of the organization Liberty Square Friends and Family, to hear about their memories of growing up in the neighborhood. “That wall was to keep us out!” declared Ms. Walker. “We were boxed in,” Mr. Walker added. 11

‘That wall was to keep us out!’ declared Ms. Walker. ‘We were boxed in,’ Mr. Walker added.

Another interviewee was community leader and former Liberty Square resident Melba Rose. Accounts from the era of its construction state that the NW 12th Avenue wall stood four or five feet tall. 12 For Ms. Rose as a child, however, it seemed double that height, and she knew from an early age that she should not cross it. “The police would always come by the wall on their motorcycles,” she told us. “They would ensure you didn’t exercise your right to go to the white side of town.” 13 Over time, the wall was lowered; sections were removed to open road access, and white residents fled the area.

The installation of race barriers in Miami as elsewhere was incentivized in the time of the New Deal and afterward by federal housing agencies, mortgage lenders, local planning and zoning boards, and real-estate interests looking to attract white clientele; public institutions and private actors have created and sustained segregation in American neighborhoods through multiple means since the early 20th century, including zoning laws, redlining, restrictive covenants, block busting, contract selling, predatory lending, and many more. 14 Walls, fences, and barricades solidify the social conditions brought about by such policies. Under pretexts of traffic control, crime prevention, and protection of property values, municipalities from Florida to New York to California continue, into the present century, to block streets along Black-white neighborhood borders — and in so doing to further harden racial divisions, facilitate police intimidation, and force Black residents to take circuitous routes to get to work and school and to fulfill other daily needs.

Unlike a discriminatory law or a withheld opportunity, a race wall is solid, simple, right there at the end of the street.

Walls, fences, and barricades are, of course, just one set of forms by which to segregate built space, along with highways, train tracks, low bridges, one-way streets, misaligned city grids, and a lack of sidewalks or crosswalks. 15 Compared to the control of Black populations by systemic forces from criminal sentencing guidelines to voting rights and what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the “plunder” of community resources, not to mention terror inflicted by vigilante groups and the police, such physical obstructions may seem clumsy, playing a supporting rather than principal role in establishing and preserving apartheid in this country. 16 But it is precisely in their commonplace visibility that these barriers denote an important chapter in the history of racist building practices and civic administration. Unlike a discriminatory law or a withheld opportunity, a race wall is solid, simple, right there at the end of the street. These features of the public built environment remain, to this day, oppressively normalized.

Redlining, Street Obstructions, and Sundown Towns

Race barriers do more than underscore the lengths to which white communities have gone to sustain segregation. As a means by which to preserve differentials in the valuation of adjacent properties, they cast into relief the racism endemic to the U.S. real-estate market, where more than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act, mortgage lenders continue to systematically exclude Black clients from homeownership, and homes in majority Black neighborhoods are still valued “23 percent less ($48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses)” as compared to neighborhoods “with very few or no black residents.” 17 Nowhere is this entrenched discrimination clearer than in the connection between race walls and redlining. The influence of Residential Security maps compiled for the federal government by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation from 1935 to 1940 — maps on which Black and racially mixed areas were deemed high-risk for federal lenders and tinted red for “hazardous” — is well known. More recent scholarship has tracked the extent to which redlining prevented African-American families from accruing and passing along assets intergenerationally. Race walls cast these exclusions in actual concrete. Indeed, at midcentury, realty companies seeking to build in redlined zones sometimes installed walls specifically in order to qualify for federal loans.

Children standing beside a concrete wall erected in Detroit to separate a new all-white subdivision from an existing African-American neighborhood, 1941. [Library of Congress]

Consider Detroit in 1941. A developer wished to build an all-white subdivision to the west of a Black neighborhood known as Eight Mile-Wyoming. The developer struck a deal with the Federal Housing Administration to erect a half-mile concrete wall in return for FHA-approved financing and mortgage guarantees. 18 Eight Mile residents protested; Rev. Horace A. Wright, a state representative and member of the Detroit Housing Commission, was quoted in a newspaper as cautioning that the wall would be “a serious handicap to the unity that we are striving for. Even in the South they wouldn’t do anything like that.” 19 Parts of the wall are still there.

In west Texas, in the town of Crane, a wall also built in the 1940s cut off the Black section of town from a whites-only development. Crane happens to be the setting of the novel Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger (1990), and the story shows us the wall as experienced by the uncle of the protagonist, the high-school football star:

His life had been defined by a five-foot-high wall of rock and concrete … He and the handful of other blacks who lived in this town of thirty-eight hundred people could do whatever they wanted inside that wall; no one really cared. But whenever they ventured outside it, it was without welcome … The only time he had ever had contact with whites was during summer league baseball, but otherwise he stayed behind the concrete wall that fenced him and his friends in like cattle. 20

Like the Detroit wall, the wall in Crane was mandated by the FHA “because some physical designation of the separation of races was required” in order for the developer to obtain FHA-insured loans. 21 Ruins of this wall remain as well.

Some walls were constructed as the result of a quid pro quo with the FHA.

Back in Miami, yet another race barrier blends into the built fabric more completely than the one on NW 12th Avenue. This wall is also concrete, and stands six feet tall; you can see it from the sidewalk. But it runs along property lines and does not obstruct streets. Its construction was also the result of a quid pro quo with the FHA. Ten miles south of Liberty Square, this wall still marks the border between the historically Black and white sections of Miami’s Coconut Grove. The Coconut Grove wall, like so many others, was built in the postwar decade to appease white residents, in this case a group protesting construction of affordable all-Black duplexes in what was then known as the St. Albans tract. After a multiyear rezoning battle between builders and white homeowners, the latter compromised. “Under a tentative agreement, the St. Albans tract owners would grant a 30-foot buffer strip, a six-foot wall topped with wire; then a 50-foot street with a row of single family houses on the farther side of the street.” 22 In exchange, white residents would drop objections, clearing the way for developers to access FHA mortgages. 23

The extant Coconut Grove wall was not the first proposed in the neighborhood. Some years before, a different realty company also looking to build housing for African Americans had petitioned the city’s planning board to extend the de-facto racial boundary lines. As part of its proposal, the company offered (in the words of its attorney) to put in a wall “similar to the one the United States government constructed when they separated the negro Liberty Square project from the white section.” 24 This wall was never built, because more than 200 angry white homeowners overwhelmed the planning-board hearing on the matter. 25

Remnants of a segregation wall built in the late 1940s in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, 2017. [Chat Travieso]

Clipping from The Miami Herald, showing the Ku Klux Klan protesting a planned Black subdivision in the Pinewood neighborhood, August 21, 1941. [Chat Travieso]

Around the same time, in an area of Miami known as Pinewood, city commissioners signaled tentative approval for construction of a Black “village,” on the condition that developers provide “for the complete segregation of the area” by establishing a park and shopping district as buffers, along with a six-foot segregation wall. 26 This did not stop 200 Ku Klux Klan members from burning crosses at the four corners of the project site. 27 A few days later, 500 white Pinewood residents flooded a zoning-board hearing, resulting in the board’s unanimous rejection of the Black development. 28

The elaborate violence of cross-burning was not necessary, however, for race barriers to have their effect. Beyond the buffering of white enclaves, a basic function of race walls was to restrict the movement of African Americans through urban and suburban space. As the Walkers explained to the group of teens, the walls were intended not only to “keep us out,” but to “box us in.”

When the county desegregated its schools, children assigned to a particular elementary school had to walk eighteen blocks around the barrier.

In Arlington, Virginia, between the historically African-American community of Halls Hill and what is now the Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhood, a nondescript patchwork of walls and fences hugs property lines. Built in the 1930s during the construction of the whites-only Woodlawn Village subdivision, the barriers blocked all but one through-street. In the 1950s, kids removed a segment to reach a creek; even so, a few years later, when the county desegregated its schools, Halls Hill children assigned to Woodlawn Elementary had to walk eighteen blocks around. 29 Pushed by Halls Hill parents, in 1966 the county opened passage for a single road. 30 “You couldn’t get but one way in and one way out,” recalls a neighborhood resident named Mervin Williams in Up on the Hill: An Oral history of the Halls Hill Neighborhood in Arlington County, Virginia (2002). “This was boxed in down here.” 31 In Fort Worth, Texas, a ten-block barbed-wire-topped fence (again built in the late 1940s) similarly impeded movement for African-American residents of the Como neighborhood, whose nearest grocery store and public library were on the other side, in the Ridglea district; this lasted into the 1970s, when the city allowed road access at a few points. “All our doctors and dentists and shops are over there in Ridglea and it does inconvenience us,” a Como resident is quoted as saying in an article from 1969. 32 Community members “dug a hole, so you wouldn’t have to walk so far around,” recalled another neighbor in a 2010 documentary. “We’d go down to the hole and slip under there.” 33

Remnants of a segregation wall built in the 1930s in the Halls Hill neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, 2019. [Chat Travieso]

Ditch parallel to a race wall in Melbourne, Florida, 2019. [Chat Travieso]

“Posted No Trespassing Keep Out” sign in the Como neighborhood of Fort Worth, part of the “Ridglea Wall,” ca. 1969. [University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, via license CC BY-NY 4.0]

It is not surprising that, over the years, ad-hoc access solutions like those devised by Halls Hill kids wanting to play in the creek or Como residents trying to get to the doctor have been common. Frequently, these jury-rigged alterations have been experienced by several generations. In Melbourne, Florida, a half-mile concrete wall separating the predominantly white Sunwood Park from the majority African-American Booker T. Washington area continues to block a direct path to the elementary school. The developer of Sunwood Park built the wall in 1959 in opposition to the county’s plan to construct a public-housing project. 34 But, as I was told in 2019 by a community member named Pauline Clark, “to this day, no school buses come around here.” Ms. Clark was born in the late 1970s and has lived in Booker T. Washington all her life. “A ditch runs along the wall,” she explained, “and because the city refused to pave over it and make a sidewalk, we would place wooden boards over the ditch to prevent our shoes from getting wet on the way to school when we were kids.” 35

Meanwhile, in Lake Worth, Florida, the historic African-American neighborhood of Osborne still has just one through-street. 36 In 1949, the Lake Worth City Commission expanded Osborne, but enclosed the triangle-shaped area with the county dump on the south side, railroad tracks to the east, and a barbed-wire-topped wall the length of four football fields along the western edge. 37

Lake Worth, Florida, was once a sundown town. So was Ferguson, Missouri.

On a sunny January afternoon in 2019, I drove to Lake Worth to photograph this wall. I hadn’t made interview appointments, but stopped at the community center to see if anyone wanted to talk. One person led me to another who led me to Retha Lowe, a City Commissioner from 1995 to 2009, who in the mid 1990s had led a mural-painting effort on the wall. 38 “That’s a box!” she exclaimed. “That is where the Blacks lived, in that box. If a Black person worked downtown, at five o’clock in the afternoon, they had to be off the street and had to be back down here in Osborne.” 39 Ms. Lowe was one of the first Black people to move to the white side of the wall in the 1970s. Over time, most whites left.

Lake Worth, in other words, was once a sundown town. 40 So was Ferguson, Missouri, which into the 1960s remained barricaded against the adjoining African-American enclave of Kinloch. As historian Richard Rothstein explains, “Ferguson had blocked off the main road from Kinloch with a chain and construction materials but kept a second road open during the day so housekeepers and nannies could get from Kinloch to jobs in Ferguson.” 41 The barrier on Suburban Avenue was removed in 1968 after the Ferguson Ministerial Alliance petitioned the city, in the aftermath of a march by Kinloch residents in honor of the recently assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 42 Seven years later, white Ferguson residents unsuccessfully lobbied the city to reinstate a barricade on Suburban Avenue and to build a ten-foot-high fence along the Ferguson-Kinloch border, claiming both were necessary to curb crime. 43

Public Housing, Dog-whistles, and the Courts

It was not only private developers who sought to enforce racial homogeneity; civic authorities also used walls, fences, and buffer strips to segregate public housing nationwide. In the 1940s, when the Tampa Housing Authority constructed the all-Black College Hill Homes adjacent to the all-white Ponce de Leon Courts, it separated the two public-housing projects with a 500-foot buffer zone, a playground for white children only, and a fence topped with barbed wire. 44 The fence remained until the 1970s, when Ponce de Leon Courts was legally integrated and most whites moved out. In Houston in the 1950s, the city housing authority constructed a brick wall to segregate the all-white San Felipe Courts from the Black neighborhood of Freedmen’s Town, in spite of opposition to the plan by the Federal Public Housing Authority. (This wall was demolished in the 1970s.)

Along the border between New Haven and Hamden in Connecticut in the early 1950s, the Housing Authority of New Haven helped pay for the construction of a twelve-foot chain-link fence as a compromise with white Hamden residents who objected to the construction of nearby public housing. Black residents had to take several long bus rides to reach jobs and shops across the fence. According to a New York Times article, “In 2005, under the guise of repairs, Hamden added a second, sturdier fence, which rises in places to 16 feet.” 45 A few parts of the structure were torn down by the city of Hamden in 2014, to allow road access in response to pressure from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — but not without strong opposition from residents who saw the fence as necessary to “keep crime out and traffic down.” 46

As the Connecticut example illustrates, white communities seeking to erect barriers — particularly in recent decades — have often resorted to euphemistic language about safety and calm. Such groups typically reject imputation of racist intent, and courts frequently uphold this assertion. This is what happened in Baltimore during the so-called “Hollander Ridge Fence Episode.”

Courts and lawmakers often fail to recognize architecture as a form of regulation, viewing it instead as functional, innocuous, and prepolitical.

In 1998, with the support of HUD, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City constructed an eight-foot spiked wrought-iron fence around Hollander Ridge, a predominantly African-American public-housing development located at the border between the city of Baltimore and the majority-white suburb of Rosedale. The fence was part of a HUD-sponsored pilot program to address “public safety concerns”; the effect was to further divide the two communities and feed racist stereotypes. 47 Hollander Ridge was razed in 2000, but much of the fence remains. In a case that went to trial in 2003, Black public-housing tenants filed Thompson v. HUD, a federal civil-rights lawsuit against HUD, HABC, and the City of Baltimore. Judges sided with the tenants in ruling that HUD had failed to manage housing programs in a way consistent with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But they disagreed that the fence itself had been built for discriminatory reasons, even if some Rosedale residents who called for its construction had racist motives. 48

Clipping from the Washington Post showing “The Atlanta Berlin Wall,” January 4, 1963. [Chat Travieso]

As the legal scholar Sarah Schindler points out, “courts and lawmakers often fail to recognize architecture as a form of regulation at all, viewing it instead as functional, innocuous, and prepolitical.” 49 Another landmark case in this regard is City of Memphis v. Greene, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. The plaintiffs, Black residents in Memphis, Tennessee, brought suit to remove a barricade that had been built in 1974 at the urging of white Memphians, who argued for what they presented as traffic control in order to protect “the safety and tranquility of a residential neighborhood.” 50 The court sided with the white defendants, arguing that the street closing represented nothing more than a “routine burden of citizenship” and a “slight inconvenience.” 51

Thurgood Marshall, the sole African-American Justice at the time, could see that claims regarding traffic were “code phrases for racial discrimination.” In his dissent, Justice Marshall emphasized the psychological and social effects of such exclusion. “The majority suggests … that this ‘impact’ is limited to the ‘inconvenience’ that will be suffered by drivers who live in the predominantly Negro area … This analysis ignores the plain and powerful symbolic message of the ‘inconvenience.’” 52 The Memphis barricade still stands, as does one in the St. Louis suburb of Jennings, Missouri, where officials argued in 1977 that steel barricades along the city limits represented a traffic-control measure. White Jennings residents quoted in a contemporaneous newspaper article hinted at baser motivations. “I suppose some people are worried about encroachment,” observed one; another said more bluntly, “we need the barricades to keep traffic out. You know they’re not from around here.” 53 Jennings is now predominantly African American, but the barricades remain.

The Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and Apartheid

In 1962, an Atlanta surgeon named Dr. Clinton Warner, a Morehouse graduate, purchased a house in a white neighborhood. In response, Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. ordered construction of a road barricade that was quickly nicknamed “Atlanta’s Berlin Wall.” The Superior Court of Fulton County issued an injunction; the story made national news, and the barricade was removed the following year. 54 But the epithet, it seems to me, is telling — not because it is surprising, but because the image of a city partitioned by hostile occupiers or a region sealed off by dictatorial government has been so common in American controversy over race walls. Protest against them has at times been correspondingly dramatic.

Clipping from the Plain Dealer showing banner that reads “Entering Apartheid Shaker: Home of Barricades,” September 12, 1990. [Cleveland State University, Center for Public History and Digital Humanities/Cleveland Historical

In New Orleans in 1987, numerous headlines discussed the “Berlin Wall” in Jefferson Parish, a mostly white suburb where steel barricades were installed by the Parish Council at the request of inhabitants who claimed the obstructions would deter crime. “[They] can’t lock my people in,” proclaimed New Orleans mayor Sidney Barthelemy in reply, and the barricades were bulldozed less than a week after their completion. 55 On Chicago’s South Side in the 1960s, a series of iron gates dividing a majority-white area from the predominantly African-American Princeton-Root public-housing project came to be known as the “Iron Curtain.” The gates were removed in 1982 after the chairman of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called on then-mayor Jane Byrne to dismantle them. 56

The epithets are telling not because they are surprising, but because images of a city partitioned by occupiers or sealed off by government have been so common.

Perhaps most strikingly, if you drove into the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, between September 1990 and September 1991, you might have seen a banner that read (on the Cleveland side), “Entering Apartheid Shaker: Home of Barricades.” The banner was installed by Councilman Charles Patton and a group of protestors who had been fighting for nearly fifteen years to remove barriers between the suburb and the city. 57 To Shaker Heights officials, the barricades were “traffic diverters”; on the other side, they were known as “the Berlin Wall for black people.” 58 In the 1980s, a suit by the city of Cleveland reached the state Supreme Court. As in City of Memphis v. Greene, the majority here ruled that “adverse extraterritorial traffic effects on a neighboring municipality are not, standing alone, enough to overcome the presumption of the validity of a legislative enactment taken under a municipality’s home rule powers.” 59

Addressing this Legacy

As Thompson v. HUD, City of Memphis v. Greene, and Cleveland v. Shaker Heights illustrate, until the courts consistently acknowledge the discriminatory effects of race barriers and act affirmatively to right past wrongs, a judicial solution to the problem of our exclusionary built environment will not be tenable. An alternative to the courts might lie in legislation that mandates widespread removal of existing barriers, compensates for decades of social and economic dispossession, and outlaws future exclusionary structures. As Schindler proposes, such laws “might include a version of the Americans with Disabilities Act that addresses architectural exclusion on the basis of race or class, or the modification of existing environmental review statutes to include an analysis of architectural exclusion.” 60

Some communities have chosen not to take down a race wall, but to add a marker to ensure that no one forgets the discriminatory history.

Other responses to the legacies of race barriers, especially at the local level, focus on preserving lessons for the future. Some communities, indeed, have chosen not to take down a race wall, but to add a marker to ensure that no one forgets the discriminatory history. In the town of Crane in 2005, the county Historical Commission installed a plaque that identifies the structure as “The Crane Segregation Wall.” Evelyn Rossler Stroder, author of The Wall That Failed: How One Community Navigated the Shifting Sands of Integration in West Texas (2017), notes that some of her neighbors “had already heard folks denying the wall’s function, and we feared some future generations might deny its existence.” 61 At the dedication ceremony, pastor Ellis Lane told his audience, “there has been so much controversy, mixed emotion, ill feeling, about this pile of rocks coupled together forming a physical landmark to separate what was called in that day ‘colored’ from the whites. This wall has no barrier on us today, but rather it gives us a growing admiration for our forefathers who lived behind this wall.” 62 The Halls Hill community in Virginia celebrated a similar unveiling in 2017, after the Halls Hill/High View Park Historic Preservation Coalition pushed Arlington County to erect a plaque. 63 Even so, when portions of the wall were destroyed in a 2019 flash flood, some welcomed the change. “To be able to stand in Halls Hill and look over into Woodlawn [is] just amazing to me,” resident Saundra Green told a reporter. “I just never thought I’d see it.” 64

Mural on the wall in the Eight Mile neighborhood of Detroit, 2011. [Király-Seth © via Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY-SA 4.0]

Mural on the wall in the Booker T. Washington neighborhood of Melbourne, Florida, 2019. [Chat Travieso]

Mural on the wall in the Osborne section of Lake Worth, Florida, 2019. [Chat Travieso]

The wall in Eight Mile no longer blocks streets, and neighborhoods on both sides are now almost entirely Black. Detroit activists argued that it was important to acknowledge the wall as a relic of segregation, and in 2006, the community covered it with murals that celebrate civil-rights icons and also allude to the wall’s original purpose by depicting the barrier with houses on one side and Black community members on the other. 65 The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office now seeks to place the wall on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2019, when presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren unveiled her housing plan, she did so in a video shot beside remaining segments of the Eight Mile wall. 66

Retha Lowe, a City Commissioner in Lake Worth, Florida, likewise felt that the Osborne wall should be reclaimed, and in 1994 she talked residents into painting it instead of tearing it down. “The wall does not really separate us anymore,” Ms. Lowe stated at the time of the mural’s completion. “The wall belongs to us. You can take a wrong and make a right out of it.” 67 The structure was renamed the “Wall of Unity.” But there is still just one street in and out of Osborne.

But there are limits to what a mural or a plaque can rectify.

The wall in Melbourne also has a mural. Organized by the Brevard Neighborhood Development Coalition as part of an effort to revitalize the neighborhood, the painting features key figures in Black history and was designed and installed by local youth working with an arts educator. 68 Here again, however, inequities persist; the wall still impedes direct paths from the Booker T. Washington area to the nearest school. There are limits to what a mural or a plaque can rectify.

In Liberty City, the extant wall was designated a historic site in 2006. Timothy A. Barber, Executive Director of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc., prepared the designation report. “This remnant of the ‘Liberty Square Wall’ is a tangible symbol of the pervasive discrimination once commonplace in America,“ Mr. Barber’s report states. “The wall is not to be celebrated, but remembered as a testament to the many who fought against the hatred born of segregation, and whose perseverance ultimately saw the world change for the better.” 69 These pedagogical aims may be undercut by the fact that no commemorative marker has been placed onsite. Moreover, demolition of the historic Liberty Square housing project began in 2018, making way for a new mixed-income development being constructed in phases. Many longtime residents now worry about being displaced. As a participant in the public-arts youth program put it, “people always say, if you don’t know about your past, you repeat it, and I think that is true; if you don’t know about the mistakes you’ve made, how do you expect to change them?” 70

Author's Note

I would like to thank Frances Richard for her perceptive notes and thoughtful editing. I would also like to thank Germane Barnes, Esmé Boyce, Samuel Holleran, Ryan Hartley Smith, Gabriel Sosa, and Didier William for reading early drafts of the article and offering helpful feedback. Research for “A Nation of Walls” is supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, with fiscal sponsorship from Storefront for Art and Architecture. I am developing an interactive website to map these barriers and provide a platform through which community members can share their stories. If you know of segregation walls, fences, road barricades, buffer strips, or similar structures not discussed here, please get in touch at [email protected]

  1. Teresa Joseph, “The Untold History of Liberty City’s Segregation Walls,” NBC Miami, May 4, 2018.
  2. “U.S. Rules Out Jim Crow Wall,” Baltimore Afro American, November 27, 1956.
  3. Liberty Square was constructed under the aegis of the Housing Division in the short-lived Public Works Administration. See John A. Stuart, “Liberty Square: Florida’s First Public Housing Project,” in The New Deal in South Florida: Design, Policy, and Community Building, 1933-1940, ed. John A. Stuart and John F. Stack Jr. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008), 186.  
  4. Report of the City of Miami Preservation Officer to the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board on the Potential Designation of the “Liberty Square Wall Fragment” as a Historic Site, prepared by Timothy A. Barber with Ellen J. Uguccioni. Passed and Adopted on December 5, 2006, Resolution No. HEPB-2006-99. See also Paul S. George, “Colored Town: Miami’s Black Community, 1896-1930,” The Florida Historical Quarterly vol. 56, no. 4 (April 1978).
  5. Paul S. George and Thomas K. Petersen, “Liberty Square: 1933-1987 — The Origins and Evolution of a Public Housing Project,” Tequesta, 4 (1988): 54. The report continues, “This area is principally owned by white people who have erected these small shacks and get exorbitant rent from them so that they pay for themselves every two to three years. … Many houses have no toilets connected with the house, no bathrooms, nor bathing facilities.”
  6. Stuart, 191; see also George and Petersen, 54.
  7. The Architectural Record vol. 81, no. 5 (May 1937).
  8. “Buffer Strip Arrangement for Housing Projects Outlined by Architect,” Miami Daily News, July 16, 1939.
  9. N.D.B. Connelly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 86-87.
  10. The Wall (In) program is led by Arts for Learning/Miami and supported by an Art Place America Grant and a Knights Foundation Grant; the program is co-facilitated by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and architect Germane Barnes. See Chabeli Herrera, “This ‘Moonlight’ writer will tell the story of segregation walls with Miami art project,” Miami Herald, December 5, 2017.
  11. Hattie Walker and Phillip Walker, interview with author, July 6, 2018.
  12. “Board Passes Park Rezoning,” Miami Herald, August 3, 1939.
  13. Melba Rose, interview with author, July 10, 2018.
  14. See Interboro Partners (Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore), The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion (New York and Barcelona: Actar, 2017). Racial zoning laws were deemed unconstitutional in 1917, but many cities continued to perpetuate restrictions in other ways.
  15. See Interboro Partners, The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion.
  16. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
  17. Andre M. Perry, Jonathan Rothwell, and David Harshbarger, “The devaluation of assets in black neighborhoods: The case of residential property,” the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, November 27, 2018; Aaron Glantz and Emmanuel Martinez, “Modern-day redlining: How banks block people of color from homeownership,” Chicago Tribune, February 17, 2018.
  18. Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), 64.
  19. “Negroes Score 8-Foot Fence for Community,” Detroit Free Press, June 27, 1941; See also “8-Foot Wall of Segregation Draws Censure of Residents,” Detroit Tribune, July 5, 1941.
  20. H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press), 64-65.
  21. Geoff Folsom, “Crane wall marks segregated past,” Odessa American, April 20, 2008; see also Evelyn Rossler Stroder, The Wall that Failed: How One Community Navigated the Shifting Sands of Integration in West Texas (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2016).
  22. Stephen B. Harris, “City Orders Halt in Slum Project,” Miami News, November 3, 1948; see also “Compromise Zone Plan Suggested for Grove,” Miami Herald, December 29, 1948.
  23. Harris, “City Orders Halt in Slum Project.”
  24. Tom Q. Smith, “Coconut Grove Citizens Fight Negro Zone Change,” Miami Daily News, June 12, 1941.
  25. Tom Hagan, “Coconut Grove Citizens Win in Fight on Zoning,” Miami Daily News, June 17, 1941.
  26. “Board Favors Village Plan,” Miami Herald, August 14, 1941.
  27. “Fiery Crosses Protest Negro Village Plan,” Miami Herald, August 19, 1941.
  28. “County Zoning Board Rejects Negro Subdivision Plan,” Miami News, August 21, 1941.
  29. Theresa Vargas, “Not far from the White House stands another wall, one that divided blacks from whites,” Washington Post, January 23, 2019.
  30. Wilma Jones, Halls Hill: More Than a Neighborhood (self-published, 2018), 151-152.
  31. Thomas D. Carroll, Up on the Hill: An Oral history of the Halls Hill Neighborhood in Arlington County, Virginia (Virginia: Arlington County Public Library, 2002), 26.
  32. Ashley P. Cheshire, “Ft. Worth Fence Like Berlin Wall,” El Paso Herald, July 24, 1969.
  33. Brazos Film & Video/1 Square Mile T.V., “The Fence Between Rich and Poor — Fort Worth, TX (Lake Como),” October 24, 2010.
  34. “Mixed Housing Suit Looms,” Orlando Sentinel, March 6, 1959; Bill Bunge, “Low-Cost Housing Project Facing Injunction Threat,” Miami Herald, March 7, 1959; “Rezoning of Housing Site Asked,” Miami Herald, April 15, 1959.
  35. Pauline Clark, interview with author, January 2, 2019.
  36. The Osborne neighborhood was referred to as the “Osborne Colored Addition” in the county’s plat book until 1994, when the City Commission approved a resolution to officially remove the word “colored” from the name. See “Metro Report,” Palm Beach Post, December 21, 1994.
  37. Ted Brownstein, Pioneers of Jewell: A Documentary History of Lake Worth’s Forgotten First Settlement (1885-1910) (Lake Worth: A Lake Worth Herald Publication, 2013).
  38. Jane Victoria Smith, “Lake Worth woman makes dividing wall symbol of unity,” Palm Beach Post, February 6, 1994.
  39. Retha Lowe, interview with author, January 3, 2019.
  40. See James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New York: The New Press, 2005).
  41. Richard Rothstein, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles,” Economic Policy Institute, October 15, 2014.
  42. “At Kinloch Boundary: Ferguson to Remove Barrier,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 26, 1968.
  43. John M. NcGuire, “Ferguson Council On The Fence For Barrier,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 24, 1975.
  44. “City and Federal Officials in Row Over New Housing,” Tampa Times, October 12, 1943.
  45. Benjamin Mueller, “In Connecticut, Breaking a Barrier Between a Suburb and Public Housing,” New York Times, July 11, 2014.
  46. Carla Murphy, “Two years ago, this town razed a fence that segregated a housing project from a suburb. Did it change anything?Splinter, October 12, 2016.
  47. Interboro Partners, The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, 156-158.
  48. See Thompson v. HUD. January 6, 2005.
  49. Sarah Schindler, “Architectural Exclusion: Discrimination and Segregation Through Physical Design of the Built Environment,” The Yale Law Journal 124, no. 6 (April 2015); 1934.
  50. City of Memphis v. Greene, 1981.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. David Fink, “Jennings Barriers: To Bar Autos Or Outsiders?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 7, 1977.
  54. Ebony 18, no. 8 (June 1963); Paul Crater, “Atlanta’s ‘Berlin Wall’,” Atlanta Magazine, December 1, 2011.
  55. “Mayor fights suburb barriers,” Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), February 23, 1987.
  56. Jack Houston, “City’s ‘iron gates’ hit in housing bias study,” Chicago Tribune, December 23, 1982; Jack Houston, “Iron gates come down on S. Side,” Chicago Tribune, December 24, 1982.
  57. Sonja Barisic, “Clevelanders offended by barriers to Shaker Heights,” Telegraph Forum (Bucyrus, Ohio), October 9, 1990; Liz Sisley, “Shaker Barricades,” Cleveland Historical.
  58. Douglas Martin, “Fence Is Not Neighborly In a Suburb of Cleveland,” New York Times, June 27, 1987.
  59. Cleveland v. Shaker Heights, April 22, 1987.
  60. Schindler, 1941. Jennings v. Patterson (1972) is one of the few cases in which courts ruled in favor of Black plaintiffs to compel a city to remove a barricade. Schindler explains, “The Jennings court held that ‘[c]learly, these persons, because they are black, have been denied the right to hold and enjoy their property on the same basis as white citizens,’ and so found a violation of various provisions of the Civil Rights Act.” Lawyers in the Memphis case tried to use Jennings as a precedent, but here the court found that the Memphis barricade was not as “severe” as that in Jennings. Schindler, 2006.
  61. Stroder, 329-330, Kindle Edition.
  62. Ibid. 455-463.
  63. John Henry, “Arlington community remembers segregation wallwusa9, March 2, 2017.
  64. Matt Blitz, “Once There Was a Segregation Wall in Arlington,” Arlington Magazine, June 1, 2020.
  65. Elizabeth Baker, “In Detroit, A Colorful Mural Stands As A Reminder Of The City’s ‘Segregation Wall’,” NPR, All Things Considered, July 22, 2017.
  66. Kim Kozlowski and Melissa Nann Burke, “Presidential hopeful Warren uses Detroit wall to highlight housing plan,” Detroit News, June 20, 2019.
  67. Jane Victoria Smith, “Lake Worth woman makes dividing wall symbol of unity,” Palm Beach Post, February 6, 1994.
  68. John McCarthy, “Helpers paint segregation-era wall,” Florida Today, June 21, 2002; Billy Cox, “Mural blends generations,” Florida Today, February 22, 2004.
  69. City of Miami, Resolution No. HEPB-2006-99.
  70. The young artist is quoted in “Liberty City (Swing State Florida, Episode 2)” produced by the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2020.
Chat Travieso, “A Nation of Walls,” Places Journal, September 2020. Accessed 10 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/200922

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