“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down….” I was trying to remember those words of Robert Frost yesterday when I took a visit to this wall in Arlington County, Virginia. It’s not far from where I lived as a child and yet it’s worlds away from my experience. This wall was built in the 1930s to separate the African American neighborhood of Hall’s Hill from the adjacent developing white Woodlawn community.There’s a historical marker next to this chunk of wall that describes it as “a reminder of racial segregation” which it certainly is.
I’ve written before about redlining and my surprise at discovering how recently it was still in use in Washington, DC — the practice by credit agencies and banks of withholding investment in certain neighborhoods deemed undesirable, surrounding them with red lines on maps and, by restricting investment there, ensuring they would not prosper. This was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 yet its effects linger on.
But a wall — a physical barrier to keep people away from each other — is just so tangible. I’ve seen walls — walked on the Great Wall of China, stood by Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, touched the Berlin Wall. I even have on my desk a little souvenir piece of that memorial to the lost cause of Soviet imperialism. In Bethlehem I walked through the maze that precedes and then allows one through the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. And I get up every morning to news reports about a potential wall on our southern border designed to restrict illegal immigration and certain to communicate the message that walls send — keep out! MY neighborhood will be better if YOU aren’t here. Stay where you are! You are better off if you never venture away.
Segregation was an attempt to ensure that our country remain something that it had actually never been — uniformly white. One of the first Englishmen on our shores married a native American, Pocahontas, and they gave birth to a long line of descendants. Our third president had children with an enslaved woman. Yes, playing in the neighborhood and going to school together DO mean that our races will mix, as they always have, just the way the English and German, the Norwegian and Russian, the Jewish, the Armenian, the Scottish, the Chinese and Italian have done. It really doesn’t matter whether we like this or not. It WILL happen. And, of course, it’s one of our great sources of strength.
I did enjoy this from the Hall’s Hill historical marker: “During the late 1950s, children from Hall’s Hill removed a small section of the wall to create a passage to a nearby creek. In 1966 Arlington County removed a larger section of the wall, allowing full access to and from Hall’s Hill.” About the time children were removing slats from the wooden portions of the separation wall, I was growing up a few miles away. One of my favorite things to do with my sisters and friends was to walk to a nearby creek. There was nothing special about the creek — it was way too shallow for swimming or even wading. But going there seemed like sort of an adventure and we loved it, as I’m sure my neighbors a few miles away did. They were probably boys and that would have seemed strange to me — I was from a family of girls — but otherwise, I bet we would have gotten along great. I like to think we could have been friends.