Six miles from the White House, on a residential road, sits a gray brick wall that many people in the Washington area have no idea exists.
It doesn’t stand out in any way that would cause a person to look twice if they happened to walk by it. It doesn’t surround an important building. It doesn’t even divide anything anymore.
It serves only one purpose: to remind us where we once were as a country.
The wall was erected in a section of Arlington County in the 1930s to separate black residents from white residents. And for decades, it did just that. It kept segregation intact by creating a physical barrier between an “us” and a “them.”
“There was nobody who had any doubt on either side of the wall what the purpose of it was,” said Karl VanNewkirk, a past president of the Arlington Historical Society. What remains of the wall, he said, is an important piece of that history.
“It is a reminder of the ways in which human beings can be evil to each other,” he said.
Right now, our country is divided over a different wall, one that our president insists needs to be built along our country’s southern border at a cost of more than $5 billion. The political standoff over it has caused the longest government shutdown in our history, leaving federal workers stuck at home, trying to figure out how to pay bills and feed children whose appetites didn’t disappear despite paychecks that did.
So, let’s talk about walls. About why we build them, why we tear them down. About where else they have existed and what history tells us about those who have built them. Hint: It’s not positive.
Earlier this month, during his Oval Office address, President Trump addressed the moral qualms attached to walls.
“Some have suggested a barrier is immoral,” he said. “Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences and gates around their homes? They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside but because they love the people on the inside.”
Walls built on love. It’s a nice picture.
The problem is that it only considers the people on one side of those walls. Walls have never been just about the people inside of them. They are just as much about the people on the outside, the ones staring at the “keep out” sign.
In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, that would include men, women and children who come to our country seeking asylum, hoping for help. It’s true that some immigrants cross our border illegally and commit crimes, sometimes horrible ones, but they are the exception and should not force us to try to block everyone else simply because of where they were born. We have seen how that has turned out elsewhere.
My colleague Marc Fisher recently wrote an important piece about walls across the world.
“From biblical Jericho to modern Mexico, walls have been erected to stop terrorists, immigrants, armies, drugs, weapons, foreigners, undesired races and creeds and tribes,” he wrote. “The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the barbarians. The Chinese built the Great Wall to keep out rival nations.
“Walls settle scores and reinforce rows. Walls have enduring emotional sway. They’re good at sending messages. ‘Tear down this wall,’ President Ronald Reagan said at the Berlin Wall in 1987, and some people believed that an entire empire fell as a result.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. visited East Berlin in 1964, he described it as “a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth.”
“For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact,” he said. “Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
We can draw important lessons from walls built in other countries. We can also do that by looking at one that stands just miles from the White House.
That wall in Arlington is not a point of pride. It is a symbol of shame. It was built from fear and racism and named after a slave owner who, according to historical accounts, beat four black boys even after their legal emancipation.
I first learned about the wall late last year and found myself standing in front of it for the first time recently.
A sign erected there in the past few years marks its location on 17th Road, near Culpeper Street.
It reads: “Hall’s Hill Wall. This wall is a reminder of racial segregation in the historically African American community of Hall’s Hill. During construction of the Woodlawn Village subdivision in the 1930s, a wall of various materials and heights was built here to separate blacks from the adjacent white neighborhood.”
In 1966, the sign notes, the county removed a large section of the wall to allow children, as part of desegregation, access from the High View Park neighborhood to the elementary school in what is now known as the Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhood.
“The retention of the wall would have forced a number of students to walk an extra 14 to 15 blocks to reach their new classroom,” according to “A Guide to the African American Heritage of Arlington County,” put out by the county’s Historic Preservation Program.
The guide also details how the Hall’s Hill neighborhood came to exist. It was originally a plantation owned by Bazil Hall, who was known, along with his first wife, Elizabeth Hall, to be particularly brutal to slaves, according to the guide. Elizabeth Hall was killed by a slave named Jenny Farr, who was executed for her actions. Farr’s children later gave accounts detailing how Bazil Hall “bucked,” which involved immobilizing a person, and beat them after they had been emancipated.
“I left him because he whipped me,” one of those children, John Lewis Farr, was documented saying, according to the guide. “He bucked me and whipped me and whipped me with a strap. He whipped me Friday before I left. It was at his stable. He pulled my breeches down. I cried please master don’t kill me. It’s not the only time Mr. Hall whipped me. He whipped me a heap of times.”
None of that is mentioned on the sign, but it says enough.
Enough to let anyone who visits it know how those gray bricks got there. Enough to let that visitor leave knowing what walls are really built on — and it’s not love.