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It Takes a Lot of Strength to Tear Down a Wall

Not long ago, while traveling through a community in northeast Alabama where I served as a minister in the 1980s, my wife and I drove down the street where we used to live, and “the wall” was still there. There was an interesting story behind the wall, and perhaps the story surrounding “the wall” is worth telling.

Shortly after my wife and I married, we moved into a subdivision near the church I was serving at the time. We were surrounded by good neighbors, our community was peaceful, and the traffic was pleasantly slow. We walked and talked with neighbors almost every day. It was a Mayberry-esque neighborhood.

On our street there was a home with an unusual feature: A wall. Not just any wall. This wall divided the property between two neighboring homes. This unusual wall was built of concrete block and was less than two feet high, not tall enough to keep either a pet or a child inside or out.

Only a few of our neighbors had fences, mostly to provide containment for their pets. Some were chain-link. Others were waist-high picket fences. And one family, appropriately, had a privacy fences around their pool.

But there was only one 2-feet-high concrete block wall, and it seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. It did not beautify the landscape, it did not provide security and it certainly did not offer additional privacy. It was just sort of there, accentuating the property line. It was, we would learn, just a remnant.

One day soon after we moved in, while we were enjoying conversation with another one of our neighbors, the wall became the subject of conversation. “Hasn’t anyone told you the story about the wall?” she asked. “No,” I replied curiously. And she relayed the story.

A couple of years before we moved to the neighborhood, there was no wall. The community was predominantly white. But a house on the street, the one on the “other side” of the wall, went up for sale. A black family purchased the home and moved in a few days later.

This was the first black family to move into the previously all-white subdivision. The adjoining neighbor was furious. He could not believe that a black family would invade “his” neighborhood. So, in protest he built a tall concrete block wall right down the property line so that he would not have to look at the unwelcome newcomers.

Not long after the new neighbors moved in, as fate would have it, the black neighbor and the white neighbor happened to walk to the paper box at the same time. They supposedly looked at each other, nodded politely and returned to their homes. Over the next few days they inevitably retrieved their newspapers at the same time and visual acknowledgement turned into a friendly greeting that turned into a conversation that turned into a visit that turned into an ongoing friendship.

And one day all of the neighbors came home to find the builder of the wall tearing it down. He said it was too much trouble to walk all the way around the wall to get to his friends house. I am not sure how much energy he expended while building the wall, but he reportedly confessed that it took more strength to tear down the wall than it did to build it.

That’s the way it is with walls.

Barry Howard is a minister and columnist who resides in Birmingham, Ala.