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Remembering the Battle to Integrate Levittown
by Zachary Solomon
LAST YEAR, George Clooney’s Suburbicon, the sixth film that the actor has directed, bombed at the box office. Suburbicon was a combination of two scripts, one a neglected crime romp penned by Joel and Ethan Coen in the mid-1980s, the other a drama loosely informed by the notorious 1957 documentary, Crisis in Levittown. Suburbicon turned out to be a bloated, mediocre mess, lacking in the Coen brothers’ signature snappy quirk and pathos, and guilty of relegating the story of Daisy and William Myers -- the first black couple to buy a house in Levittown, Pennsylvania -- to mis-en-scene, effectively making a story of black struggle about white people.
It’s too bad. The real story of Levittown is one worth retelling, even dramatizing, provided it’s remembered for what it was: a shameful stain of American history, and an early catalyst of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
In 1951, the real estate developer William Levitt bought a chunk of land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to establish his second “Levittown” -- the first having been successfully completed on Long Island a few years earlier. As he did in New York, the father of modern American suburbia organized this Levittown with six varieties of mass-produced homes that he set out in a utopian symmetry, peppered with recreation centers and swimming pools. For many middle-class World War II vets on G.I. loans, Levittown was a dream, a chance to escape the crowded tenements and apartments of the cities. For around $12,000 a home, the dream was affordable.
Buying a home in Levittown was easy, and the pre-fab houses went like hotcakes. However, there were a few stipulations: laundry was permitted only on carousel-style drying racks; lawns had to be mowed every week; and, hidden away in parataxis, the following clause:
The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race. But the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted.
The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, refused to insure mortgages in black neighborhoods. They also incentivized the construction of suburban communities with the promise of financial help, provided that they exclude black buyers. This “redlining,” with which William Levitt eagerly cooperated, is partly what made Levittowns successful so quickly. “It was a question of economics,” said Levitt, who bald-fadedly claimed he wasn’t racist. “We can’t take on the functions of the government or the country. . . . As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.”
However, “I have come to know,” said Levitt, “that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude,” he claimed, “not ours. As a company, our position is simply this: We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”
LEVITT’S COMPLACENT RACISM was a shande fur di goyim, especially for some of the Jewish residents of Levittown, PA. Bea and Lew Wechsler, a Jewish couple originally from the Bronx, took umbrage with Levitt’s exclusion of black Americans. The Wechslers were die-hard activists with Communist pasts, and when a neighbor of theirs told that he was hurting for money and would sell his house, even to African-Americans, the Wechslers found Bill and Daisy Myers (pictured at the top of this article), a young, college-educated couple with kids, a G.I. loan, and a desire to start fresh.
The Myers purchased the house at 43 Deepgreen Lane for $12,150. It had three bedrooms, central air-conditioning, and a new washing machine and dryer. The sale was made under the table; they moved in secretly, alert to the need to be discreet.
Discretion didn’t last long, however. Scarcely had any time passed before a mailman knocked on their door and asked to see the owner. When Daisy responded that she, in fact, owned the house, the mailman blanched. He went door to door proclaiming, “It happened! Niggers have moved into Levittown!”
Paul Van Blum, who grew up in Levittown, wrote in Jewish Currents in the Spring of 2000 about his memories of mobs of white protestors congregating outside of the Myers’ new home. There were cries of “Nigger get out” and rocks hurled through windows. Nearby, a house was rented out to serve as a kind of clubhouse of hate for residents of Levittown, who saw the arrival of non-whites as the beginning of the end of their petit-bourgeois idyll. The Levittown Betterment Committee, as they called themselves, was committed to the haven of an all-white Levittown. They dubbed their headquarters the “Confederate House,” flew the Confederate flag, and broadcasted “Dixie” endlessly from a record play.
It wasn’t long before the Wechslers’ home was defaced with the letters of the KKK, crosses were burned on front lawns, and the caretaker of the Confederate House could be seen walking his black cocker spaniel, renamed “Nigger,” up and down the block. The Myers’ phone rang with anonymous threats. Their children’s windows were rattled.
The Myers held on. And they weren’t alone. As David Kushner writes in Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, the Myers, despite everything, “took pains to point out how this awful standoff brought out the best in Levittown as well as the worst.” Groups like the Quakers, the American Jewish Congress, and the William Penn Center helped organize a 24-7 citizen patrol. White couples volunteered to babysit the Myers’ children, or help clean up the wreckage of hate.
Finally, seeing an impasse, Thomas McBride, the Pennsylvania attorney general, got involved. He issued a formal complaint against the Confederate House, claiming that they had “entered into an unlawful, malicious and evil conspiracy . . . to force the said Myers family to leave Levittown: to harass, annoy, intimidate, silence and deprive of their rights to peaceable enjoyment of their property.”
Despite this, and despite the fact that several members of the Confederate House were found guilty of harassment, the Myers were still, understandably, terrified. In the end, they lasted four years before moving back to York, Pennsylvania in June 1961.
THE FEDERAL HOUSING ADMINISTRATION, having learned some kind of a lesson, threatened to refuse aid to William Levitt for his next project, another whites-only Levittown in Willingboro Township, New Jersey,if he didn’t remove the racist clause. Levitt refused, flailing helplessly against history in legal battles until his case was shut down by the Supreme Court. Even as late as the mid-1960s, Levitt defended segregated housing, and in a feat of impressive cognitive dissonance, he built housing on Long Island that excluded Jews, all while remaining one of the richest men in America.
Much later in life, in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Daisy Myers recalled how Martin Luther King, Jr., Pearl Buck, and Jackie Robinson wrote to her and William during their short and brutal years in Levittown.
Ms. Myers, who died in York on December 5, 2011, at 86, was invited back to Levittown several times in the dozen years before her death -- once to light the Bristol Township Christmas Tree and once as the grand marshal of a parade. She earned two master’s degrees, in education and psychology, and wrote a memoir. When Ms. Myers returned to Levittown, someone inevitably would approach her and say, “I’m sorry for what you had to go through.” To which Ms. Myers would respond, “Let’s be friends, okay?”
And now? As of the 2010 census, Levittown, Pennsylvania was 3.6 percent black.
Zachary Solomon is a Brooklyn-based writer. He last appeared here with “Emma Goldman’s Ice Cream Shop.”