Civil Rights and Integration
In a book on the ethnic pluralism of the United States, former president John F. Kennedy observed that we are "A Nation of Immigrants." Although he referred primarily to European settlers, his generalization applies to the American Indians, others who came from Asia, and to Africans as well. Periodically, hostilities developed between different groups. Wars involving the indigenous people and the Europeans began almost immediately after the Europeans arrived and continued for several centuries. Perhaps "war," in the traditional sense, is too strong a word for the behavior of Europeans toward Asians and Africans; nevertheless, Americans of European origin definitely subjected them throughout American history.
This certainly is true concerning the more numerous African-Americans. Especially in the South, but also in the North, they were discriminated against and segregated in almost all aspects of American life. In 1957, a racially motivated disturbance resulted from the attempt of one African-American family to move into previously all-white Levittown, Pennsylvania.
Levittown was a planned residential community in Bucks County, twenty-two miles northeast of Philadelphia. It was developed in the early 1950s by building contractor William Levitt, who had already constructed one Levittown on Long Island in the late 1940s, and who would put up another in New Jersey (now known as Willingboro) in the late 1950s. Levitt's objective, in addition to making handsome profits, was to provide inexpensive housing for returning World War II veterans and their families. Developers, such as Levitt, borrowed large sums from building and loan associations and constructed numerous houses from similar plans in order to bring down the cost of individual units. Levitt relied on the government to provide low-interest loans to purchasers.
The result was an attractive community. It spread over nearly 6,000 acres of what had been farmland. Although there were similar types of houses in Levittown, within particular areas the size and style of the houses were diverse. The over 17,000 homes were arranged in "super blocks," on the edges of which were major roads with public schools in the center. Each "super block" contained forty neighborhoods with an average of 490 homes. Yards and public areas were landscaped. Streets curved and had few four-way intersections. Levitt donated land for churches to various religious groups. Levitt also built a shopping center, five swimming pools and a community center. Volunteers and municipal officials established a library and parks.
Within five years, Levittown became the tenth largest city in Pennsylvania with a population of over 67,000. Almost all of the residents lived in nuclear families. About half had come from up-state Pennsylvania and other areas in the West, North, and South. Of those who had come from the Philadelphia area, about 15% were Catholics who had moved from the "inner city." In religious background, residents were almost evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants, with a small minority of Jews. The socio-economic status of most was middle and lower middle class. The majority of the inhabitants, 85%, were born in the United States; 15% were foreign born. Because property was sold to a wide variety of people, during a brief period, there were no ethnic neighborhoods. In its early years, it was an all-white community.
In mid-August, 1957, some residents learned that a black couple, William and Daisy Myers, had purchased a home in the "Dogwood Hollow" section of Levittown. Myers, an engineer, had lived in an area of Bristol Township that was not a part of Levittown. Almost immediately after receiving the news, approximately 600 Levittowners held an "orderly" meeting at which they circulated a petition protesting the mixing of the races in their "closed community." Residents explained that they did not fear Myers, but did not want large numbers of African-Americans to follow him to Levittown. Some former Philadelphians attributed problems that they had experienced there, including crime, the depreciation of property values, and their departure from "homes that they loved," to inner city blacks and did not want to suffer similar afflictions in their new location. One resident charged that Myers was a "plant" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Another attributed Myers's arrival in Levittown and the resulting upheaval to a "Communist plot."
Protesters not only expressed their opposition in meetings and through what they considered rational explanations, but also became physical. Hundreds gathered outside the Myers home. The Bristol Township Chief of Police described the crowd as a "boisterous and milling riot." Protesters stoned the house, breaking the picture window. They burned three crosses on the lawn. A next-door neighbor played Negro spirituals for the group. Drivers displayed Confederate flags on their cars and drove by the house repeatedly. The situation began to attract the attention of outsiders, including the nationwide media. Because local officials seemed unable to control it, they asked for help from state authorities.
Consequentially, Governor George M. Leader sent in the State Police. They acted vigorously to disperse the protesters and suppress the violence. No more than two people were allowed to approach the Myers's house. Sightseers were banned from the neighborhood. Violators of police edicts were arrested. Within a few days, by August 24, the police had restored order but not peace, and they certainly had not reconciled the protesters. The contingent of police was called a "goon squad." Police were charged with "hitting men, women and children for no reason at all except that they didn't move fast enough." Police allegedly used "sticks" to prod protesters to move on. The vice president of the National Press Photographers Association objected to a police "attack" on a reporter for trying to photograph an arrest. One resident concluded that the violence in Levittown was the result of people being angry "for being kicked around by state troopers." Another charged that the police used "Gestapo methods" in dealing with people who opposed "the invasion" of the community by the Myers family and suggested that the police be awarded "iron crosses."
Because Governor Leader had sent the State Police to Levittown, he received the brunt of the protesters' criticism. Some letters to the Governor at this time contain vilifying remarks, while others offer encouragement. Two are presented here as examples of support and condemnation of his actions. Non-supportive letters call him a "lover" of African-Americans (but use a more hateful term) and charge that he had joined "Zionist" organizations and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One asked why he had not sent the police into his former neighborhood in Philadelphia to protect whites against the violence and crime there. Knowing that Leader was considering running for the United States Senate in 1958, they charged that he was trying to secure the "black vote" and predicted, "We'll see you at the polls" where "we'll lick you." They threatened to "vote as white people..., not as Democrats or Republicans." (Leader lost the senatorial election in 1958 as many Democrats failed to support him.) Supportive letters recall Pennsylvania's historical role in the Underground Railroad and abolitionists such as Thaddeus Stevens.
In the face of the attacks, the Governor took the offensive. He asserted to Democratic Party leaders from twelve southeastern Pennsylvania counties that "the stoning of the home of the first Negro family in Levittown is completely alien to the historic principles on which Pennsylvania was built." He went on to declare that "any family has the right to live where it can obtain legal possession on any street, road, or highway in the Commonwealth." (Philadelphia Inquirer, August 16, 1957, p. 42.) As Leader's papers contain condemnations of his actions, they reveal also widespread support from religious, civic, labor, and other types of organizations, as well as from individuals throughout the state and nation. "A Group of Negro Citizens" expressed "gratitude" to the Governor for his "action and public statements." One writer claimed that 95% of his friends supported the Governor. Another insisted that Americans should "fight one common enemy"--Communism, and "not [fight] among ourselves." Myers said that he had received numerous letters saying that the writers were ashamed of the mob and that they would welcome him.
By August 26, the protesters had dispersed; the State Police withdrew; and shortly afterward, the Myers quietly moved into their home. There was no immediate rush of other African-American families to join them in Levittown, though in time, some others did move in. They proved that the protesters' fears, anxieties, and apprehensions were unfounded. Ultimately, in this portion of William Penn's "holy experiment," people of different races were able to live together, if not in charity, at least in peace with one another.