James Wolfinger: A Tale of Two Levittowns: Race and Housing in Suburban Philadelphia

Today we welcome a guest post from James Wolfinger, author of Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. Here, Wolfinger sheds light on the rocky beginnings of the Levittown in Bucks County outside of Philadelphia, which was fraught with racial tension and forced segregation by Bill Levitt himself, even years after its 1951 opening. But seven years later across the Delaware, a very different story emerged from the Levittown in Burlington County, NJ. Wolfinger tells of one family’s courage in the continuous fight against discrimination within a community that was supposed to represent postwar domestic ideals for all. -Alex

There are two Levittowns outside of Philadelphia. Both were constructed by the famous builder William Levitt in the decades after World War II when mass suburbanization remade America’s cities. The look of these Levittowns is familiar to many of us: small houses on small lots on curving streets, a uniformity that was cost effective to the builder and monotonous to many observers. What is less familiar is that Bill Levitt racially segregated both of these communities from the start. But segregation, especially in the North, depended to a great degree on state law and the prevailing views about race held by local people. One of the Levittowns opened in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1951 while the other opened across the Delaware River in Burlington County, New Jersey, nearly a decade later in 1958. Location is everything, as they say in the real estate industry, and these two communities, despite having the same look and the same policies, had far different histories because of the places they were built and the times that they integrated.

The Pennsylvania Levittown opened at the height of demand for housing in the postwar era. Levittown was already a well-known name in the United States by 1951, with the New York community having begun construction four years earlier. People thought of the suburb as embodying a retreat from the big city with modern houses, a yard, and new schools. Prospective buyers clamored for one of the houses, and for a time Levitt built frantically to meet demand: one hundred homes or more went up each week in the early 1950s with some 16,000 built by 1955. The fact that U.S. Steel was building a plant in the area made the homes even more attractive to thousands of Philadelphians.

This combination of new housing and access to jobs gave Levittown vital importance to African Americans. Black activists had pushed for several years with little success to desegregate Levittown, New York, and decided to turn their attention to the Philadelphia area. The NAACP led a series of campaigns calling for Levitt to provide “the American dream for all Americans,” while the local black newspaper, the Tribune, charged that because of its segregation the new suburb “breeds hate.” Thurgood Marshall also sued Levitt, arguing that his segregated community violated the recent Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court decision that outlawed state sanction of racial covenants. Marshall’s suit proved unsuccessful, largely because there was no state antidiscrimination law to turn to, and Levitt ignored the other protests to keep black residents out of his community for its first six years.

As the protests mounted and Marshall’s suit made its way through court, a number of groups led by the Society of Friends sought an African American family who could break down Levittown’s barriers. As was often the case in that era, well-meaning groups like the Quakers thought they needed a “model” family to challenge segregation. As patronizing as this approach was, they found such a family in the Myerses: husband Bill who had served in World War II, wife Daisy who had worked in schools and public agencies, and their young sons. The Myerses found the Quakers’ interrogation into their background and motives intrusive (Daisy called it the “third degree”), but they answered the questions, accepted the Quakers’ support, and moved into Levittown in late August 1957. Bill and Daisy both knew they were violating Levittown’s rules and felt nervous but optimistic about how they might be received. As one supporter said: “What can happen? We live north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Within hours, the Myerses’ optimism faded. Crowds gathered on the sidewalk in front of their home and as evening came they grew more surly, muttering racial epithets and promising violence. The police did little to quell the crowds and the Myerses decided to leave the house before things turned worse. It took another week before they permanently moved into the home and in the meantime mobs smashed one of their windows, exploded gas bombs, and threatened to use dynamite. Copies of a poster circulated featuring a man in Klan robes on horseback, holding a fiery cross to the sky. “Save Our Land. Join the Klan,” it read. With the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School dominating the headlines in September 1957, Daisy Myers received phone calls praising the Jim Crow South and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus as “the type of man we need in Levittown.” To be sure, the Myerses received some support, especially from the NAACP, the Quakers, and left-leaning groups like area AFL-CIO unions, but as the threats and intimidation grew over the last two weeks of August Bill and Daisy feared they might be the victims of violence.

The Myerses only felt safe when the state’s liberal governor George Leader and his attorney general Thomas McBride finally got involved. They sent in the state police to break up the mobs and arrested the ringleaders whom McBride personally prosecuted. Leaders of the mob were punished with fines and suspended prison sentences. While the punishments were not particularly harsh, they had the desired effect of ending the demonstrations. “We were finally assured a peaceful life in Levittown,” Daisy wrote.

Although Daisy remembered that her “peaceful life” in Levittown finally began, desegregation was in fact quite an uneven process and the suburb never gained a substantial black population. Quaker activists looked for more black families willing to join the Myerses, but the notoriety of Levittown’s protests made the job difficult. Finally in June 1958 the Mosbys moved into a home about two miles away from the Myerses. Small groups of neighbors stood and watched quietly as they moved in, and although there was no violence someone did tack up a sign on the street corner that read “Black Bottom Road.”

Levittown’s reputation as antagonistic to African Americans persisted such that the community had only seven black families in 1961 and twenty-five in 1964, nearly a decade after the Myerses first moved in. For the next several decades, teenagers periodically got into racially motivated fights, and the Klan annually marched just outside the community. Vandalism of black property followed in the wake of the marches and black Levittowners told the press, “[Here] you’re treated like a black person and you are different.” Little wonder that the community’s black population stood at 1 percent in 1981 and had barely increased to 2.45 percent in 2000.

This history stood in marked contrast to the New Jersey Levittown that opened in 1958. There, Levitt’s vow to discriminate against African Americans sparked a protest of some 250 people who demanded that New Jersey act to “help preserve the advances in human rights so painfully won over recent years.” Levitt’s racist policy, Daisy Myers told the group, “gives a go-ahead to the biggest race haters” and he had to be stopped. Unlike Pennsylvania, New Jersey had recently passed fair housing and civil rights laws and established a State Division Against Discrimination (SDAD) to enforce them. The agency quickly ruled that Levitt was breaking New Jersey law. Under pressure from the state, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration agreed to examine whether or not they would insure mortgages in Levitt’s development.

Soon after, William James and Franklin Todd, two black veterans who had been denied homes in Levittown, sued Levitt in state superior court on the grounds that Levittown had to obey New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law because it received FHA backing. With a state law on the books, the superior court and then the state Supreme Court accepted the argument that federal financing could not be used for discriminatory purposes and ruled that Levitt had to cease to discriminate based on race. Levitt had no choice but to accept the ruling, and the community peacefully integrated. White residents were, in the words of the sociologist Herbert Gans, “uncomfortably ambivalent” with integration, but they knew they had no recourse. Plus, they had seen what happened just a few years earlier across the river in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and they dreaded any comparisons with the other suburb.

With Levittown, New Jersey, opened by the courts to black buyers from the start and New Jersey’s white Levittowners refusing to stoop to the violence that had occurred in Pennsylvania, the community enjoyed much calmer, more equitable race relations and developed a much better reputation among African Americans. “In New Jersey,” as one man put it, “you’re treated like a person and not like a black person.” In this Levittown, whose residents voted to change the name to Willingboro in the early 1960s, African Americans served at all levels of local government and the black population grew to 37.8 percent by the early 1980s. The press widely commented that black protests coupled with the government’s forceful involvement made all the difference.

The stories of these two Levittowns highlight the need to pay close attention to local differences when telling the history of the black rights movement. The communities looked remarkably similar, had the same builder, and employed the same race-based policies. Yet their histories played out far differently. In Pennsylvania, the Myerses met raw violence when they moved to Levittown. It took a couple weeks for state authorities finally to provide them with the protection they deserved and by then the community had garnered such a reputation for hostility that few African Americans wanted to live there. In New Jersey, the law was clearly on the side of African Americans who sought homes in the community and the state moved swiftly to guarantee their rights. Decades later the suburb was as integrated as any community in the region and African Americans felt comfortable in their neighborhood and shared in its governance.

Only thirteen miles apart, the two Levittowns were separated by a state line that demarcated two different sets of civil rights laws and by three years of history that made the second community unwilling to commit the kind of violence that marred the reputation of the first. Such seemingly small differences played a large role in determining the histories of the two communities.

James Wolfinger is associate professor of history and education at DePaul University.