The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

levittown

Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.

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