By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb
By David Kushner
Walker. 237 pp. $26
World War II had scarcely ended before the New York-based real-estate development firm of Levitt & Sons -- Abraham was the father, William and Alfred the sons -- saw the future and moved immediately to seize it. Hundreds of thousands of veterans were returning from Europe and the Pacific, the housing shortage was dire, and the lure of the suburbs called to middle-class Americans more strongly than ever before. So the Levitts bought up 3,500 acres of potato farmland at Island Trees on Long Island and, according to David Kushner, "hatched their ambitious plan: to mass-produce the American dream for the common people, the veterans coming home from the war."
The result, of course, was Levittown, the first of four towns -- the others were in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Puerto Rico -- that the Levitts built between 1946 and 1965. The houses, designed by Alfred Levitt, were bare bones -- "two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom," total square footage 750 -- but they seemed like mansions to people who had been living in cramped city apartments or worse, and they sold as fast as the Levitts could build them. Sold, that is, to whites. With the complicity of the Federal Housing Administration, which approved racially discriminatory lending practices commonly known as redlining, the Levitts practiced self-interested discrimination. Bill Levitt, the salesman in the family and spokesman for it, put it bluntly:
"The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change. I hope it will. But as matters now stand, it is unfair to charge an individual for creating this attitude or saddle him with the sole responsibility for correcting it. The responsibility is society's. So far society has not been willing to cope with it. Until it does, it is not reasonable to expect that any one builder should or could undertake to absorb the entire risk and burden of conducting such a vast social experiment."
That attitude was scarcely unusual at the time, but the huge success and national prominence of the Levitts made them especially vulnerable to criticism as the civil-rights movement began to coalesce, all the more so since, for all of Bill Levitt's lofty claim that "as a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice," he fiercely fought to preserve his whites-only policy even as opinion began to swing against him. Nothing harmed him more than the case of Daisy and Bill Myers, an attractive black couple who wanted to buy a house in the Pennsylvania Levittown for their growing family. Bill was a low-keyed veteran who "tended to be amiable," while Daisy "was considerably more headstrong," but both believed they had as much right as anyone else to live in this hugely popular new development, and in the summer of 1957 they bought a house there.
They did so with the help of two Levittown residents, Bea and Lew Wechsler, "die-hard activists [who] had risked everything -- their jobs, their security, even their lives -- for the sake of social causes," indeed had been members of the National Student League, "a Communist-led, student-run organization that had risen from the ashes of the Depression." They seem to have been more than a touch naive, but they had strong beliefs and were unafraid to act on them. When a neighbor was unable to sell his house and badly needed to do so, he indicated a willingness to sell to blacks; the Wechslers immediately went looking for prospective buyers, and found the Myerses.
The house at 43 Deepgreen Lane was just what they wanted: "three bedrooms, central air-conditioning, even a new washing machine and dryer," Levittown houses having gotten a bit more luxurious in the decade since the first ones were built. The price was $12,150, "and the Myerses would just have to come up with a $2,000 down payment" thanks to Bill's eligibility for a GI Bill loan. They made the deal, and prepared to move in by mid-August, in time to get their two sons settled before the opening of school.
They and the Wechslers knew that if they tried to buy directly from the Levitts they would be turned down, but this was a private transaction presumably beyond the company's control. What they didn't know was that many residents of Levittown were as strongly opposed to admitting blacks to the community as was Bill Levitt. They had scarcely moved in when the mailman came to the door. He asked to "speak with the owner of the house." When Daisy replied, "I am the owner," he hastily handed her a letter and then began "going door-to-door down the street alerting the neighbors. 'It happened!' he told them. 'Niggers have moved into Levittown!' " It was the first of innumerable times that this expletive greeted the Myerses.
What followed was a protracted period of tension punctuated by frequent small riots and near-riots. Led by a "hulking flattopped man" named James E. Newell Jr., "a thirty-year-old electrician from Durham, North Carolina, who lived around the corner on Daffodil Lane," and his "sidekick, an unemployed forty-eight-year-old named Eldred Williams," a small but noisy and openly racist group of Levittowners made life so miserable for the Myerses that they took their children out of town. Police protection was half-hearted at best; "the local police . . . sat by and watched the harassment . . . for weeks." The Ku Klux Klan arrived on the scene and found eager supporters. Crosses were burned, epithets were painted on the Wechslers' house, and an empty house at nearby 30 Darkleaf Lane was rented to new neighbors, who turned the place into a kind of clubhouse:
"The Myerses and Wechslers recognized in horror the familiar faces of their tormenters, including Newell, and even the mailman who had started the riot after he'd delivered the first letter to Daisy Myers on that August day. Outside, the caretaker of the house, Eldred Williams, walked his black dog up and down the yard. He had renamed the pet in honor of this day. 'Here, Nigger,' he called to the dog, 'come here you, Nigger.' The neighbors had arrived."
They called the place "the Confederate House," and "called themselves the Dogwood Hollow Social Club." Other neighbors, by contrast, came to the Myerses' aid: "local community groups including the Quakers, the William Penn Center, the American Jewish Congress, and the neighboring communities of Bryn Gweled and Concord Park organized a 24-7 citizen patrol," and "white couples arrived to babysit the [Myers] children or lend a hand cleaning up." The Myerses "took pains to point out how this awful standoff brought out the best in Levittown as well as the worst."
Still, it remained a standoff until the Pennsylvania attorney general, Thomas McBride, entered the scene. He issued a formal complaint against the Confederate House group, charging that it 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." Eventually, several members of the group were found guilty of harassment and forbidden to continue it. The Myerses were able to live in comparative calm, but "Daisy and Bill often felt on edge," and in June 1961 they moved back to York, Pa., where they had lived before buying the Levittown house.
Outside Levittown and the immediate area the case has long been forgotten, but it was an important manifestation of northern racism and deserves its place in American history. For that reason it is useful to have Levittown, but it is not a very good book. Kushner's prose is marginally competent journalese at best, soft and sloppy at worst. A firm editorial hand would have been helpful, but there is no evidence of one. That's a pity, because it's unlikely that anyone else will come along to tell the Myerses' story in such detail. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for his reviews to continue in Outlook on Sundays.