A Dream of Middle Class Respectability: ‘Crisis in Levittown’, 1957

Exhibit / September 14, 2017

Object Name: Crisis in Levittown, PA
Maker and Year: Dynamic Films, Inc.; Dan W. Dodson, Director
Object Type: Documentary film
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

After returning from World War II, William Levitt, the son of an upscale real estate developer, set out to build affordable homes for the millions of veterans that needed one. Using mass production methods innovated at the beginning of the century by the Ford Motor Company and taught to him during his tour as a Navy Seabee—and by cutting out union workers and middlemen—Levitt did exactly that. The first development went up on Long Island in 1947, and it was called Levittown. The next year, Levitt & Sons was churning out 30 houses a day, each one selling for under $10,000—with little to no down payment required. In 1950, Time magazine called Levitt “the most potent single modernizing influence in a largely antiquated industry,” and he is known today as the father of the American suburbs.

Levittown was not open to all buyers, however. Clause 25 of the standard lease agreement came with a “restrictive covenant“:

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.

In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled, in Shelley v. Kraemer, that restrictive or exclusionary covenants (which also extended to Jews, people of the “Mongolian Race,” and “natives of Ireland,” among others) were ”unenforceable as law and contrary to public policy.” But the practice continued for at least another 10 years through subversion and subterfuge, including the refusal of the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages for African-Americans and other minority groups.

In August 1957, William Myers Jr., a World War II veteran and lab technician, his college-educated wife Daisy, and their two children were looking for a bigger home (Daisy was pregnant with a third child at the time). They found a three-bedroom ranch house at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Levittown, Pennsylvania development, a tip from a Jewish friend then living in the community. Because the Myers were black, the seller was able to fetch a much higher price for the property—another standard practice at the time; but they were not able to get mortgage insurance until a New York philanthropist offered them a private one.

As the all-white residents discovered the color of their new neighbors—“Niggers have moved into Levittown!” announced the USPS mail carrier—hysteria and and violence ensued. For the next week, mobs of between 500 to 1000 gathered outside the Myers’ home, throwing rocks and lit cigarettes, spouting slurs and threats. A Confederate flag was raised in the clubhouse next door, and crosses were burned on the Myers’ lawn and the lawns of their supporters. State Troopers were called in by the Governor, George Leader, to restore order (the local police had done nothing), and the white mob hurled rocks at them, knocking one Trooper unconscious. Some of the rioters were prosecuted by the Pennsylvania attorney general, and the abuse and harassment gradually died down to a simmer.

What’s striking about the 1957 documentary Crisis in Levittown, PA is not the usual racist ignorance that continues to thrive today—conspiracy theories about the Myers’ being “planted” by the NAACP, “hordes of Negroes” inevitably driving down property values and leading to heinous race mixing—but the sane-minded and pro-integration responses of many of the white suburbanites. Director and narrator Dan W. Dodson, a Professor at New York University who became a relentless advocate of desegregation after moving to Harlem in 1936, talks to several of the Myers’ neighbors, asking them the same basic questions: “What was your reaction to the Myers moving in?”; “Do you think the Myers will be able to live here comfortably?”; “Have you heard any rumors [about why the Myers moved to Levittown]?”; “Do you think the Myers will lead to large numbers of other Negroes coming here?”; “Had you known any Negroes before you came to Levittown?”; “Have you ever discussed the Myers at all with your children?” Each irrational response is parried by Dodson with facts and intelligence—delivered in his disarmingly soothing East Texas lilt.

One woman, visibly disgusted at the very idea of the Myers family still residing in the neighborhood, describes how her family moved to Levittown because “we understood that it was going to be all white.” She complains of property values declining “immediately.” Dodson, hands folded on his desk (all of his commentary is delivered from his office in New York, after the Levittown footage is shot), looks into the camera frankly: “Is there to be no escape from living near Negroes? And what of the dream of middle class respectability? If a Negro family can afford what you can afford, how do you justify your feelings of superiority?” Dodson asks the woman what other objections she has, aside from property values. The woman answers: “The whole thing centers around the word ‘integration’… When colored people enter a community they’re not entering it to find a peaceful home… In the end, it will probably end up with… mixing socially” and “aimless mixed marriages and becoming equal with the whites.” Dodson, again addressing the viewer: “As the lines are drawn, those on either side become more adamant. Tension develops, and feeds on suspicion and mistrust.”

Another woman explains, as cool as can be, that property values are “purely a white problem… It is the feeling of the majority group which will influence the property, not the minority group.” She goes on to declare that the best possible solution would be for white people to be deprived of all-white neighborhoods: “I would like to see… my children live in a group that is representative of the world. And not being an integrated group, it is not now representative of society…” One man voices equally frank support for the Myers and integration: “I was happy to see this become more of an American community… The main issue is the right of these people to live like Americans, as they choose, to be accepted as good neighbors.” The Myers are never interviewed, unfortunately, but perhaps that is because the “crisis” in Levittown was purely a product of white supremacists.  Daisy Myers, when interviewed 30 years later at age 72, said, “I think of all the beautiful people who came to help us out, and I throw out of my mind all the other stuff.”

When William Levitt, years after the incidents in 1957, was asked about the barring of people of color from Levittown—the New York and Philadelphia hamlets were both nearly 90% white in 2010—he said:

As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But I have come to know 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. This is their attitude, 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.

Business is business, after all, and greed is good. In fact, Levitt’s name was invoked by Donald Trump—the son of a wealthy real estate developer—in a July 2017 speech to the Boy Scouts of America about, among other inappropriate subjects, maintaining “momentum” in business. Levitt was touted as “an unbelievable success” who “in the end… failed badly. Lost all of his money.” There was no mention of restrictive covenants or racist rental practices, of course, which both Trump and his father Fred were accused of advancing in a systematic fashion, eventually resulting in a 1973 Department of Justice lawsuit. The New York Times headline gave Trump Jr. his first taste of national fame: “Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City.”

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