The several Levittowns built in the 1950s were often viewed as model suburban communities. However, they had a darker legacy as the builders, the Levitt family, would not sell homes to blacks. The book Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb recounts the hostility the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1958 faced. The epilogue to the book (p.194-195) includes this description of how Bill Levitt finally agreed to open housing:
Levitt remained on as president of the company for about six months, however, and had one last unexpected order of business before he left for good. It began on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Six days later, a small story on page four of the Wall Street Journal bore the headline, Levitt & Sons Starts ‘Open Housing’ Policy as King ‘Memorial.’ The Journal reported that the proposal had been “drawn up by the Levitt management and approved ITT,” though failed to specify whether it had originated with Bill Levitt himself. Nevertheless, the announcement was viewed as a stunning admission of his past racist policies and the mark of sweeping changes to come. “Open housing was one of Dr. King’s greatest hopes,” said Levitt, “our action is a memorial to him.”
African-Americans were already living in his three Levittown communities, but Levitt & Sons now had eighteen communities being constructed around the world, from Illinois to France, and the new policy would ensure open housing in each. “It is high time that we take this stand,” Levitt said.
The company took out a full-page advertisement in cities including Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago to announce the plan as well. At the top of the ad was a large picture of Martin Luther King. Underneath the photo was the headline Levitt Pays Tribute to Dr. King in Deed – Not Empty Phrases. The ad continued, “This Company has adopted a new policy – effective at once – eliminating segregation any place it builds…We ask all our colleagues to adopt a similar policy without delay. The forces of bigotry and prejudice must not be permitted to prevail any longer, and we urge all builders – large and small alike – to do their part in making America once again the ideal of the world.”
It is unfortunate it took so long for Levitt & Sons to make this move. In the meantime, blacks were denied the opportunity to live in communities that were seen by some, including the Levitts, as the epitome of the American Dream.
The story in the book is fascinating. The Myers family, Bill, Daisy, and two kids, moved into the suburb in 1957 and were immediately faced with mobs, harassment, actions from the KKK, burning crosses, and indifferent local police. That all of this could happen in the northern suburb, one close to Trenton and not too far from Philadelphia, might surprise some. At the same time, such situations were not uncommon – the actions here reminded me of the Cicero, Illinois incident in 1951 when a black family moved to an apartment in the suburb just outside of Chicago.