Trauma of Levittown integration remembered History: In August 1957, an African-American family moved to Deepgreen Lane and was greeted by a mob screaming racial epithets and making threats.

August 21, 1997|By Lacy McCrary | Lacy McCrary,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA - Daisy Myers vividly remembers the rocks through the windows, the taunts and name-calling and cross-burnings and the day-and-night blaring of "Old Black Joe" that greeted her arrival as a member of the first African-American family in Levittown, Pa., 40 years ago.

Memories of nights, more than a week of them, in which a mob that was estimated from 200 to 1,000 people gathered along Deepgreen Lane in the Dog Hollow section screaming racial epithets, throwing Molotov cocktails and yelling threats.

But she quickly dismisses those memories. She says that she prefers to remember the positives that came out of those violent summer days in August 1957.

"I look back on it as not a bad time in my life. With all of my schooling [two master's degrees], I would never have learned as much about human nature as I did then, and I wouldn't have met such fine people like Martin Luther King, Pearl Buck and Jackie Robinson."

All of them, and many others, wrote to Myers and her husband, William E. Myers Jr., during their several-week ordeal in what had been an idyllic suburban, and white, community of 17,311 houses the largest planned community in the world. Today, it is still a mostly white town of about 60,000 residents.

"People brought us food very often. All kinds of fruit and food and flowers. One woman came from another section of Levittown one day and offered to clean up the house for me," she said, in a telephone interview from York, Pa., where she works for the federal government.

Myers also believes her family's plight spawned a fair-housing law passed by the state about a year afterward. "I think of all the beautiful people who came to help us out, and I throw out of my mind all the other stuff," said Myers, 72.

Myers said neither she nor her husband were activists. They simply needed another bedroom because they had two children and she was pregnant.

They were living then in another part of Bristol Township. A friend, Lewis Wechsler, who is white, Jewish and now lives in Barnegat Light, N.J., told them a typical Levittown ranch with three bedrooms at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dog Hollow Section was for sale.

The oversize corner lot appealed to electrical engineer and World War II veteran William Myers, said Wechsler, because it had an enclosed two-car garage, unusual for Levittown, which would allow him to put in a workbench.

It also had hundreds of white people who believed Levittown should stay all-white, and by their violent actions they turned the Myerses' arrival into a national, and international, story as dozens of reporters and photographers visited the normally tranquil street.

For the first two days, the couple came and cleaned the house. On the third day, Aug. 13, they moved in, and the mailman, assuming Daisy Myers was a maid, asked her if she knew the owners. She told him she owned the house.

"He back-tracked and told everybody that he had delivered mail to us and that we were there. That evening, people started gathering outside. They were banging the mail box, throwing rocks through the windows and lighted cigarettes against the house," she said.

"It was very frightening, but we had lots of friends in there with us who came to our rescue. That was another one of the good things about it. It was not all bad. There were a lot of people who wanted to see us stay: neighbors, Quakers, some black friends from Philadelphia, and people from local churches," said Myers.

A cross blazed

"We expected some hostility, but we didn't expect that much for that long," she added.

A cross blazed in the blackness in the Wechsler's yard. Another cross was burned outside a friendly Quaker's home.

More threats came over the Myerses' telephone. His fire insurance was canceled. A druggist refused to deliver medicine because his driver was afraid.

Bristol Township police were there from the first night, trying to keep order, but Daisy Myers said she never felt there were enough of them. "They said they didn't have enough manpower to do any more," she recalled.

Before long, a "Levittown Betterment Committee" was knocking on doors with a petition "protesting the mixing of Negroes in our previously all-white community."

Many signed the petition.

But many others signed petitions circulated by the "Citizens Committee for Levittown" that deplored violence and appealed for calm.

The uncivil war forced neighbors to take sides, and it cost Levittown its previously unblemished reputation.

Joanne Cosgrove was only 11 then, but she remembers people coming to her home with a petition to force the family to leave.

"My mother [the late Joyce Oettel] was incensed because they came to our house to keep those people out of Levittown. ... She wouldn't sign it," said Cosgrove.

For more than a week, the mobs of whites railed outside the Myerses' home.

Some of them moved into an empty house behind them, unfurled a Confederate flag, and played loud music day and night.

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