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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

"The only one I remember was 'Old Black Joe' and I thought it was kind of funny. Somebody asked if we could stand the noise, and I said if the neighbors can stand it, we can too," said Daisy Myers.

On the seventh night, more than 500 gathered, and state troopers, called in by Gov. George Leader, pushed the crowd back a block. Stones started flying at the troopers. The troopers charged the crowd, batons swinging. A Bristol Township officer was hit in the head by a rock and knocked unconscious. A few arrests were made, amid shouts of "Gestapo," and the mob activity was over.

The state police protected the home for at least a month, and an injunction was obtained against the Betterment Group forbidding harassment of the family.

Two people were convicted of burning a cross on Wechsler's lawn.

Wechsler, an infantryman in World War II, knew fear on the battlefield. But he said the fear he felt on Deepgreen Lane was worse.

"It wasn't just me then. I had my wife and two children to worry about," he said. "That first night I went out to try to encourage people to just take a look and go home. I told them they had a right to buy a house there. One neighbor told me I was a fool and that his property value had been cut in half that day," Wechsler recalled.

"As the days and nights went on, the tension was equivalent or worse to that I had felt in combat, never knowing what was going to come next. It went on night after night with really no relief until the cops decided to push the crowds back," he said. "Not all of them were neighbors. There were many cars from out of state and out of the area. Some were committed racists stirring up the pot," he said.

Shut up or else

Shortly after, Wechsler's house was painted with the big, red letters KKK, and he received an anonymous letter from the Ku Klux Klan threatening him to shut up or else. "Anyone who spoke up in all of Levittown and said they felt Myers had a right to live there was subject to threats and abuse," Wechsler said.

Wechsler said he had Quaker friends who lived in Fallsington, several miles away, who were outspoken in their belief that the Myerses had a right to live there, and that a cross was burned on the Quaker family's lawn with bullets embedded in it, which exploded in the flames. "A youngster came with flowers for Mrs. Myers, and a cross was burned on her lawn. A salesman was suspected of selling her a car, and a cross was burned on his lawn," he said.

After the cross-burning in Fallsington, Myers, Wechsler and others went to Harrisburg and talked to the attorney general.

"I told him things had gotten to the point if the law was not enforced, both families might be forced to move out. We were on the verge of giving up. It had been at least six weeks of continual tension and harassment. He sent in the state police, and that ended the overt violence," said Wechsler.

In 1961, Myers and his family moved back to his native York. Wechsler was a social worker and associate director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic when he retired in 1976 and moved away.

"We thought we were in the Northeast where laws were enforced and people would be relatively responsible, but we were wrong. Prejudice knows no boundaries," said Wechsler, 78.

"We were taken completely by surprise by the riot," said Hal Lefcourt, one of Bristol Township's 10 commissioners then who represented the area of Deepgreen Lane. "We met that afternoon in Bolton Manor, and there were several thousand people on the lawn outside screaming at us to get them out of Levittown."

"I said Myers had a right to live anywhere he wanted. I couldn't believe what confronted us; this mob of several thousand people," said Lefcourt.

Myers recalls that several months later, the leader of the group who wanted them out came to her house, running for office, and asked for their votes.

"We didn't vote for him," Myers said. "And we never considered moving away."

Pub Date: 8/21/97

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