Levittown by Antoinette Punzavitz
When WWII ended in 1945, it was estimated that 5 million houses would be needed to relieve the existing housing shortage. The old method of building homes would never fill this need. One innovative company, Levitt and Sons, standardized construction to churn out homes, like cars on an assembly line, building up to 180 houses a week when most builders were constructing 4 or 5 a year. This process plus the booming post-war economy and the GI Bill of Rights made home ownership a reality for many returning vets. Levittown, New York, the first suburb, was populated by hundreds of first-time home owners, mostly young, many with children, and all white.
This all-white community was guaranteed by a restrictive clause in the original Levitt lease that stated, "The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race." This restriction was not unique to Levitt as it was based on a practice recommended by the Federal Housing Authority. Nevertheless, the sheer number of prospective buyers denied the American dream based solely on the color of their skin put the spotlight of the growing civil rights movement squarely on Levittown.
Unphased, Bill Levitt continued this practice in later developments built in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. When asked to defend this exclusion, Levitt protested, "It is not a matter of prejudice, but of business. As a Jew, I have no room in my heart or mind for racial prejudice. But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95% of our white customers will not buy into this community."
This practice was put to the test in 1957 when a black family moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levitt could control the initial sale of a house, but not the secondary market. So, when one home owner sold his house to a black family, there was nothing Levitt could do about it. It was also widely reported that the owner was a Jew, promoting the not-so-veiled assertion that the whole transaction was really a Communist plot.
I was 11 when the Myers moved into Levittown, and their home was very near mine. I remember the crowd of cars that packed the surrounding streets around their home and asking my parents what was going on. They told me it was 'some people from Philadelphia' who drove in to cause trouble because a Negro family was moving in. It wasn't until I was an adult doing research on Levittown that I realized many people in that mob outside the Myers home were their neighbors- my neighbors too.
For a year, the mob carried on their vocal protests, hurling racial epithets, breaking windows, even burning a cross on the lawn of a sympathetic neighbor. Eventually the State Police had to be called in to maintain order. The Myers did not retaliate, but continued to live their suburban life with courage and determination. Daisy Myers, the matriarch of the family, became known as "The Rosa Parks of the North" in recognition of her steely resolve to raise her young family in Levittown.
Levittown made the news at that time, but not in a way you want to remember. It showed the whole country, indeed the whole world, that racial prejudice did not just exist south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Today, of course, Levittown, Pennsylvania, is completely integrated, and this incident is relegated to its past. Nevertheless, the story of one family's struggle to achieve the American Dream is, perhaps, Levittown's most news-worthy, if not its most praise-worthy, moment in history.
Although born in Roslyn, Long Island, New York, Antoinette (Toni) Punzavitz moved with her family to Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1952, as one of its first families. Her interest in Levittown stems principally from her father's reminiscence of his more than 30-years working for Levitt and Sons, the founders of Modern Suburbia. In her own career, Toni has been a creative and technical writer in the public and private sectors, retiring in 2013 as the principal speechwriter for the Director and Deputy Director of the National Security Agency (NSA).
Listen to these podcasts!
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law