Racial Integration in Levittown, Pennsylvania

Topics: William Levitt, Black people, Suburb Pages: 18 (6361 words) Published: October 12, 2010
Racial Integration in Levittown, Pennsylvania
During the late 1940s and throughout the 50s, many city-dwelling Americans were compelled to move to the suburbs, driven by a desire to forge a new and more comfortable lifestyle for their families. After World War Two, cities had become overcrowded as veterans returned and sought to purchase homes of their own. The implementation of the interstate highway system, coupled with the undertakings of developers to build new communities offering more affordable housing ensured suburban growth. As new communities began to sprout up all over the country, however, it became apparent that the promise of a relaxing life in the suburbs was not made to everyone. Restrictive racial covenants barring African Americans from neighborhoods were in practice for many years after they were outlawed. Realty agencies and community planners were reluctant to sell homes to minority families, and whites living in the suburbs were equally appalled at the notion of having such families as neighbors. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, the battle of integration was won, but in practice, the makeup of the community has not changed.[1]

The impetus for suburban migration from the Philadelphia area can be traced to the World War Two era growth of defense industry in the North; African Americans in the South seeking employment opportunities were drawn to these jobs, so much so that the percentage of the country’s African American population in the South decreased by nine percent between 1940 and 1945.[2] Blacks were not, however, easily assimilated into their new communities. Whites in northern cities were not pleased with the growing black presence; a poll showed that only 43 percent favored integrated public housing, and as cities became overcrowded, the close proximity of the two groups led to discord.[3] In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, Ku Klux Klan activity grew in response to black homeownership. An effigy of a black man was hung in the town of Chester, and a cross set ablaze in Upper Darby.[4] In the Juaniata Park neighborhood of Philadelphia, a black couple, Wiley and Bertha Clark, moved in and received mob harassment and a glass shattered window, courtesy of their new neighbors.[5] There was also a widespread fear among whites that the presence of blacks would undermine their social status and would eventually lead to interracial sex and further violence - ironic, considering much of the violence was being directed at blacks, rather than coming from them.[6]

The Philadelphia area had a history of uneasy race relations. Although the city had been founded on Quaker principles stressing equality - Quakers in the area had called for an end to the slave trade as early as the 1700s - the addition of foreign immigrants to the city in the 1800s gave rise to housing shortages and increased crime.[7] As immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany flocked to the United States in the period between 1820 and 1840, Philadelphia, as was the case with other major industrial American cities, faced an influx in population that displaced the black labor force. Added to this problem was the increasing amount of theft and vandalism taking place in the city, in direct proportion to the growth of population from immigration; much of the crime was wrongly attributed to blacks.[8] Around this same time period, Philadelphia abolitionists had started to speak out against the poor treatment of blacks, and the city’s growing resentment of blacks, coupled with anti-abolitionist sentiment, erupted in hostilities in August 1834 during a three day period in which 31 homes and two churches were destroyed, and one man was killed.[9] After the tension of the early to mid-nineteenth century, blacks had a period of prosperity owing to the formation of a catering guild, which according to W.E.B. DuBois, “transformed the Negro cook and waiter into the public caterer and restauranteur.”[10] Their position as domestic...
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