Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the summer of 1957, William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved from their house near Philadelphia to the post-World War II development of Levittown, some twenty miles northeast of the city. Like millions of American families in the 1950s, they were seeking the highly touted amenities of suburban living (see “Picture Window Par­adise: Welcome to Levittown!” by Curtis Miner, Spring 2002). The Bucks County project, billed by its creators as “the most perfectly planned community in America,” offered commodious schools, a large shopping center, easily accessible recreational areas and, most important affordable housing for more than seventeen thousand families! However, the Myers family was black, and developer William J. Levitt (1907-1994), the garrulous spokesman for Levitt and Sons, the New York construction firm, had restricted sales of new homes in Levittown to whites.

Levitt feared if his company sold homes to black families, most white families would not buy into the community. As a Jew,” Levitt was quoted at the time, “I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice … We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.” Bill Levitt, however, could not prevent the Myers family from purchasing their home from an existing Levittown homeowner.

William and Daisy Myers had not expected all to welcome them warmly, but neither had they expected weeks of violent harassment from residents and subtle racism from local officials and churchmen. Daisy Myers wrote in 1960 about her experience in an unpublished manuscript she titled Sticks and Stones, which is excerpted here.

Tuesday, August 13, 1957. We were all up early – the moving van was due at eight o’clock. Excitement had been building for months. The long-awaited baby girl had arrived, and we were moving. In his good, husbandly way, Bill was busy with the boys [William, four, and Stephen, three] and helping with breakfast. … Even baby Lynda seemed to know it was a memorable day. Here she was exactly one month old and on the same day we were moving to 43 Deepgreen Lane, Dogwood, Levittown, Pennsylvania. That coincidence seemed to be of some significance. Could it be luck – good or bad? Not once did either of us stop to consider what the next twelve hours would bring.

Our family had outgrown our home in Bloomsdale, an integrat­ed community built in 1954 that is almost surrounded by Levit­town. We had been happy with our house there, but by this time, we needed another bedroom so we could separate Lynda from the boys. In Blooms­dale the homes were attached in units of four and five and we preferred a single-family residence with more yard space.

Although our address was changing, we expected the pattern of our lives would be about the same. Many factors favored us – we thought. We were moving less than a mile from our old residence. We already used Levittown’s shopping center for most of our purchases. We had friends living there and had other close ties to the community. As a member of the [Bristol Township] Recreation Board, I attended social functions in and around Levittown with Bill. I was – and still am – a member of the Levittown League of Women Voters. I had driven to Temple University extension courses with Levittown friends who were classmates. In many ways, we already identified with the community.

Our friends in Levittown were aware of the possibility of trouble if we moved. We had talked with them, examined the pros and cons of the subject, and tried to estimate the community’s reaction. I suppose all of us had been too optimistic and idealistic in concluding that law and justice would prevail. We hadn’t taken fully into account the prejudices of so many Americans – those silly enough to let skin color cause them to reject other human beings.

That first morning, the mailman came to the door and appeared shocked to learn that the Myerses, the new homeowners, were black. Shortly afterwards, small groups of people began gathering across the street from the Myers’s residence. The groups dispersed in about an hour, but Daisy Myers believed that the postman had spread the news and people had come out to gawk and talk about how to respond. A few hours later the evening newspaper, the Bris­tol Courier, carried a brief article headlined “First Negro Family Moves into Levittown.”

About 4:30 P.M. trouble began to brew … small knots of people … soon grew into crowds. Traffic increased and in the next hour automobiles crept bumper to bumper by our house …. Brakes screeched frightfully as drivers stopped suddenly to stare and jammed traffic behind them. Some men stood around passively with their hands in their pockets, but others gestured vigorously as they talked with venomous expressions. As they moved closer and tempers rose, we could hear their rumbling chatter. They were upset and curious, but seemingly reasonable at this stage. Then cars began parking, heavy traffic continued, and the crowd, increasing in size and noise, began to get nasty.

Local police began ticketing parked cars and the crowd gradually dispersed. At about 8:00 P.M., the Myerses left their Levittown house and, as planned, returned to Bloomsdale for the night. Not much later, the mob began to reassemble near their Levittown house. A rock shattered the living room picture window. Several lighted cigarettes were thrown against the house and nearly started a fire in grass dried by a midsummer drought.

Telephone calls to the local police, the township manager, and the state police began about eight o’clock. The state police said, “It’s up to the local police.” The local police said, “The situation is being taken care of.” But it wasn’t. When the local police finally arrived, they did nothing but direct traffic, claiming that they “couldn’t do anything until something happened.” Finally, around midnight, a county sheriff, LeRoy Murray, and two deputies arrived on the scene. Sheriff Murray set a three-minute deadline for the crowd to disperse. Some moved out, but some didn’t. Five of the rioters were arrested and charged with [unlawful assembly]. Although the police may have thought their action adequate, I feel they made a mistake by failing to charge the offenders with inciting to riot. It was a small matter for the guilty mobsters to pay the ten-dollar fine for their misconduct, but the more serious charge might have averted much that followed.

… We returned to the house about ten o’clock the next morning. All was calm …. But whatever small consolation we mustered was insufficient to remove the heaviness in our hearts …. I led the Myers procession into the yard. Although the picture window had already been repaired, the walkway by the window was covered with shattered glass and rocks and burned cigarettes. I looked at the replaced window and the debris, and an anger stabbed me. I felt defiant. Why had this been done to an average American family? I thought we were average, despite the fact that our skins were black.

Despite all that had happened, I hoped we could have a normal day and get some of the chores done. First, there was breakfast to be prepared. It was not an exciting one, and I know that the depression that I was trying to hide was undercutting my usual enthusiasm for my family’s physical welfare. After breakfast we turned to the task of house cleaning. We tried to complete some painting in the kitchen in order to be ready for the wallpapering we wanted done. Soon it was apparent the telephone was competing with the house cleaning for our attention. It seemed we were hearing from everybody I ever knew.

Levittown, Pennsylvania, had become national news overnight. The radio was broadcasting the news, television flashed pictures, and the newspapers blew up the incident into a big story. Throughout the day, we were reminded of our fish­bowl existence by the cars passing slowly as their occupants stared or pointed at our house. We noticed the volume of traffic increased slowly as the sun began to fade into the west and people started congregating in the streets to the south and east of us, crowding onto the side­walk and spilling over onto the lawn. For hours, all eyes were glued to “the house.” About midnight another stone was thrown, but no damage was done. Skirmishes between the crowds and the police continued late into the night.

On Thursday, August 15, fearful for their children’s safety, Daisy and Bill drove them to York, where the two boys stayed with relatives for the next several days. On that same day, Governor George M. Leader publicly affirmed the Myers’s right – and the right of any family – to live where they choose and ordered the Pennsylvania State Police to guard their home. For the remainder of the week, Bill and Daisy Myers returned to Levittown daily, attempting to complete their move while facing down continuing crowds, harassment, and threats.

Local citizens were also developing more organized responses to fire situation: the Levittown Betterment Committee formed to oppose the integration of the community. Residents also organized the Levittown Citi­zen’s Committee, which, in Daisy’s words, called for law and order without forthrightly supporting their right to live in Levittown.

No responsible leader spoke out for integration and a policy of silence seemed to prevail. This silence gave consent to the bigots. While the opposition was demonstrating a considerable degree of organization and direction, the forces on our side of the developing controversy were disorganized. On Wednesday evening, several hundred persons had poured into the William Penn Center [Pennbury Manor, the country seat of William Penn, who had founded his colony upon tolerance] at Morrisville seeking a way to help. But no leadership was available and that reservoir of support was turned away with a promise they would be called upon later. … Although [Daisy’s supporters] apparently agreed that a Negro family should move to Levittown, there were differences of opinion about the timing of the move, the best way to ensure its success, the need to prepare the community, and small details that were more divisive than unifying. Consequently, on our second day at Levittown we had no recourse to organized action on our behalf. We depended upon the small group of friends who stood faithfully by.

The following Monday, Bill Myers returned to his job at C. V. Hill and Company in Trenton, New Jersey, following a two-week vacation, and the family settled into their new home. Daisy’s fears and doubts were partially alleviated by the presence of friends, four policemen guarding the house, and many letters of support from around the world. Nonetheless, the strain was wearing on them. While Bill’s labor union gave him its full support, some of his coworkers did not, and several times during the ordeal he required medical attention for nervous exhaustion.

At time I thought I would go mad – the telephone, Lynda crying, telegrams arriving, friends coming and going. Groceries were brought in, gifts continued to arrive, flowers from the florist, cakes, cookies, candy, toys for the kids.

Groups of people milled around the house all day Monday, the numbers, the noise, and the traffic increasing as the day wore on. They were, in Daisy’s words, “racists, bigots, excitement seekers, curious onlookers, hot rodders, teenagers, joy riders, and bored people with nothing to do.” Tensions continued mounting. The police then ordered the mob to disperse. Their orders were met by jeers and catcalls, and they resorted to using their nightsticks to break up the crowd during which one trooper was struck by a rock. Tuesday brought more of the same. The police restricted the crowd to a thoroughfare two blocks from the Myers home. By early evening the mob was shouting, booing, and, ironically, singing America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).

A little past nine the crowd started to charge the police line. A rock about the size of a baseball thrown from the crowd hit Sergeant Thomas Stewart of the Bristol Township Police. He fell unconscious to the ground. This was the climax. A resident of the community, a law enforcement officer, and a thirty-year-old father of four had been felled by the violence of his neighbors. The police, local and state, charged the crowd and within seconds it had disappeared. The injured policeman was removed to the hospital with a concussion. Several arrests followed.

Tuesday’s events seemed to mark a turning point. … Again the sheriff banned gatherings and began to get a firm control of the situation. The mobs were off the streets, the traffic was almost normal. We began to feel that peace might prevail in Levittown. There was other evidence that decent people were beginning to take a stand in behalf of law and order as more than six thousand people lent their names to an ad in the local paper letting it be known we were welcome. … It was encouraging to realize that a few persons could stand on principle for the right of a citizen to have and enjoy a home he could buy.

But tension lingered. Neigh­bors learned new things about their neighbors. Church members discovered that their ministers preached brotherhood and were not guided by it. Children learned prejudice from their parents. Politicians sat on the fence and talked positive to positive people and negative to negative people. The local newspapers carried no editorials. There were still too many Levittowners who had adopted a neutral pose in a situation where there could, or should not be neutrality. Some individuals gave me the impression that they meant well and were willing to do most anything for us so long as it cost them little or nothing.

Friday morning, September 6, the uneasy calm of Levittown was broken. I was preparing breakfast and a strange odor attracted my attention. … I looked out the window and told myself that something was burning – could it be wood? The early morning was foggy and low cast. I could see nothing, but the odor grew stronger as I inhaled. I called Bill and told him to see if the house was afire. He jumped up, threw on his robe, and searched the house but found nothing. He looked around outside and saw nothing. Then the telephone rang. It was Lewis Wechsler, our next-door neighbor. He said he had found a five-foot cross burning on his lawn.

Hostile crowds again began gathering nightly around the Myers’s home, clapping hands, beating drums, repeatedly banging the corner mail box open and shut, slamming doors, blowing horns, and blasting radios in their automobiles. Two more crosses were burned on neighbors’ yards; bottle bombs were found in the shrubs behind another neighbor’s home; and a smoke bomb was thrown at the Myers’s home. KKK was painted in red on the Wechsler residence, and, as subsequent testimony revealed, members of the Betterment Committee made contact with the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in an attempt to organize opposition to the Myers and any other black family that considered moving into Levittown.

Daisy Myers linked these events that coincided with national events. Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus (1910-1994) defied a federal court order to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School and ordered that nine African American students be prevented from entering the school. Shortly thereafter, the Myers family received newspaper clip­pings about events in Little Rock from anonymous senders. They also received harassing telephone calls praising Governor Faubus. “Bigotry in Levittown,” Daisy Myers wrote. “bound us to the nine Negro students in Little Rock.”

On Sunday, September 22, the uneasy calm was once again fractured.

Bill was mowing the lawn when the newest move was launched. Behind us to the north was an empty house. About noon a dozen or more cars arrived at the house. The folks who poured out trudged in with benches, typewriters and tables, folding chairs, sandwiches, coffee, a radio, a phonograph, a broom. It was a strange move-in – such odd furnishings and equipment and people. The house and yard quickly took on a picnic atmosphere. They sat around on the grass or in chairs talking. Through the afternoon there was constant going and coming. The goonish segregationist leader of the group started walking his black and white dog near our property line. He called to the little mongrel, “Come on, Nigger. Nice Nigger. Come on, Nigger.” Other loud talking, for our sole consumption, proclaimed, “We’re here now – and plan to clean the place out.” One of the men went in and got the record player going at top volume, playing Old Black Joe. From the roof of the house toward us they flew a Confederate flag. On the opposite side was the American flag.

The “Confederate House,” as Daisy Myers called it, had been rented to a member of the Betterment Committee to use as a meeting place. After about a week of numerous complaints from neighbors, Bristol Township Police Department issued a warrant for the landlord’s arrest. The landlord agreed to evict the house’s occupants in exchange for having charges against him dropped. Yet, the nightly gatherings of noisy protesters continued through mid-October.

Local police proved ill equipped to handle these racially charged disturbances. At one point, Bill Myers had visited the local police chief to request ongoing protection, at minimum a patrolman stationed at the house from midnight to dawn. The chief refused, saying that all he could do was have a patrol car cruise the area regularly. The Pennsylvania State Police had offered only intermittent protection. Only after Bill and Daisy Myers met with Attorney General Thomas D. McBride (1902-1965) in Harrisburg on Monday, September 23, were state troopers stationed at their home around the clock. McBride, who had been hesitant to override local authorities, finally went on record saying that the local police force “did not do all that could have been expected of it.”

Finally, on Friday, October 18, the impasse was broken. The first Levittown man was arrested for painting the KKK letters on the side of the Wechslers’ house. The accused, Howard Bentcliffe of the Betterment Committee, said he had drawn lots with four other unidentified men to do the job. A few days later, two more arrests were made. Again, Bent­cliffe was one of them. He and Eldred Williams were charged with making and transporting the cross burned on the lawn of one of our neighbors. Williams had been the leader of the gang that had loitered in the “temporary club house” next door to our home.

The next good news came on Wednes­day, October 23. Climaxing an intensive investigation by the State Police, a temporary injunction was filed by the state [attorney general’s office] against eight Levittown residents who had played key roles in the disturbances, along with a petition for a permanent injunction against them. Thus came peace to Levittown and the Myerses. We could now notice the beautiful roses blooming at the side of the garage, water the lawn, and admire the beauty of our new home. The change came at a time when we were reaching the lowest ebb in our personal determination. We had tried desperately to maintain a spirit of love for our tormentors. In a way we had succeeded, but we needed the outside stimulus of effective law enforcement.

In December 1957, the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County permanently enjoined eight leaders of the Betterment Committee from further acts of intimidation and violence against the Myers family. “Evil was finally put to flight and the violence ceased,” Daisy recounted. Although an underlying current of tension remained, the Myers family continued to receive broad support locally, nationally, and even internationally, and Daisy was much in demand as a public advocate for fair housing. Some months later, when James Newell, a ringleader of the Betterment Committee, ran for state Democratic committeeman under the slogan, “You all know where I stand on the issues,” he was roundly defeated. The Dog­wood Hollow Neighbors, organized to “restore a friendly and harmonious atmosphere for all Dogwood hollow residents,” met regularly for several months to good effect and ultimately evolved into a human relations workshop.

The Myers family remained in Levittown until 1961, when Bill accepted a state government job as n building superintendent. The Myerses moved to York where Bill’s relatives resided and within an easy commute to his new job. As a response to those who questioned their judgment in moving to Levit­town and then staying there in the face of fierce opposition, Daisy Myers concluded her memoir with a ringing endorsement of the principles of equality and freedom of choice.

We had realized years ago, to our sorrow, that the housing market, above all else, stands as a symbol of racial inequality. No matter how renowned, wealthy, or prominent, the Negro cannot buy on a free and open market. The Negro does not look for a house because white people live in the community. He looks for a place to live with criteria similar to those used by other Americans. He wants, within the limits of his ability to pay, the facilities that will provide comfort and convenience. He wants intangibles also neighbors with common interests, a stimulating atmosphere for himself and his children. He wants the opportunity to look, choose, and buy freely whenever he sees what meets his need.

On Tuesday, December 7, 1999, forty-two years after the ugliness in Levittown, Bristol Township Mayor Sam Fenton, born two years after the incident, officially apologized to the Myers family for what happened there. Three hundred residents of Levittown attended and cheered as Daisy Myers lit the community’s Christmas tree. William Myers, a veteran of World War II, had died in October 1987.

 

For Further Reading

Kelly, Barbara M. Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown. Albany: State University of New York, 1993.

Meyer, Stephen Grant. As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Little­field, 2000.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Per­spectives. University Park: Penn State Press and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1997.

 

The editorial staff of Pennsylvania Her­itage gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Daisy Myers in the preparation of this article for publication. A native of Richmond, Virginia, she is a retired principal of the Arthur W. Ferguson Elementary School in York. The author continues to write about her experiences and makes public appearances to speak out against racial prejudice and discrimination. She hopes to publish her 1960 manuscript, Sticks and Stones, from which this account is excerpted, in its entirety.

Linda Shopes is a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau of Archives and History.