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The Other Civil Rights Movement: Integrating Levittown



Created by:
Sharon Musher
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Theme:
Civil Rights

Grade Level:
9 to 12

Introduction:

In 2003, the State Museum of Pennsylvania mounted an exhibit to mark Levittown, Pennsylvania's fiftieth anniversary. The show uses photographs, drawings, film, advertisements, and maps to describe the town's creation and lifestyle in a largely complementary fashion. Using primary sources, students will uncover an alternative story that this exhibit ignores. Levittown, like many northern suburbs in the middle of the twentieth century, excluded African Americans, a fact only briefly mentioned in the exhibit. In 1957, Daisy and Bill Myers desegregated Levittown. Their presence illustrated both opposition to racial equality and growing support for equal rights in that community. Working in teams, students use newspaper articles, letters, photographs, newsreels, and short excerpts written by scholars to determine where and how to integrate the Myers's story into the exhibit. This exercise will illustrate that racial discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement were not confined to the south, but instead were national phenomena the consequences of which we still live with today.



Historical Context

Most U.S. history textbooks tell a classic tale of the Civil Rights Movement, which begins in 1954, with Brown vs. Board of Education, climaxes in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and then unravels in 1968, with the twin assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the rise of the separatist Black Power Movement and U.S. engagement in Vietnam, and the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency. This traditional narrative places racial discrimination and the movement against it in the south, emphasizes Martin Luther King's leadership in the movement, and portrays him as struggling for a color-blind society. It does not, however, emphasize more radical redistribution of socio-economic resources. Recent scholarship, in contrast argues that the Civil Rights Movement was a longer, more complicated phenomenon than that traditional narrative implies. Such scholars focus on racial tensions and de facto segregation that existed in the industrial North concerning job discrimination, schooling, busing, housing, and affirmative action.

The desegregation of Levittown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania well illustrates this story. Following the policy of its developer Bill Levitt, Levittown, PA was built in 1952 as an exclusively white suburb (population size: 60,000). This was not unusual at the time. Between 1935 and 1960, dozens of postwar suburbs kept out African Americans. Although the Supreme Court ruled racial covenants to be unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), federal housing policies subsidizing housing construction and new mortgages, private neighborhood agreements, and real estate agents kept de facto racial exclusions in place at a time when suburbs were rapidly expanding. Such racially based divisions had -- and continue to have -- profound consequences, since where people live affects their educational options, work opportunities, and quality of life.

On August 14, 1957, just two weeks before the Little Rock Nine tried to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, William Myers, a World War II veteran and refrigeration technician, moved with his wife Daisy, who was a school teacher, and their three young children into 43 Deepgreen Lane to desegregate Levittown, PA. Like the Little Rock Nine, the Myers family faced sharp opposition and constant harassment. Anti-segregationists, who feared a loss of property values and expressed broader racist sentiments regularly paraded outside the Myers' home and burned crosses on their lawn. They even sprayed "KKK" on the home of the Myers's Jewish neighbors, Lewis and Bea Wechsler, committed racial integrationists who supported the Myers's move. When local police initially failed to enforce a court order that no more than three people congregate near the Myers's home at one time, Attorney General Thomas D. McBride sent in the State Police to protect the Myers.

The Myers family's move to Levittown, PA highlighted both northerners' racism as well as their growing struggles for civil rights. Just as anti-integrationists secured a house next door to the Myers to use as headquarters to harass the black family (they even hung a Confederate flag from their building), civil rights activists within the community worked with local Quaker and human rights groups, including the Human Relations Council of Bucks County, to aid the Myers. The Myers took to court the racist mob leaders who were harassing them and won the case. Levitt officially integrated his communities in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in 1960, after the New Jersey Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Levitt's policy of excluding blacks in a charge brought against the developer by a black officer named W.R. James who sought to move into Willingboro, New Jersey's equivalent of Levittown, built in 1958.

Despite such legal rulings, black buyers did not flood into Levittown communities. A second family moved into Levittown, PA in 1958, but the Myers left the following year exhausted by their struggles to integrate the community. Despite an increased openness to integrated housing among homeowners in the North East, government loan policies, real estate agents' practices, and divisions within municipal governments maintained northern segregation. As whites increasingly moved to the suburbs, blacks found themselves in racially isolated inner cities that were, by the 1970s, losing capital, jobs, businesses, public services, and a tax base to white suburbs, small towns, and eventually the sunbelt and then abroad. Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 prohibiting discrimination in the sale of houses, realtors continue to this day to steer white potential homeowners to predominantly white neighborhoods and African Americans to mainly black or transitional areas. Such discriminatory practices affect blacks whether they are rich, poor, or in between. The continued racial segregation of Levittown, PA illustrates the persistence of such discrimination. According to the Census of 2000, Levittown, PA was 94% white and 2.5% black.



Themes:

racial discrimination, segregation, Civil Rights Movement, social justice, production of knowledge



Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will be able to:

1. Describe the integration of Levittown, PA and communal responses to it.

2. Recognize that racial discrimination occurred in the North as well as the South.

3. Understand that the Civil Rights Movement was a national phenomenon.

4. Comprehend how the stories we tell and those we ignore about the past shape our current understandings.



Standards:

STANDARD 6.2.12.A (Social Studies): Evaluate current issues, events, or themes and trace their evolution through historical periods.

STANDARD 6.2.12.A (Social Studies): Gather, analyze, and reconcile information from primary and secondary sources to support or reject hypotheses.

STANDARD 6.4.12.K (History): Explain changes in the post war society of the United States and New Jersey, including the impact of television, the interstate highway system, the growth of the suburbs, and the democratization of education.



Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

A computer lab with Internet access

Appendix A: Will Counts, AP Photo, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Appendix B: Crowds Gathering around the Myers House, August 1957 in The First Stone: A Memoir of the Racial Integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania (Chicago: Grounds for Growth press, 2004), 25.

Appendix C: The First Stone in Lewis Lechsler, The First Stone, 5.

Appendix D: Lewis Wechsler with the KKK Written on his Home in Levittown, PA (September, 1957) in The First Stone, 66.

Appendix E: Attorney General Thomas D. McBride to Bristol Township (Letter) in The Inquirer, October 9, 1957 in The First Stone, 92-93.

Appendix F: D.C.M. to Lewis Weschsler (letter), Dec. 1957 in The First Stone, 118.

Appendix G: Letter to Pennsylvania Governor Leader Regarding the Police Action in Protecting the Myers' Family, N.D.

Appendix H: Concord Park Civic Association, In Levittown in The First Stone, 124.

Appendix I: Lower Bucks County Council of Churches, "Statement Concerning Fair Housing Practices."

Appendix J: Richard W. Reichard to Governor George M. Leader, August 19, 1957.

Appendix K: "Crisis in Levittown, Pennsylvania," documentary film produced by Lee Bobker and Lester Becker as part of "A Series on Changing Neighborhoods," Dynamic Films (1957) (available online at http://www.archive.org/details/crisis_in_levittown_1957), (31 min.).

Appendix L: "Race and Gender: An Ideal Community?" Electronic New Jersey: A Digital History of New Jersey (2004) (available online at http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/njh/MassConsumerism/Suburb/Race.htm).




Details of Activity

BEFORE THE LESSON:

If possible, ask students to read/explore/view all or part of the following sources before class:

"Levittown, PA: Building the Suburban Dream," an on-line exhibit created by the State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2003 (located at http://web1.fandm.edu/levittown/one/a.html).

Appendices B-L.

PART 1: The Other Civil Rights Movement (20 min.):

Introduce students to the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was a national phenomenon by showing them a photograph of Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine desegregating Central High School (Appendix A). Do not include any text with the image. Ask students the following questions:

1. What is going on in this scene? What is the main tension?

2. What do you think the white woman in the center of the frame is saying?

3. What do you think the black woman in the foreground is thinking?

4. When and where do you think this photo was taken? Tell students that this photograph was taken in September 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared racially segregated education to be unconstitutional. It illustrates Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black teenagers who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Explain that the students faced hecklers, including the white woman pictured here, and that the Arkansas National Guardsmen did not allow them into the school until Eisenhower federalized them and ordered them to protect the teenagers who were desegregating the school.

Show students photographs of the mob that gathered around the Myers house in August 1957 (Appendix B). Again, do not include text and ask students what is happening in these images, and what the police officer is thinking. Ask them where and when they think the photo was taken. Tell students that this image was taken in Levittown, PA in Bucks County when a black family, Bill and Daisy Myers and their three small children, desegregated the community. Give a brief background of Levittown and the movement to integrate it. Explain that racial discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement were national phenomena.

PART 2: Levittown Turns Fifty (20 min.):

Have students explore "Levittown, PA: Building the Suburban Dream," an on-line exhibit created by the State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2003 located at http://web1.fandm.edu/levittown/one/a.html. Ask them to look for how the exhibit addresses the issue of racial and ethnic diversity. As they try to understand why the exhibit glosses over segregation, have them click on the "Exhibit Contributors" to see who helped to create the exhibit. In particular, point out the presence of the Levittown 50th Anniversary Committee and ask how they might have influenced the exhibit's inclusions and exclusions.

PART 3: Integrating Levittown (20 min.):

Divide the class into groups. Drawing on the newspaper articles, letters, photographs, newsreels, and short excerpts written by scholars in appendices B-L that document Levittown's desegregation, each group should discuss how they would incorporate that story into the exhibit (documents are currently grouped as Appendices B-D, E-G, H-J, and K-L, though these can be reconfigured depending on the size of the class and how many groups of students it contains). Where would they add it? Which sources would they include? How would they annotate them?

PART 4: Concluding Discussion (20 min.):

Groups should share their ideas and then discuss as a whole what affect this inclusion would have on the exhibit as a whole.



Practice and Reinforcement

FOLLOW-UP ACTIVITY #1:

Working in the same teams, students should create alternative exhibits that integrate the story of Levittown's desegregation and that might also explore the experiences of women in suburbs in greater depth than the State Museum of Philadelphia's show does. Students should select and annotate photographs, texts, and artifacts and literally put their shows on the wall. After students have viewed one another's version of the exhibit, they should discuss how including the story of Levittown's desegregation affects the show's general message.

FOLLOW-UP ACTIVITY #2: Reviewing Levittown:

Students should write a review of "Levittown, PA: Building the Suburban Dream" in which they try to explain why the exhibit excluded the Myers' story, how the exhibit might incorporate the story, and whether it matters if the exhibit includes or excludes the story. They should further comment on how Levittown's racial exclusions and efforts to integrate the community affect their understanding of racial inequality and the Civil Rights Movement.



References:

Matt Bell,et. al. Desegregation and Little Rock Teaching American History Project, 2009, http://www.upa.pdx.edu/IMS/currentprojects/TAHv3/Curricula/2009_Units/Desegregation_LittleRock_Guide.pdf.

"Crisis in Levittown, Pennsylvania," documentary film produced by Lee Bobker and Lester Becker as part of "A Series on Changing Neighborhoods," Dynamic Films (1957), available online at http://www.archive.org/details/crisis_in_levittown_1957.

David Kushner, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb. New York: Walker and Company, 2009.

"Levittown, PA: Building the Suburban Dream," The State Museum of Pennsylvania (2003), http://web1.fandm.edu/levittown/one/default.html.

Eric Ledell Smith and Kenneth C. Wolensky, "The Civil Rights Movement in Pennsylvania" Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No. 46 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2004). Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (2010). http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/events/4279/civil_rights_movement/532945.

Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008, especially ch. 7.

Lewis Wechsler The First Stone: A Memoir of the Racial Integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Grounds for Growth press, 2004.




Supplementary Materials
OtherCivilRightsMovementAppendiA.pdf

OtherCivilRightsMovementAppendicesBD.pdf

OtherCivilRightsMovementAppendicesEG.pdf

OtherCivilRightsMovementAppendicesHJ.pdf

OtherCivilRightsMovementAppendicesKL.pdf

 
 
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