Suburban Soliloquies #7


I am African-American, just not as recently arrived from Africa as some of my fellow citizens. Many of them came in recent centuries, while my predecessors spent the centuries prior to this one muddling about Europe, and the millennia before that in the Near East as rulers, slaves, thieves, farmers, warriors, and, in turn, everything in-between. One might have to go back to the beginning of the Quaternary Period to find my family residents of Africa. My forefathers probably spent the better part of the Pleistocene there. Despite my ancestors having retained an African address for an epoch, until recently, when filling forms that asked for my race, this present society expected me to mark "White". I'm glad to report the question has become optional, now, in most cases.

The first Levittown was begun in New York in 1947 and had incorporated into the original contracts the line, "No dwelling shall be used or occupied by members of other than the Caucasian race, but the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted." Federal law had soon change this.

William Jaird Levitt said that "the plain fact is that most Whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and some day it may change. I hope it will." It can't be said that W.J. Levitt allowed his moral indignation to get in the way of making his fortune. Perhaps he was being sincere, but even after the laws changed the salesmen retained the policy of never selling to "Negroes".

William E. Myers Jr., a refrigeration engineer, whose wife was expecting her third child, decided they needed a bigger house and purchased 43 Deepgreen Lane in Levittown's Dogwood Hollow. That was in August of 1957. They were the first African-Americans to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania. The realtors would have never sold the house to them, but the Myers had bought their home from the previous owner.

When the community discovered that Mr. and Mrs. Myers were not a house painter and a maid but new residents, they rioted. The next day the street filled with cars and a mob formed. After dark, affording fools to be shameless, the crowd screamed insults, and at midnight rocks destroyed the Myers' picture window. The mob kept up the siege, howling insults, for the next eight days, drawing international notice. On the eighth day a local policeman got knocked unconscious by a rock and only then did the State Troopers disperse the crowd.

One James E. Newell was not to be daunted by the State Troopers. In his crusade to rid Levittown of the Myers, he formed the Levittown Betterment Committee. They sought the assistance of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the days that followed, an "anti-Negro" group occupied a vacant house behind the Myers, displaying the Confederate Flag. Someone took to burning crosses on the lawns of the families that sympathized and supported the Myers, such as their immediate neighbours, the Wechslers. Eventually Reverend Ray L. Harwick formed a Citizens' Committee to support the Myers, and State Attorney General Thomas D. McBride had the Bucks County Court issue an injunction to prevent further harassment.

It was much easier when Ms Keogh and I moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1983. Although Ms Keogh and I were regarded as White by our neighbours, our children were regarded as Black. They were the product of a previous marriage. I know it was not easy for my children, but I have yet to learn the details of the trials and torments they had to undergo in that blue-collar section of Levittown. Now that they are both adults and have moved away from home to lead independent lives, it is my hope they are prepared to share and discuss what they had kept secret, or couldn't themselves as children fully understand.

Our species is but one colour and that is brown. It is a terrible absurdity that most people think the level of melanin in the skin can influence a person's intellect or mannerism. I am especially offended that the hue of flesh continues to alienate people, and in my particular household it had even contributed to the generation gap.

In the end our sojourn in that blue-collar neighbourhood became untenable for many reasons. Our departure was only slightly delayed by the frequency with which someone was putting nails in our tires. We had no choice but to escape to a higher standard of living.

We moved into a better neighbourhood of Levittown where the houses are larger, the spaces between houses are wider, where all the houses are supplied with central air conditioning, and where the streets are regularly repaved. Here there are no abandoned cars. We moved into the house formerly owned by my parents. This being a better educated and white-collar neighbourhood, I do believe matters became much more comfortable and pleasant for the children.

Still, the life of any child is never what the parent expects it to be. It is never the childhood we ourselves endured or enjoyed. We try to either recreate or improve the experience of childhood for our children, but they, being very different people from birth, will always experience it in some novel way we cannot anticipate.

Most people go through life without ever knowing their children, without ever knowing who their parents really are. We establish impressions very early and adhere to them for the sake of some false sense of security, if only because we need to place the blame somewhere other than on our own heads for whatever unhappiness befalls us. It is very hard to listen to our parents or children with fresh ears.

We had moved to Levittown for the sake of the children. It was where I grew up, a safe community where a child on bicycle has plenty to explore. We now have African-American neighbours. Not many, just a few. I hope it is as quiet and comfortable for them.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the seventh in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.