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Trauma of Levittown integration remembered History: In August 1957, an African-American family moved to Deepgreen Lane and was greeted by a mob screaming racial epithets and making threats.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA - Daisy Myers vividly remembers the rocks through the windows, the taunts and name-calling and cross-burnings and the day-and-night blaring of "Old Black Joe" that greeted her arrival as a member of the first African-American family in Levittown, Pa., 40 years ago.

Memories of nights, more than a week of them, in which a mob that was estimated from 200 to 1,000 people gathered along Deepgreen Lane in the Dog Hollow section screaming racial epithets, throwing Molotov cocktails and yelling threats.

But she quickly dismisses those memories. She says that she prefers to remember the positives that came out of those violent summer days in August 1957.

"I look back on it as not a bad time in my life. With all of my schooling [two master's degrees], I would never have learned as much about human nature as I did then, and I wouldn't have met such fine people like Martin Luther King, Pearl Buck and Jackie Robinson."

All of them, and many others, wrote to Myers and her husband, William E. Myers Jr., during their several-week ordeal in what had been an idyllic suburban, and white, community of 17,311 houses the largest planned community in the world. Today, it is still a mostly white town of about 60,000 residents.

"People brought us food very often. All kinds of fruit and food and flowers. One woman came from another section of Levittown one day and offered to clean up the house for me," she said, in a telephone interview from York, Pa., where she works for the federal government.

Myers also believes her family's plight spawned a fair-housing law passed by the state about a year afterward. "I think of all the beautiful people who came to help us out, and I throw out of my mind all the other stuff," said Myers, 72.

Myers said neither she nor her husband were activists. They simply needed another bedroom because they had two children and she was pregnant.

They were living then in another part of Bristol Township. A friend, Lewis Wechsler, who is white, Jewish and now lives in Barnegat Light, N.J., told them a typical Levittown ranch with three bedrooms at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dog Hollow Section was for sale.

The oversize corner lot appealed to electrical engineer and World War II veteran William Myers, said Wechsler, because it had an enclosed two-car garage, unusual for Levittown, which would allow him to put in a workbench.

It also had hundreds of white people who believed Levittown should stay all-white, and by their violent actions they turned the Myerses' arrival into a national, and international, story as dozens of reporters and photographers visited the normally tranquil street.

For the first two days, the couple came and cleaned the house. On the third day, Aug. 13, they moved in, and the mailman, assuming Daisy Myers was a maid, asked her if she knew the owners. She told him she owned the house.

"He back-tracked and told everybody that he had delivered mail to us and that we were there. That evening, people started gathering outside. They were banging the mail box, throwing rocks through the windows and lighted cigarettes against the house," she said.

"It was very frightening, but we had lots of friends in there with us who came to our rescue. That was another one of the good things about it. It was not all bad. There were a lot of people who wanted to see us stay: neighbors, Quakers, some black friends from Philadelphia, and people from local churches," said Myers.

A cross blazed

"We expected some hostility, but we didn't expect that much for that long," she added.

A cross blazed in the blackness in the Wechsler's yard. Another cross was burned outside a friendly Quaker's home.

More threats came over the Myerses' telephone. His fire insurance was canceled. A druggist refused to deliver medicine because his driver was afraid.

Bristol Township police were there from the first night, trying to keep order, but Daisy Myers said she never felt there were enough of them. "They said they didn't have enough manpower to do any more," she recalled.

Before long, a "Levittown Betterment Committee" was knocking on doors with a petition "protesting the mixing of Negroes in our previously all-white community."

Many signed the petition.

But many others signed petitions circulated by the "Citizens Committee for Levittown" that deplored violence and appealed for calm.

The uncivil war forced neighbors to take sides, and it cost Levittown its previously unblemished reputation.

Joanne Cosgrove was only 11 then, but she remembers people coming to her home with a petition to force the family to leave.

"My mother [the late Joyce Oettel] was incensed because they came to our house to keep those people out of Levittown. ... She wouldn't sign it," said Cosgrove.

For more than a week, the mobs of whites railed outside the Myerses' home.

Some of them moved into an empty house behind them, unfurled a Confederate flag, and played loud music day and night.

"The only one I remember was 'Old Black Joe' and I thought it was kind of funny. Somebody asked if we could stand the noise, and I said if the neighbors can stand it, we can too," said Daisy Myers.

On the seventh night, more than 500 gathered, and state troopers, called in by Gov. George Leader, pushed the crowd back a block. Stones started flying at the troopers. The troopers charged the crowd, batons swinging. A Bristol Township officer was hit in the head by a rock and knocked unconscious. A few arrests were made, amid shouts of "Gestapo," and the mob activity was over.

The state police protected the home for at least a month, and an injunction was obtained against the Betterment Group forbidding harassment of the family.

Two people were convicted of burning a cross on Wechsler's lawn.

Wechsler, an infantryman in World War II, knew fear on the battlefield. But he said the fear he felt on Deepgreen Lane was worse.

"It wasn't just me then. I had my wife and two children to worry about," he said. "That first night I went out to try to encourage people to just take a look and go home. I told them they had a right to buy a house there. One neighbor told me I was a fool and that his property value had been cut in half that day," Wechsler recalled.

"As the days and nights went on, the tension was equivalent or worse to that I had felt in combat, never knowing what was going to come next. It went on night after night with really no relief until the cops decided to push the crowds back," he said. "Not all of them were neighbors. There were many cars from out of state and out of the area. Some were committed racists stirring up the pot," he said.

Shut up or else

Shortly after, Wechsler's house was painted with the big, red letters KKK, and he received an anonymous letter from the Ku Klux Klan threatening him to shut up or else. "Anyone who spoke up in all of Levittown and said they felt Myers had a right to live there was subject to threats and abuse," Wechsler said.

Wechsler said he had Quaker friends who lived in Fallsington, several miles away, who were outspoken in their belief that the Myerses had a right to live there, and that a cross was burned on the Quaker family's lawn with bullets embedded in it, which exploded in the flames. "A youngster came with flowers for Mrs. Myers, and a cross was burned on her lawn. A salesman was suspected of selling her a car, and a cross was burned on his lawn," he said.

After the cross-burning in Fallsington, Myers, Wechsler and others went to Harrisburg and talked to the attorney general.

"I told him things had gotten to the point if the law was not enforced, both families might be forced to move out. We were on the verge of giving up. It had been at least six weeks of continual tension and harassment. He sent in the state police, and that ended the overt violence," said Wechsler.

In 1961, Myers and his family moved back to his native York. Wechsler was a social worker and associate director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic when he retired in 1976 and moved away.

"We thought we were in the Northeast where laws were enforced and people would be relatively responsible, but we were wrong. Prejudice knows no boundaries," said Wechsler, 78.

"We were taken completely by surprise by the riot," said Hal Lefcourt, one of Bristol Township's 10 commissioners then who represented the area of Deepgreen Lane. "We met that afternoon in Bolton Manor, and there were several thousand people on the lawn outside screaming at us to get them out of Levittown."

"I said Myers had a right to live anywhere he wanted. I couldn't believe what confronted us; this mob of several thousand people," said Lefcourt.

Myers recalls that several months later, the leader of the group who wanted them out came to her house, running for office, and asked for their votes.

"We didn't vote for him," Myers said. "And we never considered moving away."

Pub Date: 8/21/97

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