Levittown, Pennsylvania, 1954. A crowd mobilizes before proceeding to harass the first African American family to move into the all-white development.
IN 1952, WILBUR GARY, a building contractor, was living with his family in one of Richmond, California’s, public housing projects. He was an African American navy war veteran, a former shipyard worker, and vice-commander of his American Legion post. The Gary family needed to find a new residence—their apartment complex was slated for demolition because the federal Lanham Act had required government projects for war workers to be temporary. A fellow navy veteran, Lieutenant Commander Sidney Hogan, was moving out of Rollingwood, the suburb just outside Richmond built during World War II with an FHA requirement that the suburb be covered with restrictive covenants. Four years earlier, though, the Supreme Court had ruled that covenants were not enforceable, so Hogan sold his property to Wilbur Gary and his wife.
Nonetheless, the Rollingwood Improvement Association, a homeowners group, insisted that its covenants gave it the right to evict African Americans. The NAACP came to the family’s aid and dared the group to try to enforce the covenant. The neighbors then attempted to buy back the Gary house for nearly 15 percent more than the Garys had paid. They refused the offer.
Soon after the Garys arrived, a mob of about 300 whites gathered outside their house, shouting epithets, hurling bricks (one crashed through the front window), and burning a cross on the lawn. For several days, police and county sheriff deputies refused to step in, so the NAACP found it necessary to organize its own guards. A Communist Party–affiliated civil rights group also provided help. The journalist Jessica Mitford, in her book A Fine Old Conflict, described her participation in the group’s efforts, which included escorting Mrs. Gary and the children to work and school and patrolling nearby streets to alert the Garys to mobs that might be gathering.
Meanwhile, the NAACP pressed California governor Earl Warren, Attorney General Brown, and the local district attorney to step in. They eventually did so, ordering the city police and county sheriff to provide the family with protection. Still, the protests and harassment continued for another month, with continued pleas from Wilbur Gary and civil rights groups for the police to intervene. No arrests, however, were made. The sheriff claimed that he did not have enough manpower to prevent the violence. Yet a single arrest is probably all that would have been required to persuade the mob to withdraw.
AT ABOUT the same time, the Levitt company began to build its second large development, this one in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Built post-Shelley, the Pennsylvania project did not have restrictive covenants, but the FHA continued to support Levitt and other developers only if they refused to sell to African Americans. Robert Mereday, the African American trucker who had delivered material to Levitt’s Long Island project, won another contract with the company to deliver sheetrock to the Bucks County site. He settled his family in an African American neighborhood in nearby Bristol. His son, Robert Jr., attended Bristol High School, graduating in 1955. He had a girlfriend there, Shirley Wilson, and he recalls that the Wilson family had attempted to move to Levittown but was rebuffed by the Levitt company despite the negative publicity that the Wilsons’ rejection had generated.
I mention the “flap” (the term Robert Mereday, Jr., uses in recalling the Wilson incident) because such instances were more commonplace than historians can document, and they must have had a profound effect on the awareness within the African American community of how their housing options were limited. It is remarkable that African American families continued to make the attempt to break into white suburban life—as they did at the Levittown in Bucks County.
By the late 1950s, white homeowners wanting to leave that development realized that it would be to their benefit to sell to African Americans who, because they were desperate for housing, would pay more than whites. So it happened that in 1957 an African American veteran, Bill Myers, and his wife Daisy, found a Levittown homeowner willing to sell.
Like many Levittown residents, Myers had served in World War II. He was discharged as a staff sergeant and held a steady job as a lab technician in the engineering department of a factory in nearby Trenton, New Jersey. Daisy Myers was a college graduate, and Bill Myers was taking courses toward a degree in electrical engineering. When no bank would provide a mortgage because the Myers family was black, a New York City philanthropist offered to give them a private mortgage, and Bill and Daisy Myers, with their three children, occupied their new home.
A few days later, the U.S. Post Office mail carrier, a federal government employee performing his official duties, noticed that he was delivering mail to an African American family. As he made his rounds, he shouted, “Niggers have moved into Levittown!” As many as 600 white demonstrators assembled in front of the house and pelted the family and its house with rocks. Some rented a unit next door to the Myerses and set up a clubhouse from which the Confederate flag flew and music blared all night. Police arrived but were ineffective. When Mr. Myers requested around-the-clock protection, the police chief told him that the department couldn’t afford it. The town commissioners accused the state police of “meddling” because troopers were dispatched when the police failed to end the harassment. It was a needless worry; the state troopers also declined to perform their duty.
For two months law enforcement stood by as rocks were thrown, crosses were burned, the Ku Klux Klan symbol was painted on the wall of the clubhouse next door, and the home of a family that had supported the Myerses was vandalized. Some policemen, assigned to protect the African American family, stood with the mob, joking and encouraging its participants. One sergeant was demoted to patrolman because he objected to orders he had been given not to interfere with the rioters.
The district attorney approached Bill Myers and offered to purchase his property for a price substantially above what he had paid. Even though riot leaders were well known, for several weeks the police made no attempt to arrest them or to shut down the clubhouse. The federal government did not discipline or reprimand the mail carrier. Eventually, the Pennsylvania attorney general prosecuted some of the rioters for harassment and obtained an injunction against its continuation. But Bill and Daisy Myers, feeling constantly under threat, lasted only another four years; in 1961, they sold their Levittown home and returned to the African American neighborhood in York, Pennsylvania, where they had previously lived.
Does the failure of police to protect the Gary and Myers families constitute government-sponsored, de jure segregation? When police officers stood by without preventing the intimidation these families endured, were the African American families’ constitutional rights violated, or were they victims of rogue police officers for whom the state was not responsible? Certainly, we cannot hold the government accountable for every action of racially biased police officers. Yet if these officers’ superiors were aware of racially discriminatory activities conducted under color of law, as they surely were, and either encouraged these activities or took inadequate steps to restrain them, then these were no longer merely rogue actions but expressed state policy that violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection.
If we apply that standard to police behavior in Rollingwood and in Levittown, we must conclude that law enforcement officers conspired to violate the civil rights of the Garys and of the Myerses and that this unremedied conspiracy of government authorities contributed to de juresegregation of the communities for whose welfare they were responsible.
WHAT THE Gary and the Myers families experienced was not an aberration. During much of the twentieth century, police tolerance and promotion of cross burnings, vandalism, arson, and other violent acts to maintain residential segregation was systematic and nationwide.
The attacks on African American pioneers, sanctioned by elected officials and law enforcement officers, could not have been attributable to whites’ discomfort with a lower social class of neighbors. Wilbur and Borece Gary and Bill and Daisy Myers were solidly middle class. Because more affluent communities were closed to them, the African Americans who were victimized by such mob action often had higher occupational and social status than the white neighbors who assaulted them. This circumstance belies the oft-repeated claim that resistance to integration has been based on fears of deteriorating neighborhood quality. Indeed, when African Americans did succeed in moving to previously white neighborhoods, they frequently were “on their best behavior,” giving no cause, or pretext, for complaint, taking pains to make certain that their homes and lawns were better cared for than others on their blocks.
Events in Chicago were only slightly more pervasive than elsewhere. Although most frequent in the post–World War II period, state-sanctioned violence to prevent integration began at the turn of the twentieth century, during the beginnings of the Jim Crow era.
In 1897, white property owners in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood “declared war” on African Americans, driving all African American families from the area with threats of violence, unimpeded by public authority. A decade later in Hyde Park, adjacent to Woodlawn, the Hyde Park Improvement Protective Club organized boycotts of merchants who sold to African Americans and offered to buy out the homes of African Americans who lived in the area. If these tactics were unsuccessful, whites engaged in vandalism, throwing rocks through African Americans’ windows. The leader of the club was a prominent attorney, and the club published a newsletter promoting segregation, so it would not have been difficult for authorities to interfere with the conspiracy, but no measures were undertaken.
From 1917 to 1921, when the Chicago ghetto was first being rigidly defined, there were fifty-eight firebombings of homes in white border areas to which African Americans had moved, with no arrests or prosecutions—despite the deaths of two African American residents. In one case, explosives were lobbed at the home of Richard B. Harrison, a well-known black Shakespearean actor who had purchased a house in a white neighborhood. The bombs were thrown from a vacant and locked apartment in a building next door. The police did not make a serious attempt to find the perpetrator, failing even to question the building’s occupants, although few possible conspirators could have had access to the apartment.
Nearly thirty of the fifty-eight firebombings were concentrated in a six-month period in the spring of 1919, leading up to one of the nation’s worst race riots, set off when a white youth stoned an African American swimmer who had drifted toward a public beach area, generally understood to be for whites’ use only. The swimmer drowned, and policemen at the scene refused to arrest the attacker. Subsequent battles between whites and blacks left thirty-eight dead (twenty-three of whom were African American) and poisoned race relations in Chicago for years afterward.
Interracial violence continued unabated. In the first five years after World War II, 357 reported “incidents” were directed against African Americans attempting to rent or buy in Chicago’s racial border areas. From mid-1944 to mid-1946, there were forty-six attacks on the homes of African Americans in white communities adjacent to Chicago’s overcrowded black neighborhoods; of these, twenty-nine were arson-bombings, resulting in at least three deaths. In the first ten months of 1947 alone, twenty-six arson-bombings occurred, without an arrest.
In 1951, Harvey Clark, an African American Chicago bus driver and air force veteran, rented an apartment in all-white Cicero, a Chicago suburb. At first, the police forcefully attempted to prevent him, his wife Johnnetta, and two small children from occupying the apartment. They threatened him with arrest and worse if the family did not depart. “Get out of Cicero,” the police chief told the real estate agent who rented the apartment, adding, “Don’t come back . . . or you’ll get a bullet through you.” When Harvey Clark got a court injunction ordering the police to cease interfering with his occupancy and “to afford him full protection from any attempt to so restrain him,” the police ignored it, making no effort, for example, to impede a group of teenagers who were pelting the apartment’s windows with stones. When the Clarks refused to leave, a mob of about 4,000 rioted, raiding the apartment, destroying the fixtures, and throwing the family’s belongings out the window onto the lawn where they were set ablaze. The officers present arrested no one. Time magazine reported that the police “acted like ushers politely handling the overflow at a football stadium.”
Governor Adlai Stevenson mobilized the National Guard to restore order. Although 118 rioters were arrested, a Cook County grand jury did not indict a single one. The grand jury, however, did indict Harvey Clark, his real estate agent, his NAACP attorney, and the white landlady who rented the apartment to him as well as her attorney on charges of inciting a riot and conspiring to lower property values. Thirty-six years later, when an African American family again attempted to live in Cicero, it was met with firebombs and rifle shots. Nobody was convicted of these attacks, either. Cicero’s council president boasted after the clash that “[t]he area is well-secured.”
In 1953, the Chicago Housing Authority leased apartments to African American families for the first time in its Trumbull Park project in the all-white South Deering neighborhood. Ten years of sporadic mob violence ensued. The African American families required police protection during the entire period. As many as 1200 policemen were deployed to guard African American families on the day a group of them moved in, but little was done to end the attacks by arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators. A neighborhood association, the South Deering Improvement Association, led the violence, but its officers were not charged with any crime. A few bomb throwers were arrested but only after police had passively watched them launch their bombs. They faced only minor charges. An observer concluded that “sympathy for the white rioters on the part of the average policeman . . . [was] extreme.” Addressing a South Deering Improvement Association meeting, the chief of the Chicago Park District Police commiserated with his audience that “it is unfortunate the colored people chose to come out here.” The mob’s attacks were successful. The Chicago Housing Authority fired Elizabeth Wood, its executive director who had authorized the leasing of apartments in previously all-white projects to African Americans.*
In 1964, a white civil rights activist in Bridgeport, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s all-white neighborhood, rented an apartment to African American college students. A mob gathered and pelted the apartment with rocks. Police entered the apartment, removed the students’ belongings, and told them when they returned from school that they had been evicted.
Events in Detroit and its suburbs were similar. During the immediate postwar period, the city saw more than 200 acts of intimidation and violence to deter African Americans from moving to predominantly white neighborhoods. Such an epidemic was possible because police could be counted on to stand by, making no effort to stop, much less to prevent, the assaults. In 1968, an official of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission reported that “our experience has been that nearly all attempts by black families to move to Detroit’s suburbs have been met with harassment.”
In the Philadelphia area, the attacks encountered by the Myers family were not unusual. In the first six months of 1955, 213 violent incidents ensured that most African Americans remained in the North Philadelphia ghetto. Some incidents involved move-in violence like that experienced by the Myerses; others involved white teenagers defending what they considered a neighborhood boundary that African Americans should not cross. Although in some cases perpetrators might have been difficult to identify, it is improbable that police were incapable of finding a sufficient number to prevent repetitive conflict.
In the Los Angeles area, cross burnings, dynamite bombings, rocks thrown through windows, graffiti, and other acts of vandalism, as well as numerous phone threats, greeted African Americans who found housing in neighborhoods just outside their existing areas of concentration. In 1945, an entire family—father, mother, and two children—was killed when its new home in an all-white neighborhood was blown up. Of the more than one hundred incidents of move-in bombings and vandalism that occurred in Los Angeles between 1950 and 1965, only one led to an arrest and prosecution—and that was because the California attorney general took over the case after local police and prosecutors claimed they were unable to find anyone to charge.
Although the 1968 Fair Housing Act made violence to prevent neighborhood integration a federal crime and the Department of Justice prosecuted several cases, frequent attacks on African Americans attempting to leave predominantly black areas continued into the 1980s. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that in 1985–86, only about one-quarter of these incidents were prosecuted, but the share in which charges were brought grew rapidly from 1985 to 1990, up to 75 percent. That such an increase in the rate of prosecution was possible suggests how tolerant of such crimes police and prosecutors had previously been. Still, the center documented 130 cases of move-in violence in 1989 alone.
During the mid-twentieth century, local police and the FBI went to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate and disrupt liberal and left-wing political groups as well as organized crime syndicates. That they did not act similarly in the case of a nationwide terror campaign against African Americans who integrated previously white communities should be deemed, at the least, complicity in the violence. Had perpetrators been held to account in even a few well-publicized cases, many thousands of others might have been prevented.
Nor can the failure to control mob assaults be blamed on police officers who acted without explicit authorization of their superiors. In recent years we have seen several examples of the choices that confront public officials in analogous situations. When a police officer has killed or beaten an African American man with apparent racial motivation, we now expect that the officer’s superiors will fire him (or her) or, if there is doubt about whether a citizen’s civil rights were violated, will suspend the officer, pending an investigation. If superiors fail to take such measures, we expect still higher authorities to intervene. If they do not, we can reasonably assume that the police officer’s approach fit within the bounds of what his or her superiors consider appropriate response and reflect governmental policy.
IN 1954, Andrew Wade—an African American electrical contractor and Korean War navy veteran—wanted to purchase a house in a middle-class African American neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, but couldn’t find anything suitable. A friend and prominent left-wing activist, Carl Braden, suggested he look at a white middle-class community instead; Braden and his wife, Anne, then agreed to buy a house for Andrew Wade and his wife, Charlotte. The Wades found a property in Shively, an all-white suburb, which the Bradens bought, signing over the deed.
When the Wades and their child were moving in, a crowd gathered in front, and a cross was burned on an empty lot next door. On the first evening the family spent at home, a rock crashed through its front window with a message tied to it, “Nigger Get Out,” and later that night, ten rifle shots were fired through the glass of its kitchen door. Under the watch of a police guard, demonstrations continued for a month until the house was dynamited. The police guard said he saw nothing. There was one arrest following the Wades’ moving in: of Andrew Wade and a friend for “breach of the peace,” because Mr. Wade had failed to notify the police that the friend would be visiting. The police chief was familiar enough with the bombers to warn Carl Braden that the people responsible for blowing up the Wade property were targeting the Braden home next.
Charlotte, Rosemary, and Andrew Wade, after rocks were hurled through the windows of their Shively, Kentucky, home in 1954.
A policeman inspects damage after the Wades’ house was dynamited.
Although the chief acknowledged that both the dynamiter and the cross burners had confessed, the perpetrators were not indicted. Instead, a grand jury indicted Carl and Anne Braden, along with four others whom the jury accused of conspiring to stir up racial conflict by selling the house to African Americans. The formal charge was “sedition.” Charges against the others were dropped, but Carl Braden was sentenced to fifteen years in prison (he eventually won release on appeal), and the Wades went back to Louisville’s African American area.
Such violence in Kentucky did not end in the 1950s. In 1985, Robert and Martha Marshall bought a home in Sylvania, another suburb of Louisville that had remained exclusively white. Their house was firebombed on the night they moved in. A month later, a second arson attack destroyed the house, a few hours before a Ku Klux Klan meeting at which a speaker boasted that no African Americans would be permitted to live in Sylvania. The Marshall family then sued a county police officer who had been identified as a member of the Klan. The officer testified that about half of the forty Klan members known to him were also in the police department and that his superiors condoned officers’ Klan membership, as long as the information did not become public.†
Many years ago I read The Wall Between, Anne Braden’s memoir that describes how she and her husband were prosecuted by the state of Kentucky for helping Andrew Wade attempt to live in a white neighborhood. I remembered that account when, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the Louisville school district from carrying out a racial integration plan, on the ground that the segregation of Louisville is “a product not of state action but of private choices.”
State-sponsored violence was a means, along with many others, by which all levels of government maintained segregation in Louisville and elsewhere. The Wades and Marshalls were only two middle-class families confronted with hostile state power when they tried to cross the residential color line. How many other middle-class African Americans in Louisville were intimidated from attempting to live in neighborhoods of their own choosing after hearing of the Wade and Marshall experiences? Did the next generation imbibe a fear of integration from their parents? How long do the memories of such events last? How long do they continue to intimidate?
* Wood had been pressing the Chicago Housing Authority board to abandon its practice of segregation. The CHA’s purported reason for firing Wood was that, without authorization, she had disclosed to the press her futile efforts to persuade the CHA to follow its stated nondiscrimination policy.
† Two perpetrators, one of whom was the brother-in-law of the Klan member at whose house a Klan rally was held, were convicted of committing the initial firebombing, but no arrests were made of those responsible for the later, more serious arson attack. It can be presumed that if a police department in which twenty officers were Klan members wanted to identify the perpetrators, it could have done so.