Levittown PA: Filling a need (as long as you were white)
Last week, I intended to write about two contrasting approaches to the extreme housing shortage that developed after the end of WWII, but as I started writing, it became obvious that the background about discriminatory housing practices needed to be explained and expanded first. With last week’s post in mind, this then is a snapshot of the development of Levittown, PA (never incorporated as a town, Levittown spans four different municipalities and three school districts). Next week, I’ll profile a second “city” which took a far different approach.
Aerial view of Levittown, PA: Built quickly using assembly-line techniques; affordable; and for whites only.
It is often assumed that segregation by race in cities and suburbs (particularly in the north) was and is a result of “natural” processes, even when those processes are the ugly expression of white fear. White flight to the suburbs, the logic goes, may be reprehensible, but it’s a predictable result when white people, guided by prejudice, felt their neighborhoods were in danger of being “taken over.” In reality, that does not accurately describe what happened in urban and suburban areas. The segregation of areas by race was more than a choice made by individuals; it was abetted and reinforced by private and public policies, laws, and regulations. (Note: The following post is, for the most part, about northern cities; southern cities may have followed similar patterns, but I haven’t researched southern cities enough to say that with any certainty.)
H/t to Eric Foner, author of the book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (all citations listed as “Foner” refer to this book) and current events for inspiring today’s post.
First, some history. The fugitive slave clause of the Constitution came about at the behest of the SC delegation:
On August 28 the convention considered the fugitives from justice clause. Butler and Charles Pinckney attempted to amend this provision “to require fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like criminals.” Roger Sherman sarcastically countered that he “saw no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant, than a horse.” James Wilson objected that this would cost the free states money. Significantly, this opposition came from two delegates who usually sided with the South. Butler wisely “withdrew his proposition in order that some particular provision might be made apart from this article.”57… …Immediately after this vote [on a commerce-related issue], Butler reintroduced the fugitive slave clause. Without debate or recorded vote, it too passed. 61 The last bargain over slavery had been made. The northerners who had opposed the fugitive slave provision only a day before were now silent. Source:The Covenant with Death and How It Was Made, Part 2
Mary Modjeska Monteith Simkins, sometimes called the matriarch of Civil Rights activists in South Carolina
Modjeska Monteith was raised to be an activist, although it’s doubtful her parents would have phrased it that way. Her father, a master brick mason, and her mother, a schoolteacher who only quit teaching when Modjeska was born, were affluent by the standards of the day; their financial independence enabled them to stress the importance of racial pride, Christian mission, community service, and respect for education. Her father, the son of a white lawyer and his domestic servant (and a former slave), did not want his family to live subservient to the white world and emphasized the importance of supporting one’s own people. He kept pictures of famous black people in the home, and he made sure his family reached out to those neighbors who had less. Through their church, they often visited and cared for the ill or the desperately poor. The family supported black-owned businesses and were even part owners of a black-owned grocery store. Without realizing it, her upbringing was preparing Modjeska to be one of the “talented tenth.”
Sculpture dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama
In the spring of 1963, the leadership of the SCLC and SNCC were determined to move on Birmingham, AL, viewed as the most dangerous city in Alabama (in part because it was the power base of Bull Connor). There were concerns that the Movement had stalled. Less than a year earlier, attempts had been made to desegregate facilities in Albany, GA, but the Albany police chief, Laurie Pritchett, had stymied their efforts at gaining national attention by meeting non-violent direct action with his own tactics of non-violence. Although protesters had been arrested, violence was kept at a minimum, and protesters were dispersed to jails throughout Georgia, depriving them of the ability to continue their protests in the jails. The leadership knew that Bull Connor, Birmingham’s racist Commissioner of Public Safety, would show no such restraint. If national attention was to be gained, and if the Kennedy Administration was to be pushed into action, it would take a major, but dangerous, push in Birmingham.
Leaflet issued by the Women’s Political Council calling for a boycott of Montgomery busses.
There are trailblazers and torchbearers. The trailblazer is the pioneer; the torchbearer follows and amplifies the path of the trailblazer. (There is no judgment implied in these designations, and one can be a trailblazer at one moment, while a torchbearer at another.) The students who sat at lunch counters in Greensboro and Nashville were trailblazers; one could make the argument that the Freedom Riders were torchbearers. Moms Demand Action/Everytown for Gun Safety are trailblazers; the students of Parkland and the March for Our Lives are carrying the torch. The Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, AL and Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Rosa Parks were trailblazers; Dr. King and the residents of Montgomery, who organized and conducted the Montgomery bus boycott, were the torchbearers. Today’s post is about the Women’s Political Council, without whom there would never have been a Montgomery bus boycott.
Photograph of Septima Clark, ca. 1960, Avery Photo Collection, 10-9, Courtesy of the Avery Research Center.
Like many white folk, my knowledge of the icons of the civil rights movement is limited at best and thoroughly deficient at worst. When I read that Dr. King had once described Septima Clark as the “Mother of the Movement” and realized that I had no knowledge of her role, I knew it was time to do some digging. As usual, this is just an overview, intended to whet your curiosity and encourage you to do some digging of your own.
A teacher and a life-long educator, Clark is most remembered for her role in establishing Citizenship Schools, which had the goal of providing full citizenship through education. In 1961, she became the SCLC director of education and teaching and traveled throughout the South, directing workshops which taught participants their constitutional rights, how to organize, as well as teaching literacy. Even more mundane topics like how to write a check were covered. Clark felt that literacy was the keystone for advancement:
Does anyone want to predict what words would appear in a word cloud of tonight’s address?
Tonight’s the night, and I, for one, will either be locked in my sewing room finishing a project or sitting down to write a letter to my cousin (because some of us still do that!) The report on the state of the union may be constitutionally-mandated…
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient
…but this is one instance where I wish the pre- radio and television practice of submitting a written report to Congress was once again the norm. In the past, these reports were often a recitation of the status of various government departments, as well as a Treasury update, and as a result, are rarely remembered in the same way as inauguration speeches. What follows is a random sampling from previous SOTU reports: some notable, some not, and some that should be.
Last week was a writing drought; today I have too many topics to choose from. My final decision was made when I saw a tweet thread from Joy Reid*** that resonated with me, exposed my ignorance, and inspired me to dig further. This is going to be a bare-bones recitation of history that I never learned, but should have. I share it today as information, as well as an object lesson about persistence.
To quote Maya Angelou, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
In a moment of semi-panic because I had no clue what I was going to write, I turned on the television in the hopes distraction would mitigate the writing block and lead to clear thinking. It was a serendipitous choice. Independent Lens on PBS was airing “I Am Not Your Negro”, based on James Baldwin’s last and unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. It’s been years since I’ve read anything by Baldwin, but the documentary reminded me of his eloquence and passion. When we have a crude, inarticulate racist in the White House, and toadies not only willing, but eager, to justify hatred through contortions and misrepresentations of history, it seems a good day to listen to James Baldwin. His truths still resonate.
Note: I have tried to use YouTube videos with a closed captioning option; though imperfect, the overall sense is generally intact.