As usual, I present this post with the caveat that I am neither a scholar nor a specialist in this field; I’m merely providing an overview for those who wish to have a cursory explanation and enough information to enable continued research on one’s own. For the parenthetical part of the title of this post, I chose the less-common, but contemporaneously-accurate, reference to the Chinese Restriction Act, although today it is most often called the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was a conscious choice, guided by my desire to show the fluidity and evolution of the immigration restrictions directed at the Chinese, and later other Asian immigrants.
April 11, 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act; dude in the photo can be disregarded, since evidence suggests that he’s still clueless as to its significance.
It’s said that hindsight is 20/20, but to evaluate the open housing work of Morris Milgram in the 1950s and beyond, it is helpful to also understand the academic and social viewpoints relative to racism during this period. During the post-war period, social scientists who studied the issues of racism were heavily influenced by the 1944 work An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy by Swedish economist Gunner Myrdal.
House on Lonford Street, near Holme Ave., in NE Philadelphia. Area known as Greenbelt Knoll, first integrated housing in Philadelphia.
At the time when Morris Milgram was building Concord Park (featured in last week’s post), he was concurrently developing a smaller plat of land bought with the initial capital raised from investors. This 22 acre area would be a continuation of his dream for integrated housing, but on a smaller scale and with higher-end housing. Nestled in a wooded area of northeast Philadelphia, 19 homes were built in the prototypical mid-century modern style and in keeping with Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic of drawing on and incorporating the natural landscape. (Morris Milgram specifically asked that as many existing trees be saved as possible and had a landscape architect as part of the team for the development.) The 55% white/45% black quota that was used at Concord Park was maintained for Greenbelt Knoll, and although on at least one occasion, Milgram called a white friend to ask him to consider buying a home on Longford Street, the struggles of finding white homebuyers willing to live in this integrated neighborhood were less pronounced. Milgram himself bought one of the homes, and the upscale housing attracted upper middle-class whites and blacks; politicians, intellectuals, and even a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The small, secluded area with unique housing enabled the creation of a community built upon neighborliness and mutual respect. Today, Greenbelt Knoll remains integrated and has been designated as a historic district by the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places (2006) and the National Register of Historic Places (2010).
Invitation to a reception for Greenbelt Knoll, 1955
After Greenbelt Knoll, Milgram turned his sights to building two small subdivisions in and near Princeton, NJ: Maple Crest in Princeton and Glen Acres in West Windsor. These subdivisions of 25 and 15 homes, respectively, were built at the request of the Princeton Housing Group, a coalition of integrated Presbyterian churches. This local group did most of the initial work of raising funds to finance the housing; more details about their experiences are in this article: Film eyes Princeton pioneers of integration. No quotas were set for these houses, and the neighborhoods settled into [roughly] a 60% white, 40% black ratio on their own. Although Maple Crest is no longer a cohesive neighborhood like Glen Acres, both areas are still racially integrated. A West Windsor resident produced a short documentary about the experience a few years back; the trailer for it can be found here: Trailer for Glen Acres: A Story in Black and White
At this point in his career, Milgram had become known across the country for those interested in open housing, and he started a new company, Modern Community Developers (MCD). It was intended to not only continue building open developments but also to provide guidance to other builders interested in open housing. Milgram’s contacts were widespread and diverse, and the board of directors reflects this:
MCD’s roster of board members and advisors reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century progressive politics: Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women), Senator Jacob Javits, Kivie Kaplan (head of the NAACP), Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph (president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Eleanor Roosevelt. Ned Eichler, who had offered Milgram advice on his projects, was a supporter, as was the pioneering developer of the shopping mall (and socialist) Victor Gruen. Source:“Housing Is Everybody’s Problem”: The Forgotten Crusade of Morris Milgram
One of the first projects of MCD almost became its last. A subsidiary of MCD, Progress Development Corporation, bought two plots of land in Deerfield, IL with the intention of building a 51-home development of housing, with 12 homes reserved for black ownership. Deerfield, about 20 miles northwest of the Loop, was, in the late 50s and early 60s, a small town with undeveloped prairie land on its outskirts, a quaint village center, and an all-white suburb. After getting the necessary zoning approvals, Progress started construction in the summer of 1959, and within months, sewer and plumbing lines had been laid for the plots and two model homes were almost completed. The homes were going to be designed by a noted modernist architectural firm, with a starting price of $30,000, the most expensive houses Milgram had built to date.
In mid-November, however, the news that this was to be an interracial development leaked, and Deerfield residents reacted with fury and speed. The next day, village officials halted construction due to “building code violations.” A community organization was formed, and an action committee of leading Chicago lawyers planned to take on the legal battle. On November 18th, just three days after the news was out, a village board of trustees meeting was packed with residents calling for the board to stop the development. Residents who supported the project, including a local history teacher, were jeered, booed, and told to leave. Milgram’s past association with socialism were brought up, with calls that his ties to “communism” be investigated; others wanted nothing to do with outsiders, especially “Eastern money interests” (an interesting charge in light of the fact that Milgram was Jewish). By November 23rd, a special meeting was held, with some residents claiming they weren’t against integration, just this sort of “forced integration” that was not the result of a “natural expansion.” By December 10th, a legal notice was posted in the local newspaper, announcing the park board’s intention to acquire land for six new parks; two of the parcels were the Progress plots. In 1959, bond issues for parks had already failed twice in Deerfield, but when the vote was held on December 23, 1959, voters in Deerfield voted 2635-1207 in favor of acquiring the parklands. The land that Milgram had bought and started developing would be seized by eminent domain.
Milgram was not going to concede without a fight. He fought in the state courts of Illinois and filed a civil rights case in the federal courts. In the state courts, he lost on the basis that Deerfield had the right to use eminent domain, and the Illinois Supreme Court would not consider the motives that MCD and Progress said motivated that use. In the federal district court, the judge dismissed the suit but not without adding his own acerbic, hostile opinion. (For those who are interested, some of the complaint and the ruling can be read here, with the point-by-point allegations of the roadblocks, with the rebuttal, placed in the way of Progress and its development: Complaint against Deerfield) Although Milgram’s lawyers pursued appeal, both cases were lost. The two partially-finished model homes were bought by village officials, and the land seized from Milgram lay dormant for years before finally being made into the long-promised parks: Jaycee Park and Mitchell Pool and Park.
In 1959, when Progress was trying to start their development in Deerfield, there were 12 African-Americans living in Deerfield out of a population of 11.786. The 2010 census shows that Deerfield had a population of 18,225; 160 residents reported as African-American. In 2015, a Lutheran church in Deerfield proposed a 48-unit affordable housing apartment complex on a part of their property, which would require a change in zoning from single-family housing. Controversy swirled over the proposal (Affordable Zion Woods apartments draw swift opposition), and the arguments in opposition to the affordable housing would have been familiar to the 1959 residents who opposed Milgram’s development.
This ill-conceived project on the land now occupied by the Zion Lutheran Church will spell trouble for Deerfield. The rental is below market costs and the income maximum foreshadows an influx of welfare recipients, and increase in taxes already high, and a strain on the school system. While those who propose this development may be motivated by good intentions, we must remember that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Source:Diagnosing and Treating ‘Property-Value Panic’ Syndrome
To the best of my knowledge, the units have not been built.
Despite the financial assistance from groups and individuals across the nation, the legal actions related to the proposed housing in Deerfield nearly ruined Milgram financially. He turned away from suburban developments and turned his attention to buying apartment properties in Washington, DC and other cities and changing rental policies to allow non-white residents. It was the path he chose to follow for the remaining decades of his life:
Over the next three decades, Milgram acquired a host of apartment buildings. In 1964, MCD bought Rosemary Village, an all-white apartment complex in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, and started welcoming black tenants. It was, Milgram claimed, “the first apartment house to be deliberately integrated south of the Mason-Dixon Line.” In 1965, he set up a real estate investment trust called M-REIT that focused on buying apartment buildings in white suburbs and using “affirmative marketing to establish and maintain ethnically diverse communities.” Other partnerships to buy low- and moderate-income apartments and integrate them long-term followed. With the Fair Housing Act now the law of the land (albeit poorly enforced; discrimination remained rife) and “benign quotas” out of the question, Milgram and his partners aimed to steadily integrate complexes as apartments turned over, luring nonwhite tenants while preventing a white exodus. In 1968 Milgram became the first recipient of the National Human Rights Award of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Source:“Housing Is Everybody’s Problem”: The Forgotten Crusade of Morris Milgram
Bonus video: Memories of Greenbelt Knoll
Next week: Legacies and Lessons
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Morris Milgram was a dreamer and an activist first, a homebuilder second.
An ardent antifascist and peace activist, member of the Student League for Industrial Democracy and Student Strike Agains the War, Milgram was expelled from the City College of New York in 1934 after leading protest against a visiting delegation of fascist students. In the late 1930s, Milgram served as New Jersey executive secretary of the Workers’ Defense League… During World War II, …Milgram became the national secretary of the WDL. The WDL had a long record of supporting racial equality, which it saw as inseparable from “labor’s rights.” …Closely allied with CORE and the March on Washington Movement, Milgram advocated nonviolent civil disobedience. Source:Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas Sugrue, p. 230-31
By 1947, with a wife and a young family, Milgram made the decision to take mainstream employment and started working for his father-in-law’s construction firm. Although he did not have a background in any area of construction (his degree, completed at Dana College, was in economics), he spent four years learning the ins-and-outs of marketing, tax codes, zoning laws, and construction finance, all while working with his father-in-law to build housing for whites-only in the Philadelphia suburbs. It was not a happy choice for him (“my conscience hurt”), but it was, according to his father-in-law/boss, the way things were done. After his father-in-law died in 1952, Milgram decided to pursue his dream of creating open housing, an interracial alternative to Levittown.
The dream was the easy part; the reality was far harder. Banks and investors had zero interest in supporting an integrated housing project; in his first year of trying to fund the project, he only raised $14,000. Fortunately, being in a Friends’ stronghold helped to save the project. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) introduced him to George Otto, a builder, Quaker, and the chair of the Philadelphia Friends Social Order Committee. Otto was interested in and sympathetic to Milgram’s dream, and they formed a corporation together, which enabled them to sell stock shares to friends and associates. Although the story of Concord Park will always be Morris Milgram’s story, the contribution of George Otto cannot be underestimated. He came from an old Quaker family and had connections throughout the Quaker community, particularly with Quakers as wealthy as himself. Between the two, with Milgram providing the moral argument, “Put your money where your heart is” and Otto providing the reassurance that this was a sound investment, $150,000 in venture capital was soon raised. A board of directors was formed, made up of six white and three black men, and with the initial capital two tracts of land were purchased: 50 acres in Trevose, PA (and only about 11 miles from Levittown), as well as a smaller plot of 9 acres in northeast Philly.
An article printed in a Fellowship of Reconciliation publication
Raising the initial capital was only the first battle; from there, Milgram had to ensure that mortgage financing was available. At this point, the project almost crashed and burned as more than 20 banks and financial institutions turned them down. For bankers, the conventional wisdom was that blacks lowered property values, so it made no sense to them to provide the financing. After much searching and with the corporation on the brink of ruin, one bank came through. A New York bank, with experience lending to African-Americans, agreed to finance some of the mortgages.
Milgram’s Concord Park homes were similar to those in Levittown, an intentional decision by Milgram, but because he lacked the economies of scale and the vertical integration of Levitt and Sons, they were slightly more expensive. Despite that, when his model home opened in 1954 (decorated by the same designer the Levitt’s used), 25,000 passed through in four months, 95% of whom were white. Milgram had marketed heavily to white communities (although not always mentioning that this would be open housing) and relied on word of mouth throughout black communities. However, when actual applications started coming in, Milgram was dumbfounded to discover that of the first 60 applicants, 50 were black. He had anticipated that securing the first sales to white families would be difficult, but he had not taken into account the pent-up demand for suburban housing for black families. “I woke up one night in a cold sweat and said to myself, ‘Morris, you s.o.b., you’re building a ghetto.'” (Sugrue, p. 233)
Morris Milgram, 1972; Concord Park brochure 1954
With the dream of integrated housing once again in danger, the board of directors for Concord Park were faced with a difficult decision. Did they set aside their initial goal and instead meet the demand of black buyers? Could they afford to wait for white buyers to move in? Finally, in 1955, the board made a difficult, controversial decision. They established a quota system, with 45% of the homes to be sold to black families and the remaining balance (55%) to white buyers. Milgram himself had suggested a 50/50 split, but one of the black board members, a former president of Florida A&M, suggested the 55/45 split to assuage white fears about losing the majority. By 1958, all of the 139 houses in Concord Park were built and sold; the ratio had been maintained.
For years, the dream played out just as Milgram had hoped. There was no violence as the Concord Park houses sold, and the development had social clubs; residents played bridge together; a babysitting cooperative was formed. It was 1950s suburbia in every imaginable way for the black and white residents. For a period of time, the ratio was maintained, in part because Milgram had owners sign an agreement which allowed the corporation to take responsibility for the resale. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was law, and quotas became illegal; by the 1970s, cookie cutter tract housing, so necessary during the post-WWII housing shortage, lost their popularity, and white occupants of Concord Park started moving out…because they could. Although fair housing was by now the law of the land, housing discrimination still existed, but black buyers could still buy in Concord Park. So they did; the last, original white homeowners moved out in 2000, but Concord Park had become a majority-black development years before.
Next week: Was Concord Park a success or failure? And more Milgram…
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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.