On the Frontlines of Freedom: Excerpt

Prospective buyers line up to tour a model
home on the opening day at Levittown, New Jersey
on June 7, 1958.

The furor started in the summer of 1958, when a reporter asked builder William Levitt if he planned to sell to blacks in his newest housing development in Willingboro, N.J., a farm community midway between Trenton and Camden. Levitt, plainly and unapologetically, said “no.”

The developer had established a whites-only policy in older Levitt communities in Levittown, N.Y., and Levittown, Pa., and saw no reason to do anything differently now. “If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours. We did not create it, and we cannot cure it,” he told the Saturday Evening Post. “We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”

Levitt was soon forced to eat his words. America was changing, and he had missed the signs. Willie R. James, an African-American barred from buying in Willingboro, filed discrimination charges that summer against the mighty Levitt & Sons Inc. James’ lawyer, Emerson Darnell, a mild-mannered Quaker from Mount Holly and future founding board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, argued the whites-only policy was discriminatory and illegal. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with Darnell, and integration came to Willingboro.

Bill Levitt revolutionized homebuilding by mass-producing thousands of homes for the post-World War II generation. He was a superb salesman, marketing an affordable version of the American Dream. But he underestimated the power of the budding civil rights movement. He failed to envision the chilly reception awaiting him in New Jersey. And he did not foresee the determination of Willie James, a 38-year-old man who — like hundreds of others lined up outside the model homes off Route 130 that June of 1958 — saw his family’s future unfolding inside a Levitt home.

When a sales agent refused to sell to him, “I was shocked. He was so bold about it. He said, ‘We don’t sell homes to blacks,’ ” James told an interviewer nearly 40 years later. By then the father of seven, long since retired from the Army and retired from a second career as an equal opportunity officer with ITT Corporation, was a civil rights leader and ordained minister. It was a story he would tell many times.

James was born in Vidalia, La., in 1920 and grew up in the South during the Jim Crow era. During his childhood an uncle was lynched by a white mob, according to Jerome Johnson, a friend in Willingboro. James attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, and was drafted in 1941. He was stationed in Fort Dix from 1946 until 1951, three years after President Harry S. Truman ordered the Army desegregated. Then he was transferred to Europe. While there James lodged a complaint against a German restaurant that refused to serve him, according to a short biography published by the Willingboro branch of the NAACP. The restaurant was located in the French zone of occupied Germany, and a French judge ordered the restaurant closed. In 1955 James returned to Fort Dix. One day he read that Levitt planned to build 16,000 homes in nearby Willingboro, and decided to fill out an application.

Willingboro had only 150 or so houses, but Levitt had bought up about 90 percent of the township’s vacant land and planned to construct 15,000 housing units on it. His master plan called for a community of winding roads branching off from a broad landscaped parkway, complete with sewage and water systems, schools, and stores. Levittown, N.Y., and Levittown, Pa., had proved popular with blue-collar workers, but he aimed the New Jersey development at the middle class. Homes were designed with young children in mind; they came in three styles starting at $11,490, with a down payment of $350. Every home had the latest General Electric appliances, and every neighborhood had its own school and swimming pool. Willingboro politicians approved the plan, no doubt happy Levitt was donating the schools, and held a referendum changing the town’s name from Willingboro to Levittown. (The referendum passed in 1959, but the name reverted to Willingboro in a second referendum in 1963.)

Levitt dropped his racial bomb at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 1958. It was not surprising that a reporter asked about race. The previous summer, Daisy and Bill Meyers, a black couple who bought a resale home in Levittown, Pa., had been greeted by taunts and rock-throwing neighbors. What’s more, New Jersey had just amended its civil rights law to ban discrimination in housing assisted by federal subsidies — and Levitt depended heavily on mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration.

Levitt’s insistence on white-only homebuyers drew immediate fire. The American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, Knights of Columbus, and American Jewish Committee formed a New Jersey Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. State officials complained to the FHA. Patrick Murphy Malin, executive director of the ACLU, dashed off a letter to the New Jersey attorney general asking him to revoke the company’s corporation charter. “Mr. Levitt is not only promoting bigotry,” Malin wrote. “He is proposing to create a township dedicated to the principle of segregation.”

Willie James, apparently unbowed by the fuss, went to the model home sales office. When a salesman turned him away, he conferred with a friend employed by the state Division Against Discrimination. A few days later, James filed a complaint with the division.

Emerson Darnell
Emerson Darnell

Levitt launched a fierce legal offensive. First he tried to prevent the division from investigating. When a state court ordered the division to proceed, he attacked its jurisdiction in the matter. But Emerson Darnell, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, maintained Levitt’s whites-only sales policy violated the Bill of Rights provision of the New Jersey State Constitution, enacted in 1947, and the housing amendment to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, passed in 1957. Levitt lost every step of the way, but kept on building. By the time Levitt & Sons Inc. v. Division Against Discrimination reached the New Jersey Supreme Court, he had sold 2,000 homes. Levitt made a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually refused to hear the case. In their successful motion to have the case dismissed, Darnell and the other attorneys involved referred to Levitt’s fight as an attempt to “twist a state ban of racial discrimination into an impediment to federal policy.”

In the meantime, Levitt announced a “voluntary” integration program. “Sooner or later the present New Jersey law, or some other law substantially like it, will be upheld and enforced no matter how the present litigation turns out, and sooner or later some Negro families will move into Levittown,” he said. His company formed a Council on Human Relations to prepare for that prospect, and hired Harold Lett, an African-American recently retired from the state’s civil rights division, to run it. Lett enlisted local ministers and civic leaders in the pro-integration campaign. On June 27, 1958, Levitt, capitulating to integration, announced that “Two Negro families are in the process of buying homes in (Levittown). In view of the expressed wish of both these families to be spared notoriety, no further details about them will be made public at this time.” One of those families, of course, was the family of Willie R. James. Civil rights groups urged James to move in on a weekday, when fewer people were likely to be home. He chose a Saturday. “I was not going to sneak around,” said James, who became president of the Burlington County and Willingboro chapters of the NAACP. “Either people were going to accept us, or they weren’t.” By and large, they did. On the family’s first day at 32 Marchmont Lane, James came home to find a white neighbor helping his wife hang curtains.

Herbert J. Gans, a sociologist studying the evolution of the new town, praised the Levitt team for defusing white hostility in his 1967 book “The Levittowners.” In each new subdivision, salesmen offered black families first dibs on the most desirable streets, typically those bordering woods or creeks. The salesmen also made sure they did not sell adjoining homes to blacks. Relatively few black families moved in, however; by 1964, there were only about 50.

Even Emerson Darnell, James’ lawyer, cut Levitt some slack, according to his son, Chris Darnell. “My father said Levitt was not necessarily a racist, and was primarily a businessman. When it became clear that this was a mistake and the community was against it, Levitt really became an advocate for integration and was not an obstacle,” he said.

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