Levittown: A Racial Battleground In The Suburbs During the 1950s, 20 million Americans moved to the suburbs. One of the most famous is the planned community of Levittown, Pa. But it wasn't just pretty Cape Cod cottages and state of the art appliances. In the summer of 1957, riots broke out after a black couple moved in.

Levittown: A Racial Battleground In The Suburbs

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Coming up, a controversial new novel about a genocidal Nazi SS officer and the cultured life he leads after the second World War.

But first, some more post World War II history, this time, American. During the 1950s, 20 million Americans moved to the suburbs. One of the most famous is the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania. But it was not just pretty Cape Cod cottages and state-of-the-art appliances. In the summer of 1957, riots broke out after a black couple moved in. In his new book, "Levittown," David Kushner writes that the model town was not built on hope, but on fear.

Mr. DAVID KUSHNER (Author, "Levittown"): It's a story that begins, really, with the government and back when the Federal Housing Administration recommended covenants that were essentially red-lining communities, in order for them to receive help and to receive funding. And at first, Bill Levitt was just like other builders. He was following this plan and these recommendations to have these policies.

HANSEN: So they were discriminating with the help of the federal government.

Mr. KUSHNER: Absolutely. But then the Supreme Court later actually ruled that these racial covenants were unenforceable.

HANSEN: How were Levitt and sons, the architects and the builders, able to segregate the community after desegregation laws had passed?

Mr. KUSHNER: Levittown, at the time, I mean, this really was such an iconic place. I mean, Levitt had been on the cover of Time magazine, he was considered the biggest builder in the country. And he basically said, you know, I'll remove the covenant, but it doesn't change the policy and really just openly defied the law of the land. And it took years and years until that changed.

HANSEN: What were they afraid of, that the property values would go down if black families moved in?

Mr. KUSHNER: Essentially that was what he said. I mean, you know, his quote was that he can either built homes, or he can fight for civil rights. And he considered himself a builder and the concern was that, yes, if African-Americans came in, that there will be white flight.

HANSEN: You focus on two couples: Bea and Lew Wechsler, Daisy and Bill Myers. Can you give us a - just a brief thumbnail sketch of who they are and how they figure into the story?

Mr. KUSHNER: Sure, absolutely. I mean, the one thing they had in common is that they wanted what we all want, which is a nice home in a good community. But they came from two very different backgrounds. So the Myers, an African-American family, both college-educated, Daisy Myers had grown up in the south. The Wechsler's were Jewish activist family from the Bronx, who actually had a Communist past.

And what happened was is that the Wechsler's came to Levittown, partly because Lew Wechsler was a veteran and he wanted, you know, to be able to get a home that he could afford, but also because there was a steel mill closely where he could work. The Myers ended up there in the area also looking for a home.

And the Wechsler's secretly arranged for the Myers to purchase an available home that was next door in Levittown, which ended up sparking this race riot in the summer of '57.

HANSEN: Okay, let's talk about August of 1957, that's when the Myers moved into the house.

Mr. KUSHNER: Correct.

HANSEN: But they did it rather stealthily.

Mr. KUSHNER: Right. Well, they had to. I mean, there was no precedent for this. Nobody knew what was going to happen, so when they did move in, you know, they didn't really make it widely known. Literally, the mailman showed up the morning that they moved in, and Daisy Myers opened the door. And the mailman had a letter and he said, can you give this to Mrs. Myers?

And she said, I am Mrs. Myers. And he turned around and ran down the street, basically, to alert the neighbors that an African-American family had moved in.

HANSEN: And what happened?

Mr. KUSHNER: And what happened was a long hot summer of tension there in Levittown that included, you know, crosses being burned on the lawn. I mean, it was almost surreal what took place. The town kind of split into two factions. And on one side, the people whom the Wechsler's called the batties actually leased a home behind the Myers.

And they hung a Confederate flag on top and they started blasting, you know, African-American spirituals at all hours of the night. And, you know, banging the mailbox, harassing them in plain view of the police, who were supposedly, you know, keeping an eye on this as the riot was boiling on over the summer.

HANSEN: You write that the conflict brought out the worst, but also the best in Levittown residents. What would be some examples?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, the Myers would come home, for example, and they would find, you know, local Levittowners cleaning up the house, cleaning the broken glass from the floor inside the living room where, you know, a rock had been thrown through the window the previous night.

People would show up - they had small children, they would show up with a bassinette, you know, for the baby and so on. So it really brought out the best and worst in this community. And ultimately, you know, the best part of it did win out.

HANSEN: Tell us how the situation was resolved.

Mr. KUSHNER: What finally happened was the Myers and Wechsler's literally had to drive up and appeal to the state government and finally there was an intervention. There was a dramatic trial, which resulted in a permanent injunction being placed against the mob that was harassing them and brought that to an end.

And ultimately, was really kind of the tipping point in Bill Levitt's life, when he was sort of publically humiliated by this. And it began his long downfall.

HANSEN: And tell us a bit about that. What happened? I mean, you said Bill Levitt on the cover of Time magazine. I mean, he was kind of the Donald Trump of his day. But his desire to keep his community lily white and the publicity from the riot, I mean, how bad was his downfall?

Mr. KUSHNER: It was pretty bad. And it is true, like you said, I mean, he was a real icon. And he was a complicated person. I mean, he wasn't, you know, I didn't want to present him as just being entirely villainous because on one hand, he did provide the American dream for all of these returning veterans, but, at the same time, he was denying it from an entire race.

So he ended up finally, basically, getting out of the business, selling his companies and then he lost all his money that was all in stock. He continued to spend and spend and spend and finally died destitute in a hospital wing that he had donated when he had his fame and fortune.

HANSEN: Were the Myers and Wechsler's then able to live in peace in Levittown, Pennsylvania?

Mr. KUSHNER: To some degree, I mean, you know, they were allowed to stay, but life was never the same. And the Wechsler's ended up leaving. I mean, they were basically kind of iced out of the town for their involvement. You know, there was a subtext to their role there, too, because of the Red baiting at the time.

The Myers stayed for a little bit, but they ended up leaving, too. And today, you know, not a lot has changed. I mean, Levittown, Pennsylvania is - the last census had about 2.5 percent African-American population there. So the legacy of that story goes on.

HANSEN: David Kushner is the author of "Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb." He joined us from Rutgers University. David, thank you.

Mr. KUSHNER: Thanks.

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