The Special Collections Research Center is pleased to announce the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia Records are now open for research use. The JCRC records were donated to the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center between 1976 and 2006 and acquired by the Special Collections Research Center in June 2009 where they were the focus of a two-year processing project. View the online finding aid or guide to the collection on the Libraries’ website.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC) was founded on January 30, 1939, as the Anti-Defamation Council but changed their name in 1943. The impetus for the formation of the JCRC was the rise of antisemitism in America after fascism took hold of much of Europe in the late 1930s. Jewish community leaders perceived the need for a unified voice dedicated specifically to fighting antisemitism and protecting the rights of the Jewish Community in Philadelphia. The JCRC’s mission has traditionally been defined as “…helping members of all religious, racial and ethnic groups to work and live together democratically and cooperatively by equalizing their treatment, enlarging their opportunities and deepening their mutual appreciation.” The Jewish Community Relations Council is still in existence and works as a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The bulk of the records span JCRC history from its founding in 1939 through the mid-1990s. Subject strengths include the struggle against antisemitism and racism in any form, including violence, vandalism, and propaganda, or in any aspect of society, such as education, employment, and housing. Other well-documented subjects include prayer in schools, interreligious relations, the relationship between the black and Jewish communities, Holocaust remembrance, Soviet Jewry, and the state of Israel.
Of particular interest are data, surveys, and compiled reports on the admissions practices of Philadelphia’s professional schools in the 1940s.
Also noteworthy are records pertaining to the Black-Jewish Loan Fund, a JCRC–created program which offered low or no interest loans to members of the black community interested in purchasing Jewish-owned business in neighborhoods of shifting demographics.
On October 25, 2018, SCRC Associate Archivist Jessica Lydon, joined historian of Vietnam and migration, Professor Dieu T. Nguyen, and Executive Director of HIAS Pennsylvania, Cathryn Miller-Wilson, in Paley Library for a panel discussion. Professor Lila Corwin Berman, Director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, moderated the panel which featured HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) Pennsylvania’s history, its various resettlement efforts, and the work HIAS PA is doing to address today’s refugee crisis.
Lydon highlighted portions of the HIAS Pennsylvania Records collection held in Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center, most notably the organization’s resettling of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in the Russian empire during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; advocacy work against restrictive immigration legislation including literacy tests and head taxes; and collaborative resettlement work with local VOLAGs (voluntary agencies) to assist Southeast Asian refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Nguyen shared with attendees a chronology of key events surrounding Vietnam War-related refugees, how Vietnamese refugees regarded American aid associations that assisted them in the resettlement process, current characteristics and figures of Southeast Asian populations in Philadelphia and beyond, as well as her personal connections to these events, through the experiences of her two brothers.
Miller-Wilson spoke about HIAS PA’s current efforts to assist vulnerable populations and some of the challenges to this work including the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed wealth test regulation known as the “public charge rule,” which if enacted would deny green card and other visa applicants for using “one or more public benefit” in the past or being “likely at any time” to receive such benefits in the future.
In the late 1960s, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC) saw it a priority to take a public stance regarding gun control legislation. While cases of local antisemitic incidents often included violence, they did not generally include firearms. However, in June 1968, gun control legislation was on the JCRC Board of Directors meeting agenda resulting in the board adopting a policy in support of stricter gun control legislation. The primary motivating factors appear to have been two-fold. First, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had just occurred. And second, there was concern for Jewish merchants and surrounding neighborhoods due to an increase in violent crimes in historically Jewish neighborhoods. This had produced increased fear and a call for action from the community. The JCRC argued the solution was to address wider, systemic problems and that an escalation of violence and vigilantism could only beget more violence. In a statement by Executive Director Albert Chernin:
[W]hat we must do is to forge with others a national consensus to persuade the federal government to carry out that massive program that we have postponed for more than 25 years to deal with our massive social, political, and economic problems….That, my friends, is Jewish self-defense. Jewish self-defense is better schools…full and fair employment…full and fair housing….In short, Jewish self-defense is a dynamic, thriving democracy.
Between 1968 and 1971, the JCRC did very little beyond releasing public statements. Their involvement in the gun control debate began again in earnest in 1972. Motivated by a desire to reduce violence in their community, the Old York Road Suburban Division of the JCRC reminded the board of their 1968 opinion and called on them to renew their public stance advocating gun control. While reassessing their position, the JCRC solicited advice from the Philadelphia Crime Commission, the criminal justice expert at the American Jewish Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Executive Director of the National Council of Responsible Firearms Policy on the question of the constitutionality of private hand gun ownership. JCRC counsel concluded that, “The United States Supreme Courts and lower courts have consistently interpreted the Second Amendment as a prohibition against federal interference with the state militia and not a guarantee of an individual’s rights to bear arms.”
The board then sanctioned the petitioning of elected officials and public advocacy groups, supported most notably by the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission. Though they received positive responses from the community, the responses from elected officials were tepid. For instance, in response to the JCRC’s suggestion that gun control legislation be advanced at a federal level, the Pennsylvania Senate’s minority caucus chairman Wilmot Fleming called the JCRC’s petitioning of Congress “somewhat meaningless.” The JCRC continued to lobby Fleming to push a total ban on handgun ownership, but he remained unmoved, citing the belief that, “The problem with any gun control measures, either state or federal, is the fact that a criminal who wishes to obtain a firearm of any kind to be used in the commission of a drime [sic] will get it regardless of any law on the statute books.”
In 1975, after failing to make any headway, the JCRC’s focus on gun control legislation began to wane. A change in the executive directorship brought a reassessment of priorities and a focus on Soviet Jewry and the defense of Israel.
Casey Babcock, Project Archivist, SCRC
This is the fourth post of an occasional series highlighting the work of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The records of the JCRC, housed in Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, are currently being processed and will be available for research in late summer 2018.
Just as the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was captivating visitors in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, Fannie and Amelia Allen began chronicling their social and intellectual pursuits in their diaries. The Allen sisters filled their diaries with short summaries of the day’s events and longer, introspective passages that revealed their personal ambitions and struggles to find a mate who was both desirable and an intellectual match.
In an entry dated April 20, 1876, Fannie (age 21) writes: “I am trying to school my thoughts and make myself contented with the blessings, and not wish for others, but it is hard, and it is only now and then, when I see some others not, as I think, situated happily as I am so I feel thoroughly contented. It is hard to see others happily mated, and neither Amelia or I is so, or likely to be…”. Amelia (age 22) expresses similar sentiment in a June 18, 1878 entry: “Years do not bring what I long for as every girl I suppose at my age wants – a lover whom I can respect. Times are either different now or we are hard to suit. I know not which but certain it is never have I seen the person I could care for in that light.”
Already working as a teacher, Amelia frequently writes about the challenges she experienced in the Hebrew Sunday School Society and Philadelphia Public Schools. Despite her desires, Amelia never married. She dedicated her life to education and social service. In 1885, along with other like-minded Jewish women, Amelia founded the Young Women’s Union, where under her tutelage adolescent girls learned domestic skills and in 1894 helped organize the women’s branch of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association.
As Fannie approached her late twenties, she spent less and less time recording her thoughts in her diary, but on August 25, 1884, she (age 29), made the following revelation: “I reopen this to say though I’m not married, I hope to be. It seems too wonderful. Not only do I expect to be a physician, but I hope to wed a Mr. Moses De Ford. A man who though younger than I, is my ideal in almost every particular. We were engaged Aug. 17 but expect to keep our betrothal a secret, even from my dear Mother until after I graduate and he is a physician, then as soon as he gains enough supporters, we hope to be married partners, no fear of deficient love on his side and mine.”
Nearly three years later on June 8, 1887, at the age of 32, Fannie married Moses De Ford, eight years her junior, but not before graduating from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Fannie practiced medicine alongside her husband for over 30 years in the Kensington neighborhood, providing medical care to the immigrant population that worked in the textile mills and shipyards nearby, and advocated for better hygiene and sanitation for the working poor.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC) was established by B’nai B’rith in January 1939, but was originally known as the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation Council (PADC). The organization changed its name in May 1944, to better reflect its dual mission to fight anti-Semitism and organized bigotry, as well as to promote intergroup understanding and cooperation. Although the JCRC developed into an organization that worked to advance both of these goals, the earliest records show their focusfrom 1939 through the end of the Second World War was on investigating and combatting anti-Semitism.
Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, conspiratorial ideas regarding Jews increasingly became intermixed with an isolationist and nativist sentiment that hoped to keep America strictly neutral in the growing conflict in Europe and Asia. A graphic example of this came to the attention of the PADC on April 17, 1941.
Initially referred to as the “new pro-Nazi circular,” correspondence shows that Maurice Fagan, executive director of the PADC, was in contact with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other groups who were investigating its appearance in Philadelphia. An ADL contact revealed that a large number of these circulars were sent to “H. L. Smith” of 2218 Pine Street by “M. Slauter” of 715 Aldine Ave., Chicago. A few days later, Fagan learned that the “Uncle Sam crucifixion circular” was the “brain child” of Newton Jenkins of Chicago and that there were reports of the circular appearing in Oregon and New York. A memorandum from April 24, described 715 Aldine Ave. as a “clearinghouse for anti-Semitic material” and connected Newton Jenkins with Elizabeth Dilling, a right-wing activist and supporter of isolationism.
An April 27 American Jewish Committee report, orchestrated by George Mintzer, details an investigation of the 715 Aldine address and the individuals associated with the case. While the address turned out to be a boarding house and M. Slauter to be a fictitious name, the investigator discovered the circular was printed by John Winter, co-owner of a Chicago printing company that had previously been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for connections with the German American Bund, the National German-American Alliance, and other “front organizations associated with the Nazi movement.”
A second circular began appearing in May that shared the same artistic and thematic style as the first. A May 15 letter from Joseph Roos to Maurice Fagan and others, states that Gustav A. Brand was very likely the artist behind both circulars. Roos states that he knew Brand well and that Brand was a former Chicago City Treasurer who “has constantly been under fire because of his strong Nazi language.”
On May 29, Maurice Fagan sent a letter to the Philadelphia office of the F.B.I. with an update on the investigation into the circulars. This letter appears to be the last action taken on this case, but the records of the JCRC contain many other examples of PADC investigating and exposing cases of anti-Semitism in the Greater Philadelphia region.
–Kenneth Cleary, Project Archivist, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection, SCRC
In mid-December 1963, members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) approached Elias Myers, the city appointed director of the 1964 Mummers Parade, to demand that blackface be banned from the upcoming event. Myers announced on December 16 that the use of blackface would be prohibited, but this decision did not sit well with some Mummers and Myers soon found his home picketed by over a hundred dissenters. The city tried to reach a compromise, but a few days later the ban on black face was rescinded.
1963 had been a turbulent year, punctuated by imagery of police dogs and fire hoses turned on young African American protesters, church bombings, mass civil rights demonstrations, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was in this context of activism and struggle, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a petition in court on December 30 seeking to have the use of blackface by the Mummers banned. The NAACP argued that permitting ridicule of a large percentage of the city’s population was unacceptable given that the parade was subsidized by taxpayers and subject to the issuance of a city permit.
At the hearing, Jules Cohen, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC), offered this testimony, “Not too long ago, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia and other Jewish organizations were constrained to take action to end the caricaturizing of Jews on the vaudeville stage, in plays and movies. Stereotyping through the use of blackface in the Mummers Day Parade is an insult to the Negro community and offensive to Negro and white citizens alike.” Nevertheless, the court denied the petition on the basis that there was no law prohibiting the wearing of blackface and that the Mummers’ intent was not to ridicule.
Due to bad weather on New Year’s Day, the Mummers Parade was postponed until January 4, which allowed tensions over the controversy to rise to alarming heights. Reports surfaced that Mummers, motivated by what they saw as an intrusion on their traditions, intended to have over 1,000 marchers wearing blackface at their parade. Meanwhile, CORE announced their intent to disrupt the march, and Police Commissioner Howard Leary was informed that he should expect demonstrators to arrive from across the Mid-Atlantic. As fears of a violent confrontation escalated, Philadelphia’s Council on Human Relations spearheaded talks on how to resolve what they feared was an impending disaster peacefully.
Officers of the JCRC participated in talks with representatives of the Greater Philadelphia Council of Churches, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. This resulted in a new court petition on January 2 emphasizing the threat to public safety and seeking to ban the use of blackface as well as prevent any protests at the parade. The petitioners were chosen to represent an interfaith consensus and included JCRC’s Vice-President, Fanny Goldsmith. The court issued an injunction, citing the “clear and present danger” to the city, and as a result the parade was held on January 4 without blackface or significant disruptions.
On January 6th, Jules Cohen wrote a report to the Council of National Jewish Agencies that stated in part: “By New Years Eve, those of us close to the picture were convinced that rioting and disorder were inevitable. All of the ingredients for an explosion were present–an issue about which both sides felt strongly…. I am satisfied the police could not have controlled these extraordinary crowds and that granting of the injunction prevented property damage, physical harm and perhaps even some killings. Such an explosion would have set us back 100 years in civil rights and it would have done untold economic damage to the city in the loss of conventions and other business.”
Following these events there was widespread discussion in the press over the controversy and whether or not the prohibitions on both blackface and protest went too far. Indeed, the JCRC’s Civil Liberties Committee expressed mixed feelings about the outcome in a statement that both sympathized with the motivations of those involved, but also worried about the implications of a court decision that infringed on the right to protest.
Libraries and archives often maintain what they arcanely call “vertical files,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a collection of articles (as pamphlets and clippings) that is maintained (as in a library) to answer brief questions or to provide points of information not easily located.” Other definitions note that the items in the file are too minor to require individual cataloging. And “vertical” refers to the actual storage orientation of the file folders—upright, often in a filing cabinet.
These files are simultaneously rich and idiosyncratic in content. A user never knows what might turn up and learns to enjoy the serendipity of finding a rich file, while being resigned to the disappointment of a skinny one.
Temple University Libraries’ Special Collection Research Center maintains several such files. In the Philadelphia Jewish Archives, there are the Vertical Files on the Jewish Community of Greater Philadelphia which is an accumulation of items that document Jewish history in Philadelphia. The collection include photocopies of newspaper articles, pamphlets, family histories and genealogies, ephemeral items such as brochures, flyers and event programs and other miscellaneous materials relating to persons, places, organizations, and topical subjects. The files provide background information on cultural and historical events, businesses, and community members of the Jewish community in the Greater Philadelphia region and parts of southern New Jersey.
The inventory to the Temple University Archives Vertical File was recently put on line. It documents Temple’s founder Russell Conwell and many aspects of the University’s history. The collection contains publications, pamphlets, flyers and event programs, newspaper clippings, and other materials gathered from university offices and various news sources relating to persons, places, organizations, and topical subjects that document Temple University.
We’re reviewing the Science Fiction Collection Vertical File and the Dance Collection Vertical Files and hope to have information available about their contents soon.
Are these vertical files going the way of the dinosaur? At the moment, they are often superior to any search engine—or at least as good as the staff who faithfully gather and file the items—and serve as a great starting point and resource for many topics. Did you want to know about the Temple-Community Charrette of 1970; the model UN Conference that began at Temple in 1946; what Desmond Tutu said to the Temple community when he received an honorary degree in 1986? Start with the vertical file!
On March 14, 1939, Detective Sergeant Jacob H. Gomborow assigned six detectives from the Philadelphia Bureau of Police’s radical squad to attend a meeting organized by the Committee for Racial and Religious Tolerance held at the West Philadelphia branch of the YMCA at 52nd and Sansom Streets. The committee was an interfaith group sponsored by well-known clergy and politicians including Daniel A. Poling, Rufus M. Jones, C. Davis Matt, and Francis J. Myers. Prior to the meeting, Gomborow had received information that a group of Nazis were planning to infiltrate the tolerance gathering and instructed detectives to sit in the audience to monitor the meeting for any disturbances. The detectives witnessed a number of persons heckling the speakers, making slanderous remarks against Jews, and nailing anti-Semitic literature and posters to the walls. One of those men, William J. Rigney, stood up repeatedly during the meeting, interrupting the speaker, proclaiming that “Hitler is right in what he is doing to the Jews” and “it is the Jews own fault.” The meeting was abruptly adjourned as a result of the disorder caused by these men. As they left, the detectives observed these same men distributing leaflets promoting racial and religious hatred and pasting anti-Jewish stickers on cars and store windows in the surrounding neighborhood.
Detectives arrested eleven of the “Nazi strong armers” who were subsequently charged with inciting a riot. In the early morning hours of March 15, three others were arrested at City Hall, including Thomas A. Blisard, Jr. and Joseph A. Gallagher, while they were attempting to secure the release of those arrested outside the tolerance meeting. Joseph A. Gallagher, chairman of the Anti-Communist Society of Philadelphia, a group founded by the West Philadelphia High School teacher and Nazi sympathizer Bessie “Two Gun” Burchett, protested the arrests, claiming they were a “frame-up.” Gallagher also denied the literature found in his car, which included copies of the Father Charles E. Coughlin publication Social Justice, was anti-Semitic propaganda. Thomas A. Blisard, Jr. (aka Blissard or Blizzard) and his family were well known in the community and to police as rabid anti-Communists and self-described Coughlinites. At the time, Blisard was chairman of the Philadelphia Committee for the Defense of Constitutional Rights, a group originally formed to protest against the radio station WDAS. The station had dropped Father Coughlin’s broadcasts when he refused to provide advance scripts of his addresses. Blisard’s father made use of tolerance meeting arrests to further their cause, printing and circulating fliers publicizing the “persecution of gentiles” suffered at the hands of an “organized gang of Jews.”
Recently prepared for research use, the Jacob H. Gomborow Papers, housed in Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, document Gomborow’s activities as an officer and detective in Philadelphia’s Bureau of Police, responsible for leading the bureau’s radical squad in their investigations of anti-Semitic, subversive, and radical groups in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. View the online finding aid or catalog record to learn more about the Jacob H. Gomborow Papers or to request access to the collection in the SCRC reading room on the ground floor of Paley Library.
As early as the 1890s, immigration bills with provisions for literacy tests were introduced in Congress as legislative measures to control the influx of immigrants into America. On several occasions these proposed literacy tests were passed by both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed later by the President. In 1897, for example, Grover Cleveland rejected a proposed literacy law on the basis it was “unnecessarily harsh and oppressive.”
Beginning in 1907, the United States Immigration Commission, under the leadership of Vermont Senator William Paul Dillingham began its work to address the growing nationalist concerns over the ever increasing numbers of immigrants (over 1 million annually between 1905 and 1907) arriving each year. The Dillingham Commission completed its work in 1911 and concluded that immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe posed a serious threat to American society and culture and should therefore be greatly reduced. It further called for regulation of the “kind” or “type” of immigrants admitted to the U.S.
The Dillingham Commission’s work was part and parcel of a wave of xenophobic and nativist sentiment in the early twentieth century, which saw numerous immigration restriction bills introduced to Congress with measures that included not only literacy tests, but also head taxes and specification of “barred” or “undesirable” immigrants by geographic and ethnic origin, physical and mental health status, and socioeconomic means. As the twentieth century unfolded, this nativist sentiment drove a progression of severely restrictive immigration legislation.
William Howard Taft vetoed a 1913 bill including a literacy test, as did Woodrow Wilson in 1915, asserting that “it excludes those to whom opportunities of elementary education have been denied without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity.” Wilson vetoed a restrictive immigration bill containing a literacy test provision for the second time in 1916; however Congress was successful in overriding that veto. On August 17, 1916, in support of the bill, Republican Senator William E. Borah of Idaho stated “we ought to have our fences up and be thoroughly prepared to protect those in this country who will be brought into competition with the hordes of people who will come here.”
The Immigration Act of 1917 enacted the literacy test as law and expanded the list of “undesirables” barred from entering the country including all persons originating from a geographic area termed the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” a region that included much of East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Many individuals and organizations engaged in debates on immigration as this legislation was introduced, including Louis Edward Levy, a prominent figure of Philadelphia’s Jewish community. Levy spoke out against the literacy test as a prerequisite to entry into the United States. He did so both as a private individual and as President of the Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants, in published writing and in speeches and testimony. Recently prepared for research use, the Maxwell Whiteman Collection of Louis Edward Levy Family Papers, housed in Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, includes some of these writings, extensive correspondence, and accounts of speeches that Levy gave on the subject.
The Levy Family Papers document the activities of Louis Edward Levy, the Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants, and other local and national immigrant aid societies and their efforts to mobilize and coordinate collective action against immigration restriction in favor of more liberal immigration policies. To use the Levy Family Papers, request materials from the finding aid for use in the SCRC Reading Room in Paley Library, or view a digitized selection of files from the papers.
Anastasia Chiu, Resident Librarian
Jessica M. Lydon, Associate Archivist, SCRC
On August 13, 1957, William and Daisy Myers and their three children, an African American family, moved into the all-white community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter found themselves confronted by angry residents displeased with their arrival. Large crowds gathered during the day and hurled insults towards the home, while at night, cars drove by flashing their lights and honking their horns. The situation escalated over the course of eight days, with rocks being thrown through the windows of the Myers’ home and another stone knocking a local police officer unconscious. In response, the Pennsylvania State Police were sent to Levittown to restore order, where they would remain for nearly two months before a semblance of calm returned.
The events in Levittown attracted the attention of the national press and a wide range of civic and religious organizations that shared a common mission to combat prejudice and discrimination. One of these organizations was Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which frequently worked to promote fairness and equal opportunity in housing for African Americans throughout Philadelphia. The JCRC would not take a direct role in events taking place in Levittown, but correspondence between JCRC executive director Maurice Fagan, and several other regional Jewish organizations, demonstrates the level of interest they shared. On October 18, Stephen Remsen, the director of the Philadelphia based Jewish Labor Committee, wrote to Fagan saying, “The pressures of time and the fact that my Levittown file is at home preparing itself for some more speeches to everybody and his brother make it difficult for me to do justice to your request.”
The apparent request was for an account of the role of Levittown’s Jews in response to the unrest. The letter praises the activities of the local Jewish Community Council, which worked in cooperation with Protestant and Quaker groups to actively support the rights of the Myers. Remsen notes that there were some “individual” Jews who were either neutral or opposed to the racial integration of their community, yet also stresses that he could find no evidence that any Jew took part in any of the protests or acts of mob violence. Perhaps the most interesting comments in the letter come when Remsen expresses concern to Fagan about the way Jews are sometimes perceived and how this could influence events in Levittown.
Remsen writes: “If there was any problem, it was the identification of the Myers move-in as a Negro-Jewish-Quaker movement and cause. While the Rabbi and all the others of Jewish faith who were in this fight tried to remain in the background, it was impossible to do this. I am convinced that the enemy – smelling one Jew in the community – would have played the anti-Semitic game even if that one Jew did nothing but study the Torah.”
Fred Grossman, director of the regional Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, also wrote to Fagan on October 18 about his assessment of events in Levittown. Grossman describes some of the harassment endured by the Myers family and their supporters over the previous weeks and similarly lauds the work of Jewish groups, despite, “reports of anti-Semitic comments and instances of hostility from non-Jewish neighbors previously friendly or at least indifferent.” Grossman also makes it clear that Jewish support for racial integration was not universal, and, in terms that are a bit more stark than Remsen’s, says that, “Although there are many Jews who are strongly opposed to integration and who resent the Myers, few if any of these agree with the violence or the attrition techniques aimed at driving the Myers out.”
Following these letters, Fagan submitted a report on October 23, 1957, to the JCRC board of directors that outlined what he saw as four key reasons why Jews had a stake in Levittown: “(1) the family which sold the home [to Myers] is Jewish; (2) the friendly family next door is Jewish; (3) organized Jewish groups and synagogues were called upon to make a public stand; and (4) Levitt of Levittown is Jewish.”
A local group, the Levittown Citizens Committee, took the lead in organizing support for the Myers and appealing for peace in their community. Comprised of Levittown residents, as well as local rabbis, Protestant ministers, and members of the Society of Friends, the group lent direct support to the embattled Myers and campaigned against the racism on their streets. Before it was over, the Myers and their friends would endure numerous forms of intimidation, including the burning of several crosses and the painting of “KKK” on the home of Myers’ Jewish neighbor. For several weeks, a vacant house situated next to the Myers’ home was occupied by members of the Levittown Betterment Committee–a hastily organized group that wanted to preserve Levittown’s whiteness. This vacant house was used as a rallying point for the demonstrators, which featured a Confederate flag flying above and the loud broadcast of songs, such as “Old Man River” and “Dixie.”
Eventually, William and Daisy Myers appealed to the Pennsylvania State Attorney General and charges were filed against members of the Levittown Betterment Committee, followed by a court ordered injunction issued on October 23, 1957–the same day as Fagan’s report. Records show that the JCRC was ready to lend aid if called upon, but no such request came from Levittown’s Jewish community, which had no formal relationship with their organization. The JCRC’s board of directors issued formal resolutions of commendation to both the Levittown Citizens Committee and the Levittown Jewish Community Council on December 20, 1957. Their commendation to the Levittown Jewish Community Council read, in part:
“The Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council notes with pride and gratification the courage, dignity and integrity with which the Jewish Community of Levittown, in the main under the leadership of the Levittown Jewish Community Council, expressed its regard for human dignity and democracy when the Myers family was threatened by mob harassment and violence.”
The events that took place in Levittown, Pennsylvania, are a small chapter in the larger story of American’s struggle over civil rights, but in many ways it represents themes that would reverberate in numerous communities across the country. While not all Jews took up the fight against segregation, in many cases American Jews could be found either on the front lines or working to support the efforts of those who were.
Additional photographs of crowds protesting the Meyers’ family move to Levittown, PA, can be found in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photograph collection.
To learn more about the Levittown communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, see Suzanne Lashner Dadyanim’s essay on The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia’s website.
–Kenneth Cleary, Project Archivist, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection, SCRC
This is the first post of an occasional series highlighting the work of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The records of the JCRC, housed in Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, are currently being processed and will be available for research in early 2018.