Tag Archives: Black history

From the Philadelphia Jewish Archives: “The Levittown Problem”

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.

Crowd protests, August 1957
Crowd protests first black family moving into Levittown, August 17, 1957, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photograph Collection

 

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.”

Letter to Fagan, 1957
Letter to JCRC executive director Maurice Fagan, October 18, 1957

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.”

Levittown Problem report, 195
“The Levittown Problem and the Jewish Community” report, October 23, 1957

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.”

Letter to Levittown community, 1957
Letter to Levittown Jewish Community Council, December 20, 195

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.

Studying MOVE

One of the most notorious and controversial episodes in Philadelphia’s history occurred on May 13, 1985:  the bombing of the MOVE Organization’s house in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia.

1978 surrender
MOVE members watch another member surrender to Philadelphia police. May 4, 1978

After years of tension and conflict among MOVE, city authorities, and some local residents, including a shootout with police in 1978 which left one officer dead, Philadelphia officials decided to evict members of the communal-living, back-to-nature Black Liberation group from their fortified house at 6221 Osage Avenue.  (Accounts differ on who actually fired the shots that killed the police officer.)

On the morning of May 13, 1985, a violent confrontation erupted, with tear gas and thousands of rounds of bullets exchanged–resulting in a daylong standoff.   To break the stalemate, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor ordered the Police Bomb Unit to drop two satchel bombs from a helicopter onto a wooden bunker that had been constructed on top of the house. A tremendous fire broke out. Witnesses say that when MOVE members ran out of the burning building, police continued to shoot at them. The Fire Department, ordered by police to “let the fire burn,” delayed putting out the flames, claiming that MOVE members were still firing, but witnesses assert that the wait was deliberate.

The fire spread to adjoining houses, and two entire city blocks went up in flames, leaving 11 members of the group dead, including MOVE’s founder John Africa and five children who were in the house. Two hundred-fifty local residents were left homeless.

MOVEIn the aftermath of these events, Mayor W. Wilson Goode convened the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (PSIC) to examine the incident. The head of the Commission, William Brown III, had led the Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and the rest of the commission’s eleven members included prominent individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

The commission conducted dozens of interviews, gathered a large amount of evidence, and held public hearings. In March 1986, it issued a scathing report which was highly critical of government actions, stating that “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.”

With in the Urban Archives, Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) holds the records of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (PSIC), as well as a wealth of related photographs, audio-visual materials, and news clippings on this topic and the MOVE organization.

Consisting of 29 cubic feet of materials, PSIC Records provide a comprehensive account of the tragic events of that day. At the core of this collection are interviews the commission conducted, under subpoena power, with every policemen, firemen, public official, and resident involved. Supporting and related documentary evidence submitted by witnesses are also a part of these files, as well as approximately 700 photographs gathered or produce by the commission.

There are also hours of footage and transcripts from the televised hearings that ran on WHYY, as well as television news coverage of the event itself and of MOVE before and after the 1985 incident from WPVI and KYW.

There are hundreds of images in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photograph collections. The Inquirer Photographs contain over 300 images, the majority of which pertain to the 1985 conflict, the PSIC hearings, rebuilding, and the impact on the surrounding community. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs have over 550 images, documenting the communal life of MOVE as well as its previous clashes with the police during the 1970s. (The Evening Bulletin closed in 1982). Many of the Evening Bulletin photographs have been digitized and can be found in our digital collections.Medical examiner

It is safe to say that the SCRC houses the most comprehensive collection of primary sources available on this topic. Numerous students, documentarians, historians, and community members have drawn upon the archives to try to make sense of the events of that day. In 2013, a documentary by film maker Jason Osder made extensive use of these materials in his award winning film Let the Fire Burn.

To view these or other materials in the SCRC, please contact us at SCRC@temple.edu or visit our website.

–Josué Hurtado, Coordinator of Public Services & Outreach, SCRC

Cartoonist Samuel R. Joyner

Samuel Joyner, March 1998
Samuel Joyner, March 1998

Born in Philadelphia in 1924, Samuel R. Joyner is among a small number of early African-American cartoonists in the United States. His pioneering work influenced many generations of African American comics and commercial artists. While working as a paper boy for the Philadelphia Tribune, his artistic talents were first recognized by publisher E. Washington Rhodes. Following his service in the United States Navy during World War II, Joyner enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now known as the University of the Arts) to pursue a career as a commercial artist. He graduated in 1948.

After some difficulty finding employment, Joyner succeeded in selling his work to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Courier. However, he soon realized that he was not fully valued for his creations at these papers because he was not allowed to attach his name to his art work or draw any non-white characters. In the 1950s, Joyner secured employment as an art director for the African American magazine Color. The magazine was originally based in Charleston West, Virginia, but moved its headquarters to Philadelphia in 1954. While working there Joyner gained national attention for his social and political commentary and satire and used it to encourage other African Americans to engage in activities and dialogues toward the defeat of discrimination and injustice.

Industrial Pollution  Philadelphia Tribune 2/1/94
Philadelphia Tribune, 2/1/94

In the 1960s, Joyner operated a print and graphics shop with his wife and four children. He continued to further his education by taking classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Temple University. From 1974 until his retirement in 1990, he taught art classes and graphic communications at Rhodes Middle School, and Bok Technical High School in Philadelphia. His work was published in over 40 different publications, and he received awards and recognitions from Temple University, The National Newspapers Publishers Association, and the Houston Sun Times, among other organizations.

Nintendo game
Houston Sun, March 28, 1994.

Located in the Special Collections Research Center, the Samuel R. Joyner Artwork Collection includes photographs, original artwork and sketches, posters, news articles, publications, and ephemera, dating from 1947 to 2005. Joyner’s art work reveals how greatly influenced he was by the sociopolitical happening in society ,and how he used his talents to challenge racism, discrimination, exploitation, and American political culture in order to give a critical “visual voice” to a range of frustrations in the African American community.

–Brenda Galloway-Wright, Associate Archivist SCRC