Trailblazers: The Story of The Myers Family in Levittown, Pennsylvania
William and Daisy Myers braved harassment and intimidation – and forever changed the future.
By Sarah Friedmann
After World War II ended in 1945, thousands of veterans returned home to the United States, seeking to rebuild their lives after a lengthy and devastating global conflict. Unfortunately for those looking to plant roots and start families, housing in post-WWII America was in short supply – and quite expensive when it was available. This began to change in 1947, when William Levitt created a planned suburban community – the original Levittown in Long Island – that offered state-of-the-art family homes at low cost. However, while Levittowns, which eventually expanded to include seven different locations, were a saving grace for some veterans, they pointedly excluded many others.
People of color were initially prohibited from residing in Levittowns, though one brave African American couple took the first steps toward fighting this discrimination when they moved into Pennsylvania’s Levittown in 1957. The story of William and Daisy Myers reveals their profound courage — and illustrates how they became trailblazers in the move to desegregate communities, laying the foundation for future fair housing legislation and policies to enshrine these rights.
Segregation from the Start
When Levitt, a builder, and his company, Levitt & Sons, first created Levittowns, the town’s housing agreements included specific policies barring anyone but individuals from the “Caucasian race” from living there, the New York Times reported. Notably, the federal government played a key role in perpetuating this discrimination, as the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration only subsidized post-war housing, like Levittowns, on the condition that the homes weren’t sold to African Americans, City Lab reported. As more and more families began purchasing homes in the original Levittown in Long Island, it rapidly became the largest segregated community in the United States, with not one African American residing among a community of 70,000 people in 1953, U.S. History Scene reported.
Notably, while Levittowns’ management refused to directly sell homes to African Americans, they could not prohibit private owners from selling to African American buyers. According to the Bucks County Courier Time, this is how William and Daisy Myers obtained their home in the second Levittown in the United States in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, buying it from a previous owner who had decided to relocate to Philadelphia. William, a World War II army veteran, Daisy, a teacher, and their three young children moved into their home on 43 Deepgreen Lane in August 1957, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Immediate Harassment — and Instant Activism
As Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter (THR) wrote, when they moved into their new residence, “The Myers had no dreams of becoming leaders in the civil-rights movement — and no idea that Daisy would one day be called the Rosa Parks of the North.” However, after enduring almost immediate harassment and intimidation from many members of the community, the Myers knew they would have to take a stand.”
The Bucks County Courier Times reported that, almost right after Levittowners discovered that the Myers had moved in, a crowd gathered outside their residence to protest their presence in the community – and threaten the family with violence. The paper painted a detailed picture of the threats and intimidation the Myers endured on what was just the first of many days of demonstrations outside of their home:
…Small groups of agitated Levittowners are already gathering in front of theMyers home. Throughout the evening, the crowd continues to grow. By midnight, more than 200 shouting men, women and children cluster on the Myers’ front lawn. A group of teens throw rocks through the Myers’ front picture window, and15 Bristol Township police officers are dispatched to the scene. Soon, the county sheriff arrives, and orders the crowd to disperse. By 12:30 a.m., two adults and three teens have been arrested. Now, with the violence increasing, the sheriff wires the Pennsylvania State Police asking for immediate assistance. His request states,” ... the citizens of Levittown are out of control.”
The paper added that these demonstrations, which involved gatherings of up to 500 people sometimes, continued outside the Myers family home for many days. At one point, a group of Levittowners formed the Levittown Betterment Committee, a group dedicated to trying to find ways to evict the Myers and once again make Levittown a community solely comprised of white families, according to the Philadelphia Jewish Archives, per Temple University libraries’ blog. The group met in a house near the Myers’ called the Confederate House, which “flew the Confederate flag, and broadcasted ‘Dixie’ endlessly from a record play,” Zachary Soloman of Jewish Currents wrote. Eventually, after interference by local police and state troopers — and following widespread national media coverage — the protests outside the Myers’ home stopped. The Myers remained in Levittown, bravely defying those who sought to oust them, the Bucks County Courier Times noted.
An Admirable Perspective
Notably, in reflecting on their initial move to Levittown, the Myers family always seemed to emphasize the good over the bad. “As David Kushner writes in Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, the Myers, despite everything, ‘took pains to point out how this awful standoff brought out the best in Levittown as well as the worst,’” Soloman of Jewish Currents wrote. “Groups like the Quakers, the American Jewish Congress, and the William Penn Center helped organize a 24-7 citizen patrol. White couples volunteered to babysit the Myers’ children, or help clean up the wreckage of hate.”
The Myers’ daughter, Lynda, echoed similar sentiments when discussing how her mother would characterize their move to Levittown in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “My mother talked about the help she got, to be honest,” Lynda said. “The help that she received, the people that she met.”
The Myers family remained in Levittown for four years after these protests took place, only relocating because William took a job in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, THR reported. However, their decision to move to – and remain in – Levittown in the face of threats and intimidation had long-lasting impacts.
First, as Daisy described to the Baltimore Sun, she believes that her family’s experience in Levittown helped inspire the passage of a fair housing law in Pennsylvania about a year later. Moreover, the Myers’ experience also likely helped pave the way for a second African American family (and subsequent families) to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1958. As the Philadelphia Inquirer indicated at the time, the Mosby family moved into their new home “with no overt protest reported.” The paper added that this “contrasted with the reception” of the Myers family when they moved into Levittown the year before. Though, it’s important to note that the Mosby’s unfortunately still endured discrimination during their time in Levittown. Theresa Mosby, who was a child when her family resided there, told Lancaster Online that, while white adults didn’t harass her, white children often did so at school. Ultimately, Pennsylvania’s Levittown never became that diverse – in 2016, it was 90.4 percent white, according to City Lab – but the Myers family did serve as trailblazers for people of color who desired to live there.
The Myers’ courage in facing discrimination and harassment, along with the courage of many other people of color across the country, likely helped raise awareness of the egregious housing inequities faced by minorities — and helped set the stage for the introduction of the Fair Housing Act in 1966, along with its eventual passage in 1968. Indeed, prior to its passage, open housing marches were led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to push for fair housing legislation, among other initiatives. While these marches were prompted by a host of discriminatory housing policies and practices taking place across the country, Dr. King was certainly aware of the Myers’ plight, as he, along with other civil rights advocates, met with the Myers family during this time, Daisy told the Baltimore Sun.
Notably, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, Inc. (NAREB), a trade group composed of “African American real estate professionals, consumers, and communities” was one of the first organizations to support and advocate for the Fair Housing Act ahead of its passage. Indeed, according to its website, the group was established in 1947 as “an equal opportunity and civil rights advocacy organization” and has played “influential roles in the implementation of equal rights, fair housing, equal opportunity, and community development legislation at the local, state, and federal levels since its founding.” Other real estate organizations, like the National Association of Realtors®, previously opposed the Fair Housing Act and allowed “local Associations to discriminate on the basis of race or sex." However, in 1975 — likely after witnessing and learning from years of activism by NAREB and other fair housing advocates — NAR adopted a Voluntary Affirmative Marketing agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in which it agreed to promote fair housing and educate its members on the Fair Housing Act. Since that time, NAR has been a staunch supporter of the legislation – and has also called on Congress to amend the act to include protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well.
Overall, the Myers’ experience in Levittown, Pennsylvania reveals how the strength and courage of a few people can help catalyze powerful movements that change the tide of history. While, as Daisy Myers described to the Baltimore Sun, she and her husband never planned on being activists, their fortitude helped establish solidarity for the cause of equal and inclusive housing, changing America’s physical and legal landscape forever – and for the better.