LEVITTOWN, NY — North Hempstead town officials released a dozen oral history interviews Tuesday as part of a broader Civil Rights Movement project, and Levittown’s racist past was the subject of one such video.
The 12 videos were released by Judi Bosworth, the town supervisor, and members of the town board. North Hempstead began the project several years ago using money from a National Parks Service grant.
In the oral history series, people who lived through the Civil Rights Movement talk about what they saw and what it was like to live in the 1960s.
In Levittown, Saul Weinstein, a member of the local NAACP chapter, talks about lessons he learned from his father about treating people equally. He also discusses efforts to desegregate Levittown and other areas that were mostly white at the time.
Weinstein’s father was part of a panel dedicated to ending discrimination in Levittown in the 1950s.
“This group bought a few Levitt houses and then the white and black members of the group would take turns sleeping in them to confuse neighbors as to who was actually moving in,” he said.
Weinstein remembers thinking that when his father did this, he was putting himself in more danger than he had been in World War II. Weinstein’s father had been in the Army Air Force stationed in California and did not travel overseas, he said.
“Fortunately, the houses were not firebombed, but the black families that moved in were made to feel so unwelcome in that time period that they all moved out after a couple years probably,” said Weinstein.
He added that America and Long Island see “a lot of racism,” particularly when it comes to housing and in the financial markets.
“It’s in who banks will lend to and who they won’t,” he said. “Sometimes you have to look for it. Some white people think that the Civil Rights era solved all problems and that everything is fine, but that’s far from the case.”
Levittown is the poster child for the quintessential American suburbs that were first built after World War II. Because military veterans had no money to buy hombaes, the government began underwriting their mortgages with the GI Bill, which took effect in 1944. The Cape Cod-style cottages were specifically designed to promote what Barbara M. Kelly of Hofstra University called “the nuclear family.” They were small, with four to four-and-a-half rooms, with two bay windows across the front and two across the back, and a bathroom placed behind the kitchen.
“Their design encoded the American belief system in their topography, and reinforced — if not imposed — its concomitant way of life through their geography,” Kelly wrote in an article published in Preserving the Recent Past.
She noted that in all the rhetoric and symbolism of the cottages, the typical American family was “invariably white.” Minority groups were excluded from the benefits of the housing policies, as well as from even being considered for them.
Indeed, the standard lease for the first Levitt houses included a whites-only policy codified in bold capital letters.
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Other oral histories include Dr. Hazel Dukes; Bernice Sims; Bernice Roberts; Alan Reff; Saul Weinstein; Council Member Lee Seeman; Marge Rogatz; Reverend Edward Corley; Rabbi Jerome Davidson; Alan Singer; and Peter Kornblum.
Bosworth said in a news release that oral histories help keep eyewitness accounts of key turning points alive.