From PA to VA: 64 Years and Not Much Has Changed
In 1957, the Myers family moved to Levittown, PA. William Myers was a World War II veteran, and he and his wife, along with their children, moved to the suburbs to find a larger home that would accommodate their growing family. The Myers were the first black family to integrate Levittown.
In 2017, the Martinez family moved to Virginia Beach, VA. They were veterans looking for a new suburban home that would accommodate their growing family. The Martinez, an African American family, moved to the racially mixed neighborhood of Salem Lakes.
As soon as the Myers family moved into their home, the harassment began. The local police did not feel they could intervene as the family endured night after night of racist taunts and threats. A group calling themselves Dogwood Hollow Social Club led by James Newell, Jr. rented the house directly behind the Myers house, which they called the Confederate House despite Pennsylvania never having been part of the Confederacy, and blasted “Dixie” and “Old Black Joe” and “Old Man River” to intimidate their new neighbors.
As soon as the Martinez family moved into their home, the harassment began. The local police did not feel that they could intervene as the family endured a never-ending string of racist taunts. Their next-door neighbor, John Eskilsden, set up a motion detector so that banjo music and monkey sounds played anytime someone left the Martinez house. At times, Eskilsden blasted monkey screams so loudly towards their house that the pictures would shake inside the Martinez home. Since the start of the harassment, Eskilsden has added strobe lights and N-word laden recordings to his assault against the Martinez family.
Many of the Myers’s neighbors were sympathetic to their plight. The Quakers, the American Jewish Congress, and the William Penn Center helped organize a 24-7 citizen patrol. White neighbors offered to babysit the Myers’s children and assisted the family with cleaning up the wreckage after rocks were thrown through their windows. In response to those helping the Myers family, an 8-foot cross was set ablaze in a field at Walt Disney Elementary School, situated so that it would be visible on Levittown Parkway, the road that most residents used to access the Dogwood Hollow section of Levittown where the Myers lived. A second 5-foot tall cross was burned in the yard of the Myers’s next-door neighbors, the Wechslers, as a warning to stop helping the new residents.
Many of the Martinez’s neighbors were sympathetic to their plight. Members of Black Lives Matter 757 were joined by Salem Lakes residents as they protested Eskilsden’s actions and showed support to the Martinez family. Since the harassment began, neighbors have called the police and reported noise disturbances, but since there was no physical threat being made and Eskilsden turned down the volume before police arrived, the authorities felt that their hands were tied. In response to those helping the Martinez family, Eskilsden set up additional motion detectors arranged to play different noises to harangue other neighbors who he viewed as sympathetic to the Martinez family. He also set up 8 surveillance cameras all around his house to maintain a constant watch on his cul-de-sac.
In 1957, the harassment of the Myers family lasted for around 3 months before dying down and eventually ending. National media attention along with the involvement of statewide elected officials put pressure on the town to allow the Myers family to live in peace.
In 2021, the harassment of the Martinez family had been going on for 5 years. National media attention and the involvement of statewide elected officials put pressure on their next-door neighbor to allow the Martinez family to live in peace. Peace they finally got for the first time this month.
We don’t study history to learn who we were; we study history to learn what we have become. The parallels between the stories of the Myers family and the Martinez family, separated by 64 years, cannot be denied, nor can the fact that we have not healed from our divided past. In many ways, we are still living in that past, and failing to acknowledge that fact is our largest obstacle to overcoming it.
There has been a lot of talk of late about what we teach children about our racially divided history. The claim is often that if we explain how racist systems were put in place, like deed covenants barring black ownership of homes in suburban neighborhoods such as Levittown, we will cause more racial division as groups of children are pitted against each other. However, that is an erroneous assumption. The stories of both the Myers and the Martinez families show the validity of systemic racism; however, they also show the resistance to that system by people of different races working together.
The issue of race has not gone away in the last 64 years. One of the truly odd reactions to race is the insistence that we should live in a colorblind society, as though saying a thing enough times makes it true. Until the whole world is blind, we will never have a color-blind society.
The implication that we could solve racism by ignoring race is illogical at best. At worst, it creates a system by which anyone who acknowledges differences based on race is a de facto racists. In this way, those wanting to avoid conversations about race in America, generally the white dominate class, are able to point to people of color who want to speak about their experience in terms of their race and declare that those discussing issues through a racial lens, even the racial lens of their own race, the real racists. The avoidant group sets the rules to favor their comfort and then stigmatizes those who disrupt that comfort. Because we don’t want to teach what happened to the Myers in 1957, the Martinez must relive it in 2021.
When we hide from the ugly parts of our history because they make us uncomfortable, we doom ourselves to repeat it. The repetition is not always as clear-cut as this most recent example, but it is there.
Levittown, PA is still 90.4 percent white. The Martinez family endured their situation for 5 years, one year longer than the total time the Myers lived in Levittown.
–Trauma of Levittown integration remembered History: In August 1957, an African-American family moved to Deepgreen Lane and was greeted by a mob screaming racial epithets and making threats. – Baltimore Sun