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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Housing Segregation in Bandstand's Backyard

In addition to restrictive housing covenants, white homeowners organized in neighborhoods across the city in order to block what they viewed as the encroachment of black families in all-white neighborhoods. These groups emphasized their right to protect their property values and the racial identity of their neighborhoods. In West Philadelphia, the Angora Civic Association (ACA) sought to prevent black families from moving into the Angora-Sherwood sections of West Philadelphia, along Baltimore Avenue from 50th to 60th streets. The ACA resembled white homeowners groups that mobilized to maintain segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere across the country.[i] These groups used a range of tactics to achieve their aims, including mob violence and physical and mental harassment. While these homeowners' groups were a nationwide phenomenon, the Angora Civic Association is noteworthy because of its proximity to the WFIL studio and because the group’s founding coincided with Bandstand’s debut.

Starting in 1952, the ACA distributed fliers and held meetings encouraging its neighbors to exercise their rights as homeowners. A contemporary study of the racial change in this West Philadelphia neighborhood noted: “The entry of nonwhites appears to have come as a heavy shock to white residents, and a severe panic existed through 1954.”[ii] Indeed, the language in the association’s meetings and fliers stressed the white homeowners’ anxiety at the prospect of a racially changing neighborhood. One meeting notice invited residents in this section of West Philadelphia,
[t]o discuss some very serious problems which are confronting your neighborhood NOW. One of these problems may be right in your block, or even as close as next door. At any rate one of them cannot be very far away. One thing we can assure you of is that they are not mythical or imaginary, but very real, and will require very real concentrated and realistic attention if you want your neighborhood to remain as it now is.[iii]

Another flier asked: “Do you like your home and neighborhood? Then why not protect them?”[iv] Aware that members of the CHR and Fellowship Commission covertly attended their meetings, the homeowners' groups avoided racist epithets in favor of thinly veiled references to neighborhood “problems” and “undesirable” neighbors. In the ACA’s view, keeping black families from buying houses in the neighborhood would protect both the racial identity of the neighborhood and the property values of the homes. Since homeownership represented a significant financial investment in this working-class and middle-class area, fears of blockbusting and panic selling fueled the ACA’s economic anxiety. A meeting announcement warned: “If you are ready and willing to throw away thousands of $$$ for what you now have and own, then throw this notice away and don’t read any further.”[v] The ACA regularly drew between fifty and three hundred people to its monthly sessions, and as many as seven hundred attended its most popular meetings.[vi] Although the historical evidence does not allow a close analysis of the association’s membership, meeting records include names such as Petrella, DeRosa, Callahan, Vandergrift, Craig, Stahl, and Rabinowitz, suggesting that individuals from several white ethnic groups participated.[vii]

At its best-attended meetings, the ACA invited leaders of similar white homeowners' groups from other parts of the city to share tactical ideas and offer support. The leader of the eleven-year-old Overbrook Improvement Co., for example, told the ACA of his group’s success in keeping blacks out of the Overbrook neighborhood in the northwest section of West Philadelphia. The Overbrook group president, Harold Stott, recommended “putting pressure on real estate men, banks and mortgage companies,” and he advised the ACA to raise money to buy houses in the neighborhood so that they could be resold to whites rather than blacks. While these homeowners' groups did not openly advocate violence, they suggested that white residents should try “psychological methods.” These methods included repeated visits by white neighbors asking the “undesirable” family to move, vandalism of property, and threats of violence to dissuade black families from moving into the neighborhood and to convince those who did manage to buy houses to sell their homes to the corporation and move out.[viii]

Throughout these meetings, the ACA, Overbrook association, and other groups stressed both the urgency and the legality of their cause. “Help!! Help!!” proclaimed one meeting notice. “These are words we hear every day from the Property Owners of our Community. Our Association can render you this help If You Want It!” This notice ended with an ominous evaluation: “IT’S LATER THAN YOU THINK!”[ix] This language resonated with similar appeals to antiblack prejudice in Philadelphia during and after World War II. Historian James Wolfinger has shown that Republican campaign brochures that circulated in Irish and Italian sections of West Philadelphia during 1944 used similar language to warn residents that “black domination” threatened their city. “Will you stand by and see our homes, schools and our entire neighborhood taken away from you and your children by a race stimulated by RUM—JAZZ—WAR EASY MONEY?” the pamphlet read. “Vote a straight Republican Ballot next Tuesday and save your salvation.”[x] Additionally, fliers linked to a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia in the early 1950s urged white men to join forces for “the protection of homes and loved ones.”[xi] Despite appealing to racist sentiments, the white homeowners' groups defended their calls to action by asserting what they viewed to be their legal rights as truly American homeowners. The Overbrook group president told the 120 residents at the meeting that the members of the ACA "are 100% Americans. All they are asking is to keep the high standards of their own neighborhood and to pick their neighbors besides protecting their property. In doing this they are exercising their rights under the Bill of Rights and there certainly is nothing un-American about that.”[xii] This rights rhetoric cast the homeowners groups as possessing an Americanness—and whiteness—threatened by black interlopers. As David Freund notes in his study of suburban Detroit, this language of property rights enabled whites to mobilize for segregation as homeowners, citizens, taxpayers, and parents while maintaining that they were not racist.[xiii] In his study of California’s ballot initiatives, political scientist Daniel Martinez HoSang describes this rights rhetoric as central to a set of “norms, ‘settled expectations,’ and ‘investments’ [that] shape the interpretation of political interests, the boundaries of political communities, and the sources of power for many political actors who understand themselves as white.” Like the “political whiteness” HoSang identifies in postwar California, white homeowners associations fought to protect “our neighborhoods,” “our kids,” “our property values,” and “our rights,” while claiming to be innocent of racism.[xiv]

These white homeowners groups also directed their defensive localism and rights discourse toward the Fellowship Commission’s civil rights work. The leaders of the Angora and Overbrook associations accused the Commission of forcing its integration agenda on blacks. Reporting on a Fellowship Commission meeting that he attended covertly, the Overbrook association president told the homeowners’ groups that the “colored” people at the meeting “did not seem to be at all interested in housing [but] the ‘Fellowship Boys’ got up and agitated these people by saying to them that they had the right to move in to any street or any neighborhood in Philadelphia they wanted to.”[xv] The Overbrook president advised the association members: “You see that these Fellowship people are fellowship for them only—no fellowship for everybody.”[xvi]

The homeowners associations also accused the Fellowship Commission of being involved in a “sinister conspiracy” with real estate agents who had reportedly convinced white homeowners to sell their houses to blacks, thereby “blockbusting” all-white neighborhoods. There is no evidence that the Fellowship Commission and real estate agents worked in concert and, in fact, real estate brokers played a much larger role than the Commission in helping black families move into formerly all-white neighborhoods. Real estate agents had complex motives, but, in almost every case, racially changing neighborhoods presented brokers with substantial economic opportunities. Blockbusting real estate brokers looked for, and sometimes fostered, panic in racially changing neighborhoods and bought homes at below-market prices from panicked white sellers. They then placed advertisements in black newspapers touting these new homeownership opportunities.[xvii] The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s largest black newspaper, ran several such advertisements every week during the early and mid-1950s. A real estate advertisement from 1952, for example, advised readers to “Go West Young Man. Come to West Philadelphia.” Another realty company promised that “we will secure homes for you in any neighborhood desired,” while a company billing itself as “Phila.’s Most Progressive Office” listed different “West Phila. Specials” on a weekly basis.[xviii] These homes usually sold at a markup to black buyers looking for good quality homes. While these agents helped expand homeownership opportunities for the city’s black residents, they also accelerated the tensions in racially changing neighborhoods like West Philadelphia, and many brokers made significant sums of money in the process.[xix] For the white homeowners' groups, both blockbusting real estate agents and the Fellowship Commission both represented outside agitators threatening the racial identity of their neighborhoods.

Since the CHR lacked the ability to prosecute cases of housing discrimination, the Fellowship Commission took a different approach. The Commission believed that the best options were simultaneously to try both to win the ACA over by persuading it that its actions would only foster panic selling and to isolate the group by planning meetings and events to improve relations in the racially changing neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. The Fellowship Commission and its West Philadelphia chapter worked with the CHR and local Baptist and Catholic clergy to reach out to the homeowners' groups. A flier for the Fellowship Commission’s first outreach meeting in 1954, under the headline “Let’s All Pull Together,” invited residents to talk “facts about West Philadelphia” concerning “money, people and houses for sale.”[xx] Illustrating the strength of the Commission’s relationships with the city’s Democratic Party, the city’s district attorney and future mayor Richardson Dilworth spoke at the meeting. Fellowship Commission executive director Maurice Fagan also met with the ACA president privately, advising him that the Commission was concerned with the rights of religious and nationality groups as well as those of racial groups. [xxi] Fagan further told the ACA that the Commission would not object to “open and above board” civic associations. These efforts to influence the attitudes of white homeowners prefigured the CHR’s 1958 series of “What to Do” kits that were distributed to residents in racially changing communities. Aimed at local leaders in areas like West Philadelphia, the “What to Do” folders included suggestions for local leaders on how to organize and conduct meetings to discuss the importance of communities working together to avoid panic selling and to ensure fair-housing practices. While the CHR distributed the kits widely in an attempt to meet the scale of racial change in the neighborhood, they did not lead to a substantial decrease in reports of community tensions over housing.[xxii]

In addition to these outreach efforts, the Fellowship Commission also sponsored neighborhood seminars to encourage community involvement in intergroup relations. Foremost among these efforts, the Commission worked with principals, teachers, and home and school associations to plan inter-playground fellowship events at the elementary schools in West Philadelphia.[xxiii] These events were well attended and well received by many black and white parents and children in the area. The Fellowship Commission’s efforts appear to have limited the growth of the ACA past 1955. Racial tensions in other West Philadelphia neighborhoods and other parts of the city, however, overwhelmed the Fellowship Commission’s resources.[xxiv] In his evaluation of the Commission’s work in 1955, Fagan asserted:
New problems are developing faster than old ones are being solved because of the emphasis on cases instead of causes. With only 35 full-time workers in the entire city of Philadelphia, it is not possible…to do more than move from crisis to crisis, neighborhood to neighborhood, without staying put long enough to make an enduring difference.[xxv]
As Fagan noted, the depth of white resistance to racial integration overwhelmed the Fellowship Commission’s educational strategy.

On the legislative front, the Fellowship Commission played an important role in passing the state’s fair-housing bill, which was enacted in 1961. The Commission lobbied the forty-two member groups of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Council to advance a narrow bill that covered new housing and housing transactions receiving government assistance, but excluded sales of owner-occupied homes such as those frequently purchased by blacks in racially changing urban neighborhoods.[xxvi] While the Commission’s fair-housing bill made political sense in an effort to get legislation through the Republican-controlled state senate, the bill’s exemptions aligned with the view of property rights being advocated by the white homeowners' groups and weakened the credibility of the Commission’s approach to civil rights.

The magnitude of the challenges facing the Fellowship Commission and other fair-housing advocates, however, was immense. Discriminatory federal housing policy and the business practices of the real estate industry blocked black families from most new suburban construction and managed the racial turnover of urban neighborhoods. Mortgage redlining treated black neighborhoods and black homeowners as investment risks, and this lack of access to credit limited the efficacy of open occupancy or fair-housing legislation for many African Americans.[xxvii] Combining with these factors, white homeowners' groups and civic associations policed the boundaries of segregated neighborhoods and demonstrated what James Wolfinger calls “the limits imposed on liberalism from below.”[xxviii] In many cities and states, this resistance to integrated housing coalesced into organized opposition to fair-housing legislation. Most notably, in the 1964 election 65 percent of California voters approved Proposition 14, which sought to nullify the Rumford Fair Housing Act (the state Supreme Court declared Proposition 14 unconstitutional in 1966). As with the Angora Civic Association, supporters of Proposition 14, such as future California governor and U.S. president Ronald Reagan, portrayed fair-housing legislation as “forced housing” and as “an infringement of one of our basic individual rights.”[xxix] As historian Robert Self shows in his study of Oakland, this language of property rights appealed to a large cross section of white voters. “The numbers suggest that the resistance to desegregation in Oakland did not come solely from an antiliberal white working class,” Self argues, “but arose equally among middle- and upper-class whites who understood property rights as sacrosanct expressions of their personal freedom and had little daily contact with African Americans.”[xxx] Similarly, historian Phil Ethington notes that in Los Angeles, the white neighborhoods most geographically isolated from black communities were more likely to vote to repeal fair housing legislation.[xxxi] While anti-fair-housing legislation did not become a ballot issue in Pennsylvania, a 1965 survey of residents in Philadelphia suburbs found that over 70 percent considered “keeping undesirables out” to be a very important objective for local government, rating it well ahead of “maintaining improved public services,” “providing aesthetic amenities,” and “acquiring business and industry.”[xxxii] Attempts to pass fair-housing legislation at the federal level also encountered significant resistance. President Lyndon Johnson's aide later recalled that when Johnson first tried to push a national fair-housing bill through Congress in 1966, for example, the bill “prompted some of the most vicious mail LBJ received on any subject.”[xxxiii] When Congress finally passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the bill’s weak enforcement provisions did little to curb housing discrimination.[xxxiv]

Sociologist Jill Quadagno summarizes opposition to fair-housing legislation simply, arguing that, “for many white Americans, property rights superseded civil rights.”[xxxv] White mobilization for segregated neighborhoods, in combination with discriminatory federal housing policy, the business practices of the real estate industry, and the shortcomings of local and federal antidiscrimination policies in housing, made residential segregation the norm in cities and suburbs around the nation. This residential segregation emerged from and reinforced a belief that a neighborhood’s racial composition and property values were intertwined and mutually constitutive. This way of viewing space informed everyday encounters across the United States, and in Philadelphia it motivated white homeowners groups like the Angora Civic Association to fight for segregation. This group was part of a larger national story, but they also reflected and influenced racial attitudes locally, in Bandstand’s backyard.

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