Negro Neighbors

For some years HANNAH LEES has been conducting a quiet inquiry into the reception of Negro families who have been moving into Northern communities, and her findings as disclosed in the article which foliates are disturbing to say the least. In private life she is Elizabeth H. Fetter, the wife of a Philadelphia internist, the mother of two teen-agers, a teacher of Experimental Writing at Brvn Mater College, and one of nine unpaid members of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

by HANNAH LEES

1

IN MOST big cities today a traditionally immovable body is anxiously eying the approach of an irresistible force, and the cities are eying both with a growing awareness that it is one of the jobs of city government to prevent explosion. The immovable body is the average white American who has a deeply ingrained resistance to accepting Negroes as next-door neighbors. The irresistible force is, of course, the Negro himself— irresistible for reasons which have more to do with arithmetic than with social progress.

Here is some of the arithmetic, courtesy of tire U.S. Census Bureau. In all but two ol the twelve biggest cities in the country — the two are San Francisco and Los Angeles—* the Negro population during the last ten years has increased more in actual numbers than the white population, and usually a good deal more. In four of these cities — Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh — the white population has actually declined while the Negro population has jumped by tens of thousands. In New York City today one person out of every ten is Negro, in Chicago one out of seven, in Philadelphia one out of five. Philadelphia, where the change has perhaps been more rapid than in most other big cities, has something like 50,000 more families within its city limits than it had ten years ago, and about 45,000 ol those are Negro families.

There is nothing sinister or mysterious about this increase in all the big cities. Most of it is due to a perfectly understandable new kind of pioneering. Almost three quarters of the new Negro residents of Philadelphia, for example, have moved there from Southern rural areas in what might be called the pursuit of happiness. But each new family must find a place to live. There is no room left in the neighborhoods where Negroes have always lived. Even if there were, more and more Negroes can afford to buy better homes, and see less and less reason why they should not buy any house they can afford without worrying about who lives next door or around the corner. Which brings us back to the immovable body, the solid backlog of white citydwellers who cannot move or will not move but still do not want Negro neighbors no matter what their income bracket or where they went to college. This immovable body exists today practically everywhere, even in cities which consider themselves highly enlightened, even in cities where there is no very great pressure of growing Negro population.

In Boston, which has had the smallest increase in Negro population of any of the twelve biggest cities— 17,000 new Negro citizens between 1940 and 1950, out of a total population increase of 30,000 — Mr. and Mrs. Robert Powell began last spring looking for a larger house. Mr. Powell, a young Negro physicist from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, had a research job at one of the M.I.T. laboratories in Lexington. His wife, an unusually attractive young woman with a college degree, served on the New England committee of t he United Negro Colleges. They had been in Boston four years and had been living with their one child in a comfortable two-family house in a predominantly Negro neighborhood in Cambridge. But now they had a new baby and wanted more room.

What they wanted was an unfurnished house with two or three bedrooms, at a rent between $50 and $100 a month. They began poring over the For Rent columns in the papers. They put their own advertisement in two Boston dailies. They also called on the housing registry at Phillips Brooks House, the Harvard undergraduate social service organization whose policy is to refuse to list any vacancy with reservations as to race or religion.

There seemed to be a number of satisfactory houses and apartments available but not, the Powells quickly found, available to them. Their own advertisement, in which they had frankly stated what they call their two liabilities — the fact of having children and the fact of being Negro— turned up only two responses, both completely undesirable. All the rental agents they went to see to ask about houses listed in the papers said, as soon as they saw them, that nothing desirable was available. They referred the Powells to various run-down neighborhoods or urged them to buy an old house in an established Negro neighborhood. W hen they had exhausted these approaches, which didn’t lake long, the Powells began tracking down houses and apartments individually advertised by the owners. It turned out to be a grim hunt.

An attractive-sounding house was advertised in the Cambridge Chronicle with a phone number which Mr. Powell called. He was given the address and made an appointment to meet the owner there. The house would be open, he was told, and he could look around if he got there first. The Powells did gut there first. While they were looking the place over, someone drove up outside and seemed about to come in, but when they went out to greet him, he had apparently changed his mind for he drove away. The man they had talked to on the phone never appeared at all.

Next the Powells made an appointment to look at another house in a small town near Boston that had been advertised in the Sunday paper. When they drove up, the owner came hurriedly out to their ear and urged them not to bother even to get out. He himself, he said, had no prejudice whatever; he had lived in the South and had employed lots of Negroes. But there weren’t any in this community, and if he should rent to the Powells he would lose other tenants he had in the neighborhood, and probably lose a lot of his grocery trade as well, He was sorry, but . . .

The Phillips Brooks listings had supposedly been screened for prejudice. Mr. Powell was given a friendly reception at one house listed there. He liked the house and was urged to bring his wife to see it next day. Mrs. Powell liked it too, but when they tried to rent it they were referred to an agent who told them another family had seen it first and was making up its mind. If they didn’t take the house he would call the Powells. But a month later the house was still vacant and they had not been called.

Another house, a three - bedroom dwelling, was listed at Phillips Brooks House as available immediately for $80 a month. The Powells went to look it over, found workmen putting finishing touches to the house, and got the name of the owner. But when they phoned him he said there was no knowing when it would be ready to rent and urged them not to wait for it,

The Powells finally learned, when making inquiries by phone, to say they were Negro almost before they gave their name. This usually led to a facile, reasonably polite brush-ofl, but it saved time and wear and tear. One owner of a house in the Harvard-Radeliffe area, however, told the two college graduates flatly, “You wouldn’t be happy here; there are none of your kind in this neighborhood.”

It was five months before the Powells finally found a 1 hree-bed room duplex apartment in a housing development for research workers which had been built out in the nest of laboratories where Mr. Powell works. It is convenient to Powell’s job, but not to anything else.

2

A WHITE neighborhood may go to ludicrous lengths to preserve its status quo, as in theease of Evelyn Knuckles vs. Meyer Goss et al., which dragged around the courts in Philadelphia a year or so ago. In May, Miss Knuckles was highest bidder at a sheriffs sale for a house on Homier Street in a relatively privileged residential section called Oak Lane. The house belonged, or had belonged, to a couple named Goss who had moved to California for their health, leaving debts greater than llavalue of the house. Miss Knuckles, a literate and spunky young woman with a good enough job so that financing her $1900 cash bid was no problem, made settlement, she thought, and moved in. This was on Friday.

Over the weekend a hostile delegation of neighbors called on her and offered to buy her out at a handsome profit. When she declined, a series of threatening phone calls began. But she liked the house and wanted to live there. She sat tight. On Tuesday she got a letter from thetitle company saying that owing to a clerical error in their office shestill owed $66 in settlement charges. This didn’t worry her for shehad boon told that the 21-day settlement limit was never held to, but she immediately seal a cheek to cover the deficit. When thetitle company took her cheek for $66 along to the sheriffs office they found her property had been relisted for sale. The sale to Miss Knuckles was marked: Voidterms of sale not complied with.

She protested and was then told the Gosses were coming back to Philadelphia and wanted to repossess their house (which they had abandoned with a mortgage of $7600 and three judgments amounting to $.5500), that Mr. Goss had raised the money and was prepared to pay off the judgments and clear his title, that Mrs. Cross was very ill and had to live in her old house if she was to recover — everything but why the legal time limit which was “never held to” had suddenly become inviolable. There was a court fight which Miss Knuckles lost on legal technicalities. She was evicted. Now, a year later, the Gosses are not back in their house and never have been. Another white family is living there.

Such extreme measures as in the Knueklcs-Goss case have not usually been necessary. White residents have most of the time been able just, to scare Negro house-hunters out of their neighborhoods. In Detroit last year two Negro brothers bought a lot with two houses on Canfield Street, a slowly changing neighborhood on the East Side. Both worked for the automobile industry and were making quite enough to buy and maintain the houses — houses in that neighborhood sell for $10,000 to $15,000. The brothers didn’t expect any trouble though the nearest Negro neighbors were three or four blocks away. They had bought the property from a white real-estate dealer and assumed the neighborhood would be receptive to them. But they were wrong.

The night after they moved in, seven hundred of their neighbors met at a nearby Fundamentalist church, reached deep in their pockets, and raised several thousand dollars cash to buy out the brothers and take over the houses. Detroit has a Mayor’s Commission on Community Relations whose job it is to handle this sort of thing, bill the commission had not enough power, nor enough administration or community support, to swing the job. The brothers when they appealed to the city were told that if they decided to stay the commission and the police would try to protect them. But the implication was that they might be wise not to try. The story was aired in the papers and the brothers were championed by the NAACP and the Civil Liberties Union, but in the end they sold out. The houses are now occupied by white families.

Those last two cases are more interesting historically than immediately because a new generation of Negroes is growing up who are not easily intimidated or out maneuvered, and public opinion in a good many places is beginning to be on their side. Sixty cities in the country today have some sort of mayor’s committee or commission whose job it is to resolve interracial tensions. The basic tenet of all these commissions is that a Negro citizen has exactly the same rights as any other citizen — not just theoretically, but practically. Twentyseven cities have commissions of this sort with full-time staff’s and with budgets —paid out of taxes just like those of the police or health departments — ranging from $5000 to $150,000. The largest and possibly most effective of these is the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations which the city — eying its growing Negro population— wrote into its new charter in 1051. The Philadelphia Commission has a paid staffof twentyone, fourteen of them field workers, and powers broad enough to include subpoena and the right to hold public hearings. They handle all matters of interracial or interfaith discrimination, but much of their time and energy inevitably goes into white neighborhoods where Negroes have moved for the first time, and they are usually more successful than in the case of Miss Knuckles, where their energies were frustratingly drained away through legal loopholes.

3

TWO years ago a Negro real-estate operator bought, at sheriff’s sale, a house on Devereux Street, a middle-income section of Philadelphia where single or semidetached houses sell for $10,000 to $15,000. There were no Negroes living anywhere nearby, and when the women sitting on their adjoining porches saw Mr. Williams’s dark skin as he nailed up the For Sale sign they felt they were seeing the devil himself. They called the police, they called the sheriff, they called the mayor. “ We won’t have Negroes,” they all but screamed. “If you don’t stop it we’ll never pay another penny of taxes. We’ll go to jail first.” The mayor’s office called the Commission on Human Relations, which assigned its top trouble shooter, a warm, relaxed, quiet woman, to phone the panicky residents.

“Hear you’re upset about something,” she said. That they were; she had belter come right out and tell them what to do. When she got there she found seventy-five men and women jammed into a small living room and hall, waiting for her, and she was introduced as “someone from city hall who is here to tell us how to keep Negroes out.”

That wasn’t quite it, the trouble shooter told them. There was no way they could keep Negroes out if Williams should sell to a Negro, as he very well might. But she could help them keep a Negro neighbor from hurting the neighborhood.

“Impossible,” they said.

“How were the last neighbors?” she asked.

“Terrible,” they said, “always fighting, getting drunk, leaving trash around.”

“Negroes?” she asked.

“No, white,” they admitted, but all Negroes were that bad. They would buy Williams out but he was charging too much. They would run out any Negro who moved in.

The commission staff worker listened and at every pause assured them their own grass would be just as green no matter who moved into the empty house. She had to take some pretty violent abuse but this paid off, for at the end of the meeting some of the householders had begun to be ashamed of their more violent neighbors and were apologizing for them.

in the next six months while the house stood flaunting its For Sale sign the neighbors met three times with this worker from the commission, and each time they were a little less violent. About then a young veteran lawyer named Romero, a Negro who had a good job in Naval procurement, happened to come to the commission for advice. He had a wife and a baby and one on the way. He had wanted to buy a house in Levittown and been turned down because of his color, He had been brushed off by two different Philadelphia realeslute men for the same reason—once obliquely, once quite frankly with the words, “I wouldn t have wasted your time or mine if I’d known you were Negro.” He liked the house on Devereux Street. The commission, though making it clear they were not in the real-estate business and could not help him find a house, told him it he wanted to pioneer they’d back him up the whole way. The minute the staff worker knew the papers were signed she called up the next-door neighbors and told them a fine couple were moving in. “Negro?” they asked. “Well, they’re not white,” she said. A neighbor on one side wept and said she would never be able to sit on her porch again and she had so enjoyed that porch. But when the Romeros moved in in January there was no outcry, and a month later Mrs. Romero wrote the commission to say that the neighbor who had wept about her porch was just like a mother to her. Today the Romeros belong to a local social and discussion group of young married couples and go to all their picnics and parties.

The Romeros, of course, are light brown. Mr. Romero has a Spanish name, The neighborhood may have hypnotized itself into believing that that terrifying word Negro did not apply to them. But maybe not. Last August a Mr, and Mrs. Ajur Jackson bought a house on Slocum Street in Mount Airy, a middle-income section of Philadelphia, the first Negroes to move into the block. The very next day a dealer went to all the other householders in the block and urged them to sell before their houses became worthless. Jackson began to get a series of threatening anonymous letters. But Jackson was a real-estate man himself and not easily scared. He called the Commission on Human Relations. One of its staff workers, a deceptively mildfaced young man, went out and started the job of draining off the hostility and panic. After a couple of weeks of good-humoredly listening to irrational abuse, he got the neighbors to hold a block meeting and organize — not to drive the Jacksons out, because that they couldn’t do; but to accept them as neighbors and to work to stop a wave of panic selling in which everyone would lose. After weeks of secret meetings the street woke up one morning to see the Jacksons as quite a nice young couple, maybe a little dark but otherwise pretty desirable neighbors, and invited them to join the association. Since then another Negro family has moved into the block, but so has another white family, proof ultimate that a mixed neighborhood has settled down to amicable interracial living.

It is not, of course, always so peaceful and amicable, but a city that has taken the firm position that all its citizens have equal rights to live wherever they can buy a house can usually put its point across. So much effort has to go into each case that one is sometimes tempted to ask if any single discriminated-against house-hunter is worth all the fuss. But then one might as well ask if it is worth while to carry any single minor legal case from court to higher court to see that justice is done. The Philadelphia Commission lias found, moreover and this holds even more true for fair employment practices than for housing—that each case it can resolve spreads arms of understanding that open the way for dozens or even hundreds of other Negroes looking for jobs or for better houses to live in, not to mention opening an equal number of hitherto closed minds, Negro as well as white. Undoubtedly the twenty-seven cities that have added interracial commissions to their crowded budgets originated them to prevent trouble, but Philadelphia has found that the only way to prevent bad interracial relations is to promote good interracial relations as actively as possible. Every failure, like the ease of Evelyn Knuckles or the ease on Canfield Street in Detroit, accentuates the total conflict, for the triumph of people who have maintained segregation is inevitably interlarded with guilt, and the logical way to get rid of the guilt is to smother it in more hate.

4

THE phrase sheriff’s sale may seem to have come up rather often in these stories. The fact is, of course, that most white real-estate dealers still will not sell Negroes a house in an all-white neighborhood if there is any chance of finding a white buyer. Few realtors will admit to prejudice. They simply say, and most of them believe, that when Negroes mov e in, property values drop. There is a good deal of evidence that this is not true. The houses sold on Slocum Street after Ajur Jackson moved in sold for as much as he paid for his house or more. The simple fact is that real-estate values go down anywhere when the supply exceeds the demand.

This tying of real-estate values to the color of the householder is a hangover from the past, when Negroes were universally paid less, had less education, and lacked the means or the courage to look around for a better place to live. It is simply no longer so. When Negroes buy houses in a stable or growing neighborhood, panic may cause a brief slump if everybody tries to sell at once, but if it is a good neighborhood the values will rise again.

Values sometimes rise even when a block which was once “all-white’ becomes “all-Negro. Ibis happened recently on Church Lane in Germantown, an old but good residential section of Philadelphia, to a block of houses which had been selling for around $10,000. When the first Negro family bought a house there in 1953, the neighbors, scared by letters from real-estate speculators, started selling before “values dropped.” They lost money of course, but the houses were then sold, one after another, to Negro families at slightly higher prices; Negroes will, generally speaking, pay a little more for any house simply because their choice is more limited. Result: a segregated block of overpriced houses which might much better have stayed a reasonably priced mixed block.

A lot of people cast the real-estate men as the star villains in this whole situation. Certainly those who solicit trade in a changing neighborhood are playing on prejudice, but their actions arc more rooted in old-fashioned ignorance and the urge to make a fast buck than in any sinister race hatred. They are bound to be educated in time by the newly aware and confident Negro buyers.

A family by the name of Outlaw bought a house in an Italian and Irish neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Bricks were thrown through their windows and they got the usual threatening letters. “All right,” said the Outlaws, “let’s see how much they want us to move.” They put the house up for sale at a fat profit. Nobody, it turned out, wanted to get rid of them quite that much. Now, a year later, the Outlaws are living peacefully with their neighbors, and their sixteen-year-old daughter sings in the local choir.

And the same sort of thing is happening in all the big Northern cities. A man built a new house on Dartmouth Street on the South Side of Detroit, He wanted $10,000 for it. When his real-estate dealer couldn’t find a white buyer in the course of a year—it was in a white neighborhood but the house was not FHA-financed and the mortgage terms not too attractive— he turned it over to a Negro dealer who sold it to a Negro family. After a month or so the family, worn down by the usual threats and snubs, turned the house back to him. He sold it to another Negro family, who have recently moved in and feel tough enough to stick it out.

You may have wondered what happened to Kvelyn Knuckles. She simply bought another house in a mixed but largely white neighborhood in Germantown where someone else had done the pioneering a couple of years earlier.

Three times as many Negroes own their own homes in Philadelphia as did ten years ago. Thousands of ot hers are still living doubled up in crowded segregated districts, but most of these are on the lookout for something better, and the something better is as likely as not to be where Negroes have never lived before. A good many white citizens still find this pretty frightening, but Philadelphia — the city government and a large proportion of the responsible citizens — finds it not only inevitable but very healthy, civically speaking. And the Commission on Human Relations has by now discovered a good many useful facts about how to help a changing neighborhood absorb the change relatively smoothly and painlessly.

They know, generally speaking, that the first step can succeed only if the Negro family moving in is prepared to be a better than average neighbor and is well equipped with staying power. All the commission can do for anyone in the long run is to give him strong official backing in his right to live in the house he has bought — that, and to help his neighbors understand that he has this right. They know that whenever there is resistance the commission will get the blame from both sides: from the white neighbors for causing the situation and from many Negro citizens for allowing any resistance at all. This is perhaps the biggest part of their job, to absorb hostility from both sides, and they have come to take it for granted.

They know, practically, that a Negro family moving into a white neighborhood will encounter less resistance if they move in the winter rather than the summer and during the week rather than on a weekend. Women sitting on front porches and teen-agers loose on the streets seem to brew up most of the storms. They know, ironically, that while householders are more likely to accept Negro neighbors if the Negroes are a cut above them educationally and economically. This leads to the paradoxical situation where a Negro family will have to take a step down to take a step up. A Negro doctor or lawyer is more apt to be graciously received in a neighborhood where being a doctor or lawyer gives a man tremendous prestige — a neighborhood where he probably wouldn’t consider living if he were white.

Many aspects of this — in fact almost all of them — must and inevitably do make the more educated Negro citizens bitter and impatient. They feel it ought not to be so slow. Actually resentment on the part of the Negroes, however natural, or on the part of the white householders, however understandable, is more or less beside the point. Integrated living is inevitable. Sooner or later white homeowners are going to wake up and find there just isn’t any place left to run to. Some diehards are facing this already. A Philadelphia real-estate man who was deeply embroiled in a near riot a year or so ago when the first Negro moved into his neighborhood grinned last time he saw a field worker from the commission. “Know where I’m going when I leave you?” he asked. “ I’m going to sell a house to a Negro in an all-white block. The neighbors? Sure, they know. They don’t mind, but then she’s a schoolteacher.”