The Last White Family on the Block

MARVIN CAPLANis a reporter for Ihe Washington bureau of Fairchild Publications and covers Capitol Hill. He is also president of Neighbors, Inc., a recently formed organization of while and Negro residents in his section of Washington, which is marking to improve relationships among the people ami to preserve, if possible, Ihe integrated character of the area.

ON HOW many white and how many Negro skins does integration depend?

J. Lindsay Almond, governor of Virginia, believes the presence of a single Negro child in a student body of a thousand is unconscionable mixing. Until the courts stopped him, he shut down any school threatened with racial blemish.

Morris Milgram, the Philadelphia builder who specializes in integrated suburban developments, set a quota in his first project of 55 per cent white and 45 per cent Negro. Tn subsequent ones, the proportion has varied, but he has kept them about two thirds white.

“Percentages, percentages,”says my wife. “It’s all a matter of percentages.” She thinks Governor Almond is absurd. But she looks with favor upon Mr. Milgram.

The neighborhood we live in was a white one for about thirty years. Five years ago, Negro families began moving in and soon occupied about hall the houses. Perhaps by now the percentage has shifted in their favor. That’s too many, says my wife. She says it with a heavy sense of confusion. For she wants integration. She welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court school decisions. With a feeling of pride and rightness we saw our oldest child go off to a recently integrated elementary school. But the first year that she went, the school was 56 per cent white. Last year it was 70 per cent Negro. This year it is about 85 per cent.

When the Negro families first appeared, many white families fled into the surrounding suburbs. We came here three years ago, attracted by the roominess of an old house, after the first panic had subsided. White families are still moving out, but at a slower rate, circumspectly, as if their moving now is a betrayal of those old neighbors who still remain. The PTA loses three white board members during the school term. The publicity chairman resigns (shamefaced) from the Citizens Association. Membership drops in the white churches. Percentages shift.

“If only a white family would move in,” an old resident cries, as a marooned person cries for the sight of a sail. “I have nothing against the Negro. Some of the families moving in are lovely. But if only a white family would move in!”

Like most good middle-class city neighborhoods, ours has a serene, substantial look. The houses, one family, with large porches for the most part, stand back upon well-tended lawns. Old trees shade the yards and sidewalks.

The advent of Negro families has made little change in the physical appearance of our streets. Houses are still painted regularly. Grass is cut. The pavements are swept, the gardens cherished. The streets are empty in the summer. An occasional child, no matter what his color, will look well cared for. And if he is Negro, he is almost certain to be particularly well dressed and neat.

Even our next-door neighbor, a stanchly Southern widow of seventy-five who has lived most of her adult life here and can recall when the high school across the street was vernal wilderness where you picked huckleberries in the summertime and went ice skating on the creek in the winter; even she concedes that the four Negro families on our block are not objectionable. She hated to see them move in. “But,” she says, with a strange pride, “our Negroes are different.”

Then what is it that we fear? Why does the heart of almost every white person drop when a For Sale sign goes up? Speak to an old-timer in our block, or down the street, where the change has been more rapid, and almost invariably, except for an occasional complaint about the increase in children’s noises, since most of the newcomers have young families, you will hear stories of how industrious and considerate our new neighbors are, what good care they take of their homes.

Yet each small disturbance is magnified in the wide eyes of fear. A new neighbor has a noisy party, cars drive up late at night, people appear on the street talking loudly or laughing, or two boys, or two gangs, one white and one Negro, get into a fight, and rumor runs through the neighborhood like fire. That’s what we fear! Negro turbulence. Where is it? Next door? It is seldom next door. But it’s down the street, next to old Mrs. Grandy, who lives there all alone, poor soul. Or it may not even be in our neighborhood. It may be blocks away in a poorer one. It doesn’t matter. Each loud or violent incident is premonition. Our Negroes are different. But who knows who will follow them?

Sometimes, like a thunderbolt, the violence does strike next door, or near enough to frighten us. Four doors away, an elderly white widow is raped by a Negro burglar. It docs not quiet my neighbors to read of a white suburban burglar who perpetrated the same crime upon his victim.

Live for the moment, I tell my wife. The trick is to learn to live with the Negro family next door to you (as yet, there is none). You simply cannot keep your reason if you try to live next door to every Negro in the neighborhood and next to everyone that may move in throughout the years we live here. It is good advice, but neither of us can quite accept it.

THERE are two things, among others, that we white families fear; overcrowding — two or three families, evacuees, as a rule, from the city’s redevelopment projects, friends, cousins, sisters, aunts, pooling their meager salaries in order to move into a modest one-family house; and profanity and violence on our quiet streets.

Yet a friend of ours, in a section of the city whose complexion is still unchanged, tells us with composure that in the big old houses on her block retired white couples have begun, illegally, to take in boarders. But they are all one color there, and no one reports them or moves away because of the proliferation of unlicensed rooming houses.

Another friend, who lives in a fashionable suburb, tells us with helpless amusement of the old bachelor who bought the house next door to hers and installed his mistress. Nothing stirs in there till after sundown. Then there are quarrels, curses, screaming all night long. But he is a well-known roue, scion of an old Virginia family, whose pranks have furnished the neighborhood with gossip for many years. My friend tells the story as a dinner joke, perhaps even with a touch of pride at having a local celebrity for her neighbor. She does not plan to move.

In our city it has become fashionable to live in the mid-city slums. Young professional couples, often with a child or two, buy a tiny cramped row house in the oldest section of town and proceed to remodel at great expense. They furnish it with the skimpy, compact furniture that is one of the triumphs of contemporary living, scatter a pound of grass seed on the tiny plots out front and back, and settle down contentedly across the street from the still unregenerate, stinking lairs of Negro drunkards, thieves, and prostitutes.

In our neighborhood the houses were built by generous hands. The rooms are generally lofty and well proportioned. We have porches and fireplaces. The kitchens are light and large enough to cat in. The yards are big and rarely without old trees. Yet it is a rare young white couple that will consider moving into one of these houses. And when a Negro moves in — usually a government worker, a pharmacist, or a teacher — consternation grips white families for blocks around and For Sale signs sprout on the front lawns.

If a strange man walked up to you on a public street and spit in your face and yelled, “I hate your guts!” you and everyone around would have a right to think he was insane. Yet white people do that to Negro families in my neighborhood every day and no one pays any attention to it.

Why? Surely you know why! Behind the appearance of middle-class respectability is the specter of Porgy and Bess, Catfish Row, and sex. Intermarriage is the abruptly blurted fear. We white people think it and voice it in our attempts to fathom the situation we are in. Beneath those clerky, neat exteriors the untamed African nature may still be lurking. Or it may not lurk at all. We are caught either way. Either intermarriage is wrong because of racial traits and racial inferiority, or it is wrong — But there we stop, and reason evaporates in the air.

“It is all right for them to go to school together, but they should not play together,” a teacher in my daughter’s school says firmly.

“Why not?” asks my wife.

“Because then they’ll grow up thinking there is no difference.”

Well, noise and sex aside, aren’t there other reasons for moving? Like calls out to like. “You know they would rather be with their own kind,” a Jewish woman who is moving said to me. Graciously. Magnanimously. And what could I say to her? You shouldn’t have to tell a Jew what is wrong with ghettos.

I’m Jewish, and sometimes I feel as if I’m standing on my head. We, the people of the Book, who have been oppressed by quotas, wish, if only there were quotas! We, the people who have been choked in restrictions, want to see movement into this neighborhood restricted. We who profess to hate hatred now find cause to hate.

Whose fault is it? Who is to blame for racially changing neighborhoods? The Negroes who precipitate the change? But they come because they desperately need houses and there are very few open to them, and it is our communal will to herd them into one neighborhood at a time rather than let them move freely wherever they please. The real estate dealers who find homes for them? Some of them try to scare us into selling our homes. But they say they only carry out our wish for homogeneous neighborhoods. They want to make money, and if white people allow rumor, panic, and causeless hatred to override their common sense, the dealers can’t be held entirely responsible. The white families, then, that run without knowing their neighbor? But their animus was bred into them as children; they flee not out of prejudice alone but to escape the terrible tension of living with an unknown people. The city that does nothing? The school that does nothing? The church that does nothing? Blameless, blameless, we are all to blame.

Sometimes I wonder why any Negro wants to live among us. I asked a Negro neighbor, “Would Negroes be happier in an all-Negro neighborhood?” He thought they would, for he at least did not welcome the strain created by the presence of white people. But, he said, if there are no whites around, the police will begin to think of our neighborhood as a Negro district, the real estate brokers will think so, the teachers and the trash man. And gradually the experienced teachers will ask for transfers. The policemen will appear more rarely. The broken street lamp will go unrepaired. The gutters will be unswept. And the awful stench of the slum ghetto that the Negroes are trying to escape will begin to haunt our streets. And even if, physically, nothing in our neighborhood should change except the complexions of the home owners, still the Negroes there will know they have failed again; they approach the center of the American community as one goes toward fool’s fire in deep woods or toward the mirage in the desert, only to find no warmth, no drink, and nothing but the limbo he has always known. And yet the approach to the center will still be made.

Of every thoughtless, frightened white person who moves from this street I should like to ask one question: What will you do when the first Negro family appears in your new neighborhood? For, of course, that family will appear. Those of us who run from integration run in a circle. The lime we gain by our evasion is only the time it takes to run off and around until we come suddenly face to face with the problem once again.

Having asked my question, where am I then? With the best will in the world, how can we stay? The neighborhood is “tipped,” as real estate dealers like to say. Even though there is a larger number of white than Negro families here, few white families will move in; only Negro families will come readily, and it seems to us, in our moments of despair, that we are only a few years away from living in a Negro neighborhood. “Yes, yes,” a liberal suburban friend says to my wife. “I understand. It isn’t that you’re prejudiced. It’s just that you don’t want to be the last white family on the block.”

How reasonably she puts it. Who can dispute the soundness of what she says? Yet, even as she speaks, an old question nags me. Is it skin that matters? What about personal worth? If Mahatma Gandhi were alive today and moved into my block, some of my white neighbors would take one look at those sheets, those bare feet, and those ragtag disciples, and their homes would be up for sale by nightfall.

Still the questions keep flooding back, addressed to me personally. Do I believe in brotherhood? Do I believe we are all born free and equal? Do I believe in the sacredness of the individual? Suddenly I am pushed beyond easy platitudes into that difficult and stony place where we are forced to take a stand for our professed convictions or abandon them. I can’t abandon them. Governor Almond is right. Integration can depend upon a single person. And if I am sick of prejudice, if, as a Jew, I know in my blood and bones what it means to be stamped “Refuse” and thrown out on the garbage heap, I have no choice. I must remain.