More than 60 years ago, the first black family moved to the then all-white suburb of Levittown in Bucks County, setting off a string of racist incidents that made national headlines. Now it's the backdrop for a new film from George Clooney and the Coen brothers, starring Matt Damon.
Dubbed Suburbicon, the 1950s-set film stars Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a resident of Suburbicon, a Levittown-inspired neighborhood. Lodge and his family's idyllic suburban existence, however, is disrupted following a home invasion, and later the arrival of the Mayers family, Suburbicon's first African American residents, in the summer of 1959.
As Gardner attempts to make it through what a promotional release calls the town's "dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit and violence," the Mayers family must fend off other Suburbicon residents, who violently protest the family for living in the previously all-white area.
In the film, which has not fared well at the box office despite its big-name pedigree, Lodge's story is the main focus. That comes entirely from a script by Joel and Ethan Coen written in the late-1990s.
But the Mayers — played by Leith M. Burke, Karimah Westbrook, and Tony Espinosa — are based on the real-life William and Daisy Myers and their children, who were the first black family to move to Levittown back in the mid-1950s.
According to an Inquirer report, the Myers family moved to Levittown from nearby Bloomsdale Gardens in Bristol Township in August 1957, settling in a home at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the town's Dogwood Hollow section. The Myerses reportedly paid $12,150 for the house — more than $1,300 off the home's $13,500 asking price. Following the move-in, William Myers, then 34, denied rumors that he and his family had received money from the NAACP and the American Friends Service Committee to buy the property:
The family's full move-in, however, was delayed due to a faulty oil tank, which prompted the Myers to visit family in York as installation of a new one was completed. Neither the oil tank hiccup nor the protests from community members would stop the family's move because "nothing whatever will prevent me from living in the house," as William Myers told the Inquirer in 1957.
"I bought the home and I intend to live there," he added at the time.
The racist backlash against the Myerses' move to Levittown began almost immediately. Town residents met William Myers with boos and jeers on Aug. 13, 1957 when the family began moving their furniture in. According to the Inquirer, that same night, someone threw rocks through the home's picture windows in a bid to intimidate them, resulting in five arrests.
Similar disturbances continued for weeks, including large protests and meetings, sometimes consisting of several hundred community members at a time. Shortly after the Myerses moved to town, for example, police were called to disperse a crowd of 500 protesters outside 43 Deepgreen Lane, and one man was arrested after "he refused to move along," according to an Inquirer report.
In another incident, Eva P. Dombroskie, 43, a neighbor of the Myers family, was arrested for "running from house to house and shouting to passing motorists" to incite an additional protest:
Authorities tolerated the uproar for some time, but Bristol Township finally issued an ordinance barring protests outside or nearby the home shortly after the Myerses moved in. According to the ordinance, public meetings were limited to no more than three people at a time, and the final mass protest against the Myerses, which consisted of about 250 people, took place on Aug. 17.
Gov. Leader Gets Involved
News of the situation in Levittown got to Harrisburg quickly, prompting then-Gov. George M. Leader to denounce the treatment the Myers family faced. At the time, Leader vowed to "fight any outbreak of racial intolerance" over the family moving in, according to the Inquirer.
"The stoning of the home of the first Negro family in Levittown is completely alien to the historic principles upon which Pennsylvania was built," Leader said in a statement. "Any family has the right to live where it can obtain legal possession on any street, road or highway in this Commonwealth."
Leader backed up his statement by sending in Pennsylvania State Troopers to Levittown, many of whom patrolled around the Myers home to keep traffic moving. About a dozen state troopers oversaw the Aug. 17 protest. Their presence wasn't welcomed in Levittown by white residents, some of whom found themselves on the business end of a police baton, according to an Inquirer report.
Levittown residents also attempted to petition them out of town, including a document that emerged after a meeting of 600 residents. Organizers said at the time that they hoped to get 51 percent of homeowners to lend their support.
The petition itself claimed that while "unprejudiced and undiscriminating," the residents nonetheless didn't want an African American family in town. Organizer James Newell also said at the time that residents hoped to speak to developers Levitt & Sons about the situation.
"We the citizens and homeowners of Levittown, Pa., protest the mixing of Negroes in our previously all-white community," the petition read. "As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community…to protect our own interests."
Ultimately the petition failed, as did an attempt to institute a 9 p.m. curfew in Levittown as a way to curb incidents at the Myers home. Introduced by Police Chief John R. Stewart, the move would have set up an early curfew for residents aged 16 and under, but it failed to move forward. According to the Inquirer, township solicitor William F. Carlin said that "the situation does not warrant any action at this time."
Racist Incidents Continue — and Spread
Protests continued into Sept. 1957, with some 40 Levittown residents holding what the Inquirer calls a "continuous house party" in a house attached to the back of the 43 Deepgreen Lane property. The owner, William A. Hughes, was eventually arrested for violating a noise ordinance, and subsequently forced parties to leave the home. According to the Inquirer, attendees greeted Hughes' decision by saying, "this is nothing more than a police state."
Despite the negative backlash from much of the Levittown community, the Myers family contended that many residents were happy with their presence. They told the Inquirer that they were "swamped with friendly letters of welcome and invitations from white neighbors to dine with them."
Some of those supporters would also face backlash. Neighbor Lewis Wechsler, for example, awoke one September morning to a burning cross on his lawn.
Wechsler at the time told the Inquirer that the cross was the "work of a bunch of kids," and extinguished the cross himself before notifying police about the incident. That same week, police also found four Molotov cocktails in the yard of Stephan J. Toth, who lived near the Myers home.
Wechsler would also endure a number of other incidents in connection with the Myerses, including one in which "KKK" was spray painted on his home. The man accused in that case, Howard R. Bentcliffe, 45, had a heart attack in court while representing himself.
Two other families in the area would also have burning crosses planted in their lawns. According to a 1997 Inquirer article, those families were targeted because "a youngster came with flowers for Mrs. Myers" and "a salesman was suspected of selling her a car."
A Second Black Family Moves In
Levittown continued to become integrated throughout the 1950s and '60s, with the second black family moving to town in the summer of 1958. According to the Inquirer, Kenneth Mosby, his wife, Julia, and their young son had a more welcoming reception than the Myerses.
No protests were reported for the Mosby's move, which occurred under police watch in June 1958. Mosby reportedly purchased the home for $14,900 through the Veterans Administration.
The protests and racists incidents that began to occur after the Myers family moved into Levittown began to taper off several months after their arrival, prompting the family to stay in the town for a number of years. However, they moved back to their native York the early 1960s, where they remained.
William died of lung cancer in 1987, but Daisy returned to Levittown in 1999, when then-Mayor Sam Fenton issued an apology to her family for what they endured. Myers lit Bristol Township's Christmas tree that year — named "Miss Daisy" in her honor. Fenton said that the event could "give her some good memories to ease the pain of the old ones."
"She endured the worst kind of humiliation — racism," Fenton added. "For that, we are truly sorry."
Myers, meanwhile, called it the "happiest, merriest Christmas I can remember."
The Myers’ Legacy
Daisy recounted the Levittown ordeal in her own book, titled Sticks 'n Stones: The Myers Family in Levittown, released in 2005. The book retells her family's arrival in Levittown, as well as the racist incidents that ensued.
The book would be one of Daisy's last statements on the ordeal. She passed away in 2011 at age 86, leaving behind sons William and Barry, and daughter, Lynda. By then, she had long earned the moniker of "Rosa Parks of the North."
"I remember well the bad days and nights," Daisy said of Levittown in 2003. "But I also remember the good days, the good people, and their good deeds. In fact, for every evil event there were two, three or more good events."