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Why my dad turned down a Levitt house

Mom had just given birth to twins and wanted dearly to move out of our cramped Bronx apartment, but our family waited a little longer for a house on Long Island.

Builder William Levitt, right, congratulates Mortimer Weiss of

Builder William Levitt, right, congratulates Mortimer Weiss of the Bronx on March 6, 1949. After waiting on line for hours, Weiss had just received his number to purchase one of the model Levitt houses in Roslyn. But Weiss later turned down the home. Photo Credit: Newsday / Ike Eichorn

What a surprise this past August to see a photo of my dad, Mortimer Weiss, shaking hands with developer William Levitt in 1949. Newsday ran the photo with a letter to the editor about the 70th anniversary of first families moving into Levittown, which is Sunday.

The date of the photo, March 6, 1949, was the day my twin sisters were born. My mom, Herta Roth, a Holocaust survivor, was in a hospital in the Bronx hoping beyond hope that my dad would buy a home on Long Island. She wanted her family, suddenly numbering five, to be able to move out of the cramped Bronx apartment we shared with my grandmother.

My dad, like so many other veterans of World War II, was eager to buy a house with a low-interest loan under the GI Bill. Newsday reported that he was one of about 100 veterans who camped out overnight for a chance at buying one of developer William Levitt’s new expanded ranch homes for $7,990.

The photo shows my dad smiling and shaking hands with Levitt, who by then was into his second year of building what would eventually number 17,447 homes on Long Island. My father succeeded in receiving an opportunity to buy one of the houses in Roslyn — and the same day received news of the twins.

However, when he arrived at the sales office at Levittown, he saw an NAACP picket line protesting Levitt’s discrimination against black veterans. The Nassau-Suffolk American Labor Party and the Island Trees Tenants Council, along with the NAACP, had accused Levitt of following a policy of white supremacy, Newsday reported then. Levitt said he opposed prejudice, but he believed most whites would not buy his homes if he sold to black families.

My father was asked to sign papers that allowed only Caucasian buyers. He refused and instead joined the demonstrations. Having served in the armed forces and taken an oath to protect America, he took great pride in being a man of principle and standing up for working people. He was a deeply anti-fascist humanitarian who was personally affected by racial discrimination and the Holocaust in Europe.

In 1939, my Viennese mother and her brother, then 15 and 13, were sent to America by their parents to escape the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. Their peaceful life had been shattered during Kristallnacht, when their family’s grocery store was vandalized by Nazis and shut down.

Their parents ultimately died in concentration camps in their native Poland. However, they were alive long enough to learn that their children were safe in the care of American foster parents. My dad met and married my mom several years after her arrival in the Bronx.

My mother did not get her wish of a new home that day in 1949, but fortunately for my family, we soon found a bungalow home in the new Argo Village section of Elmont. It had no racial restrictions.

Today, my mother, 93, lives in my apartment building in Manhattan. My family has shared the story about my dad for decades. He died in 2009, but his American values of freedom and justice for all are deeply embedded in his children and their children.

My dad worked into his 80s as a salesman in the family textile business, and he never stopped opposing bigotry and injustice. The day before he died, he told friends gathered to celebrate his 90th birthday about his pride in living to see Barack Obama become our nation’s first black president. We are thankful that he did not live to see the current president sowing racial disharmony.

Rest in peace, Morty Weiss.

Dorene Watkins lives in Manhattan.


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