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An acknowledgment: Newsday missed a critical chance to lead

Several of the original Levittown homes are seen

Several of the original Levittown homes are seen under construction in this undated Newsday photo. Credit: Newsday Archive

Levittown created the modern notion of a suburb.

But its development also played a major role in defining Long Island in a different, more insidious way:

It was a template for the segregation that has shaped and divided Long Island for generations. The evidence of racial steering by Long Island real estate agents detailed in Newsday’s thorough and provocative investigation was spawned in Levittown by a lease covenant that banned non-Caucasians.

Newsday's editorial board took the findings of "Long Island Divided" as an opportunity to examine the way the newspaper wrote about Levittown's origins and growth. Unfortunately, we fell short of our ideals.

Because as Levittown was rising from the potato fields of Island Trees in 1947, Newsday was a cheerleader for nearly two years, never mustering a word of protest or condemnation.

That might come as a shock to modern readers who know Newsday’s strong decadeslong stance against segregation in our schools and our communities, and the paper’s history of confronting all manner of injustice. But the 1940s apparently was a different era.

Newsday's co-founder and editor, Alicia Patterson, was not afraid of crusading on issues about which she felt strongly. Long Island's future was one of those issues. The newspaper took stands opposing the attempted overdevelopment of Fire Island and supporting the acquisition of Mitchel Field from the federal government, as well as condemning discrimination against Jews and Catholics. But she had a mixed record on race, a prime example being when she was asked to print a picture of a black female lawyer who had been speaking to a Nassau County Women's Bar Association forum in 1947. "That might be very damaging to the paper," she  said to the head of the legal group who pressed her to do so. But she printed it. 

Patterson died unexpectedly in 1963. She did not leave a memoir, correspondence or any writing explaining what she felt or thought about the discrimination against blacks practiced in Levittown. So we don't know what was in her heart. But we do know she was a big supporter of Levittown as essential to Long Island's development.

The restrictive clause

The newspaper wrote often about William Levitt’s project on its news pages — during the proposal and construction, and after the first families moved in on Oct. 1, 1947. And the editorial board was enthusiastic. On that note we were right. Long Island needed more housing after World War II, especially affordable housing, for returning veterans. There was great urgency; many cash-strapped veterans were  raising families while living in the basements or attics of homes owned by their parents. Levitt’s small houses, inexpensive because basements were not required, filled that need. Newsday successfully demanded that the Town of Hempstead change its zoning requirements so Levitt could build them. 

But progress came at an awful price. Levitt barred blacks from his new community. This was no secret. The covenant was in every early lease, in caps: “THE TENANT AGREES NOT TO PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE ...”

Levitt said he couldn’t compete unless he followed the discriminatory practices of the day — white families, he said, would buy elsewhere if Levittown allowed black people to live there. Levitt cast it as a business decision, as he explained in a Saturday Evening Post interview in 1954:

"If we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours. We did not create it and we cannot cure it. As a company, our position is simply this: we can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two."

Such attitudes were easy to find in America at the time: White residents in a Pennsylvania version of Levittown rioted in 1957 in response to a black family whose secret purchase of a house got them into the development.

But Levitt's defense that his decision to exclude an entire race was due to the prejudices of others and that it was a necessity for his company to succeed was no excuse for Newsday’s failure to call that out.

A reader's lament

On Oct. 14, 1947, less than two weeks after the first 300 families moved into Levittown, Newsday published in some editions a letter to the editor about the editorial board’s praise of that event. “It is a pity, but not surprising,” the letter read, “that nonwhite veterans are not allowed to rent at Island Trees.”

It was signed by Arthur D. Millard, who identified himself as the grandson of a slave owner and asked, “Isn’t it time we recognized the Negroes as fellow Americans...”

Newsday’s response came two days later. An editor’s note said the letter was published “inadvertently,” and that it was supposed to be disregarded because it contained factual errors. But the note said nothing about the letter’s central charge of racism in the covenant.

That was shameful. And that lack of courage was underscored by the editorial board’s willingness to criticize Levitt on more mundane matters — like his attempt to force vets who were renting to quickly buy their homes instead.

And it’s not as if Newsday’s board would have been a lone voice pleading for equal rights and an end to discrimination. The fight for civil rights was well underway across the country.

Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in a landmark case that political primaries in which only white voters could participate were unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers from the NAACP were working to undo discriminatory Jim Crow laws. And anger was building over the treatment of black veterans returning from World War II, especially in the South.

Change in America

In December 1946, President Harry Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and he became the first president to address the NAACP, delivering a searing speech at the Lincoln Memorial on July 29, 1947. By that point, an effort was underway to end segregation in America’s armed forces, which culminated with Truman’s order the next year to abolish discrimination in all branches of the military.

And in April 1947, six months before Newsday’s response to Millard’s letter, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Newsday did not comment editorially on this major cultural breakthrough.

Despite Newsday’s reticence, the racial issue involving Levittown did not recede. In May 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that such racial covenants were unenforceable.

Three months later, a Newsday editorial squarely condemned racism against blacks and, critically, acknowledged that racism also existed on Long Island, although the editorial was prompted by rival reporting in the New York Herald Tribune. The Herald Tribune story showed that on moving to the North, a black person from the South does not find equality here, but instead, the Newsday editorial board wrote, "feels at every hand the darting cat’s paw of discrimination that won’t admit it exists.”

And although the board saw a way to erase bigotry — "You can’t legislate prejudice out of the hearts of a people. It takes education…” — it also felt that doing that on Long Island would be difficult:

“The discrimination we practice here isn’t as open as that of the Southern Jim Crow laws; because it is hypocritical, it’s all the more vicious.”

Yet Newsday continued to practice its own kind of hypocrisy. Defying the Supreme Court's decision, Levitt kept the clause in his leases and, in 1949, protesters began appearing at his offices. He branded them communists, a potent charge in those days. Newsday, to its discredit, sided with Levitt.

“Organizations which appear to be either Communist-dominated or Communist-inspired have been attempting to raise a racial issue at Levittown,” the editorial board wrote. “The issue did not exist until it was fostered by people not immediately affected by it.”

That claim was preposterous. It ignored the harm being done to minority home buyers. Worse, the editorial board abdicated our own responsibility to identify and condemn a practice we  knew was racist and wrong.

Sidestepping the issue

Referring to the covenants as an “imperfection,” the board wrote, “In this country it is the individual’s prerogative, not the state’s, to decide where he will live. America will eventually beat bigotry with evolution. But we will never do it with revolution.”

Left unsaid: It is no one’s prerogative to decide where an individual is not allowed to live because of his or her race.

Newsday's editorial board was not alone in sidestepping this issue regarding Levittown. That month, The New York Times also editorialized against supposed communist interference in civil rights causes. "... It will not take a revolution to correct abuses," the paper wrote. There was a major exception to this point of view: The New York Amsterdam News, a historically black paper published in Harlem, took the opposite position of Newsday and said those protesting Levittown’s discrimination in 1949 were deserving of “the highest civic commendation.”

After Newsday received critical responses to its editorial, the board attempted to clarify its position six days later, writing that some people “think we were upholding Levitt’s stand against admitting Negroes to Levittown housing.”

It was a reasonable conclusion for readers to reach. It wasn't until one year after the Supreme Court ruling, the board finally acknowledged that the racial covenant was wrong.

“If Newsday owned Levittown there would be no caucasians-only clause in the leases,” the board wrote, adding that Newsday had fought for its racially diverse local Golden Gloves team to be able to eat and room together  during the popular New York City boxing tournament.

“We suspect that the discriminatory clause is there not because of Levitt’s prejudice but because he thinks most tenants and buyers are prejudiced," the editorial said.  "We hope he is wrong. We know discrimination is wrong at Levittown as everywhere else in the U.S.A. It doesn’t take a pack of trouble-making red rovers to tell us that.”

Except that it did.

Levitt finally removed the covenant by May 1949, but made clear by year’s end that he would continue to exclude blacks from Levittown. Even then, Newsday’s criticism was muted.

“Neither Newsday nor any ‘trouble-making organizations’ can order that change, much as we wish it,” the board wrote on Dec. 8, 1949. “The people of Levitt communities, Levitt customers and Levitt prospects must show a willingness to share their housing with Negroes. It can be done harmoniously. It will not be done with loud-mouthed yammering by high pressure minority groups. A gentlemen’s agreement to get rid of all discrimination is in order.”

LI needed leadership

As the years passed, the editorial board's strong voice emerged to condemn discrimination and to support laws, not gentlemen’s agreements, to end it. But in the region’s formative years, the times cried out for leadership. Newsday neglected to exercise it. We knew the goal but did not prod people toward it. That was to our  detriment, and that of all Long Island.

Read what the editorial board said about the investigation.

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