Home » New York » Levittown

James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.


New York

Basic Information

Type of Place
CDP, Unincorporated Borough, or MCD
Metro Area
Long Island
Politics c. 1860?
Don’t Know
Unions, Organized Labor?
Don’t Know

Sundown Town Status

Sundown Town in the Past?
Was there an ordinance?
Don't Know
Don’t Know
Year of Greatest Interest
Still Sundown?
Surely Not

Census Information

The available census data from 1860 to the present
Total White Black Asian Native Hispanic Other BHshld
1960 65,276 57
1980 57,045 45
2000 53,067 387

Method of Exclusion

  • Police or Other Official Action
  • Zoning

Main Ethnic Group(s)

  • Unknown

Group(s) Excluded

  • Black
  • Jewish


From Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic (NY: Knopf, 2003):
“In 1953, when Levittown, LI’s population reached 70,000, it was the largest community in America with no black population.” (p. 217) Only 57 blacks by 1960. By 1980, 45 blacks.

From Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 2003):

Levittown (on LI) contained a clause in the lease for rental properties: “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” (p. 230) The Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown, including some residents, polled and claimed 61% of residents favored admitting blacks. “William Levitt refused to renew the leases of two families, one who had violated the racial policy by hosting an interracial play group, and the other for simply being sympathetic neighbors.” One of the families to be evicted, the Adolph Ross family, “vowed to stay until ‘the Levitts sign their first lease with a Negro family.'” On 2/19/1952, 400 supporters gathered at the Ross home to await the eviction, “and Levitt finally backed down.” (p. 231) A black, William Cotter, and his family, managed to gain occupancy in 1952 but Levitt evicted them a year later. A white homeowner later sold him a Levittown home.

From Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (NY: Oxford UP, 1985):
“The Levitt organization… publicly and officially refused to sell to blacks for two decades after the war. Nor did resellers deal with minorities…. Not surprisingly, in 1960 not a single one of the Long Island Levittown’s 82,000 residents was black.” (p. 241) [Now sundown towns were getting serious %u2014 much larger, much more important.] By 1980, 38% of Levittown, NJ, was black. See Herbert Gans, Levittowners, second edition.

From Dorothy K. Newman, et al., Protest, Politics, and Prosperity (NY: Pantheon, 1978):
“As CORE members continued to demonstrate at his Belair, MD, development, W. J. Levitt … called on the president [JFK] to widen his antidiscrimination order and to take steps to end discrimination. Only when all builders are forced to sell on a fair basis, he reasoned, would any of them be able to ‘afford’ an end to discrimination.” But according to Kenneth Jackson, Levittown could have integrated “and it still would have sold,” because of pent-up white demand for housing. (p. 140)

From Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, Celebration, USA (NY: Holt, 1999):
Levittown on L.I. had 17,447 houses. (p. 53) The Levitts streamlined paperwork; total closing cost in 1954 in the Levittown in NJ was just $10!

From J. John Palen, The Suburbs (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1995) :
“Veterans were required only to place a $100 good-faith deposit, which was returned at the time of closing. Nonveterans needed only $450 down. To purchase existing city homes required far larger down payments. The low housing prices, and particularly the availability of a long-term, no-money-down mortgage, was a crucial factor for new families just becoming economically established.” So shutting blacks out was a real burden for blacks and helps explain why blacks have less wealth today and have a lower level of home ownership. (p. 59)

From: Michael N. Danielson, The Politics of Exclusion (NY: Columbia UP, 1976)

Great Neck, Nassau County, has almost 3x as much per pupil as Levittown. (p. 21)

From Llewellyn M. Smith, Race: The Power of an Illusion, “The House We Live In” (California Newsreel, 2004):
Eugene Burnett, black, tried to buy in Levittown. Went to salesman. “He looked at me. ‘Listen, it’s not me, but the owners of these homes have not decided to sell to Negroes.'”

In 1993, Hofstra professor Stuart Bird interviewed
William J. Levitt, who was 86. The following is an excerpt from this discussion. [Paragraphs are by Levitt unless indicated.]

“For almost five years, there had been very little building in the United States….
It was a terrific pent up demand. The normal demand in the United States was and is approximately a million, a million and a quarter individual houses a year. There had been virtually none….
Q: Tell me about why do you feel home ownership is important.
Because you have a stake.
Q: What was the covenant that homeowners had to sign when they bought a home? What was that about?
They didn’t sign it. It was a restriction, a restricted covenant in the deeds about cutting the grass, maintaining the property, no wash in front of the house or no washlines, you could use an umbrella. There was about a dozen restrictions. One family, which had a lot of violations, I don’t pay attention to them anymore.
Q: But you feel they were important?
Well, number one they could take them and remodel, there has been a lot of remodeling, but it’s been done well. As long as it’s been done well, but before remodeling you had to get permission from us. We have houses in Levittown [now] which are priced for $250,000. Originally we would not sell to a black person because it was an old story that if we sold to blacks, whites would not buy … But I had a meeting with a lot of colored people and with the NAACP and I said, “Give me a chance to get some people in here, because if I start out with black people, I won’t get any whites. If I get enough white people in here, then I sell to everybody, provided they’re acceptable,” which we did and we have no restrictions today.%u201D


From Geoffrey Mohan, “Levittown Through the Years,” http://www.lihistory.com/specsec/gyear28.htm, 1/2003:

Geoffrey Mohan Staff Writer
Levitt laid down the law with his tenants. Laundry could be hung only on umbrella stand dryers, and it could not be hung at all on weekends. If lawns weren’t cut, Levitt would send a crew and bill the tenant.

NONE OF IT could have happened without a massive federal program that steered developers toward affordable housing, providing them with up front, government guaranteed financing.
The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, was piggybacked with housing legislation that had created the Federal Housing Administration a decade earlier. The two operated in tandem to put the government in the business of guaranteeing financing for developers first, and then risk free individual mortgages for GIs that required little money down.
It pumped $20 billion into the industry in its first four years and was the closest thing to free money the housing trades had ever seen.

The Levitts would abide no fences, no curbside utility poles, and no clotheslines to break up the pastoral effect they desired.

>17,000 homes.

Levitt got much of what he wanted from McCarthy and the 80th Congress. The 1948 Housing Bill, written as a replacement amendment by McCarthy, liberalized lending, making it possible for anyone to buy a home with 5 percent down, and extending mortgage terms to 30 years. Veterans could get in with no money down.

Eugene Burnett paid a visit to Levittown in December, 1949. He was an Army veteran of World War II, living in Manhattan. He also was black.
“We got there and looked at the house, the model house,” Burnett said. “There were other persons looking at the model house. I didn’t see any blacks. We were the only ones . . . and we walked around the house and then I walked up to the salesman and I said to him, `Pretty nice house. I’m interested. Would you give me an outline of the procedure, how do I apply? Do you have an application of some sort?’
“And he became very solemn, he looked me in the eye, braced himself and said, `It’s not me.’ He wasn’t hostile at all. So, don’t get that impression. But he said, `It’s not me, but the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether or not they’re going to sell these homes to Negroes.’
“I left,” Burnett said. “I will never forget that long ride back to Harlem . . . How I didn’t start World War III is beyond me. Because that was the feeling I had.”
Levitt had decided not to sell to blacks from the outset. At first, he wrote that restriction into the leases a practice recommended at the time by the FHA, which was backing the financing and preferred “homogeneous” neighborhoods.
After the Supreme Court in 1948 declared racial covenants “unenforceable,” Levitt dropped the restrictions against occupancy by “non Caucasians.”
But he kept the unwritten policy.
“Levittown has been and is now progressing as a private enterprise job, and it is entirely in the discretion and judgment of Levitt & Sons as to whom it will rent or sell,” Levitt explained in a 1949 announcement in the Levittown Tribune. “. . . The elimination of the clause has changed absolutely nothing.”
Picketers were beginning to appear at Levitt & Sons offices, angry over the restrictive covenants. They were quickly labeled communists by Levitt, residents and Newsday.
“Organizations which appear to be either Communist dominated or Communist inspired have been attempting to raise a racial issue at Levittown,” Newsday wrote in an editorial on March 12, 1949. “The issue did not exist until it was fostered by people not immediately affected by it. Their only real motive seems to be to set race against race, and if possible, to bog down the Levitt building program, which means homes for thousands of people.”
In September, 1950, Levitt told two renters who had begun an interracial play group that their leases would not be renewed. Gertrude Novick and Lillian Ross did not need to be told why they faced eviction.

“We decided to have a little play group, an integrated play group, so we had families from Hempstead bring children in,” Novick explained. “It was just two houses on the same street. Our neighbors loved it. Their kids came and played, too. It was just a fun thing. The neighbors enjoyed it and had a fun time. Obviously someone told Levitt about it.”
Novick was active in Levittown’s Committee to End Discrimination, a small group that met in living rooms and occasionally protested the racial covenants.
“Nobody went out to look for it; you just happened to meet some people who had the same ideologies,” she said of the group. “A few people asked us why we moved there if we knew about those covenants.”
Novick said she moved in knowing all about the covenants, which she found repulsive, for a simple reason: “We really had no place to live . . . Sometimes your hands are tied, and you hope you can get in and change the world a little bit.”
From 1950 to 1953, a handful of black families managed to quietly buy or sublet Levitt homes without his knowledge.

Growing Pains
Conceived in segregation, Levittown struggled to deal with the smattering of blacks in its midst. Birthed in a staunchly Republican county by what had been working class Democrats, it gravitated toward the GOP column even as a president resigned in disgrace. Nurtured by stay at home moms, the Levitts’ model village emptied in the daytime as both parents headed to work to battle the effects of an oil crisis, inflation and economic decline.
When James Edmondson started work at the four year old youth center on Center Lane in 1968, on paper he hardly seemed like a controversial hire. The 27 year old Hempstead resident already had a wealth of experience, opening similar centers in Freeport and Hempstead. But he also was black.
“They didn’t want me in there,” Edmondson said. “But I knew I had to be in there, because I was working with their children.”
When Edmondson went to the Westbury Levittown Memorial football game, and headed for the all white stands of Levittown Memorial, a ticket taker called after him, thinking he was lost. “They’re over there,” she told him.

This sprawling community still provides the port of entry for newcomers to suburbia, some of whom also are new to America. Very few, however, are non Caucasian, a legacy, some believe, of Levittown’s days of racial exclusion. Those who don’t fit that old mold Asians, blacks and some Hispanics account for just 3 percent of the 44,046 people who live there. 4.9 percent of Levittown’s population that is of Hispanic origin, a number that has risen steadily over the past three decades. Asians including Indians and Pakistanis account for 2.6 percent of the population, an amount that tripled since 1980. Blacks trail, accounting for 0.4 percent four times as many as any previous decade, but still only a tiny portion of the population.
Marco Berrios, Dinorah’s 21 year old nephew who also lives in the house, has a dark complexion and a hip hop haircut. He was greeted by racial taunts and a fistfight on his first day of school at Division High School three years ago. “I came here in early junior year and my first day I had two fights,” said Berrios, a freshman student at the State College of Technology at Farmingdale. “It was definitely racial . . . I got a lot of that `We don’t want you around here’ type of thing. As time went on and I got myself into the sports department, they accepted me.
Yesenia Larios, Collazo’s 15 year old daughter, had little of the trouble her cousin faced, Collazo said, because she is lighter complected.

Despite testifying before Congress that it was impossible for him to discrimate because he was Jewish, Levitt wouldn’t sell to Jews in his upscale developments and excluded blacks right up through the mid 1960s, well after the adoption of landmark federal civil rights legislation.
(Charlie Zehren, “The Dream Builder,” http://www.lihistory.com/specsec/gyear28.htm, 1/2003.)

From http://www.lihistory.com, 1/2003:
Levitt whose family, fearing a decline in property value, moved to Long Island from Brooklyn after a black attorney moved next door to them said he wouldn’t have been able to compete if he didn’t follow the discriminatory practices of the time.