Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Civil Rights in the North

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
By Thomas J. Sugrue
(Random House, 2008)

The Civil Rights Movement is often taught as if it was a purely southern phenomena and the Class of Nonviolence, by looking at civil rights through the lens of the life and works of Martin Luther King, Jr., does little to dispel this. I heard Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, interviewed on C-Span’s Book-TV. (You can watch the 47-minute interview at the Harvard Bookstore online.)

He caught my attention when he started talking about Levittown, PA, a city just seven miles from my hometown of Trevose. When built in a rural beet field in the 1950s, Levittown had restrictive covenants, forbidding owners to sell their homes to African-Americans. (“In metropolitan Philadelphia,” he writes, “between 1946 and 1953, only 347 of 120,000 new homes built were open to blacks.”) The story of how the first Black family moved in – and was harassed until they moved out – was ugly and fascinating.

Then he started writing about Trevose. The Linconia and Concord Park subdivisions were just around the corner from my house. Linconia was built as an all-black community in the 1920s, when Trevose was still a rural retreat where city folks built summer homes along Poquessing Creek. Concord Park was a deliberate social experiment, the first planned integrated suburban community in the country. I never set foot in it, although it was less than a half mile from my front door. As Sugrue points out, these connected neighborhoods were isolated by geography, wedged between the Reading railroad tracks, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a cemetery. He didn’t mention that they were also politically separated from “my” part of Trevose: in a different township and a different school district. We used different libraries, played on different sports teams, went to different schools. I didn’t know this history of my own hometown; neither did my brother, who still works in Trevose. (I scanned these four pages of the book for him – and you.)

“Sweet Land of Liberty” opened my eyes and knocked some of the Yankee arrogance out of me. At almost 700 pages, Sugrue’s book is too big and dense to be assigned as a class reading but it is essential background for anyone who teaches the civil rights movement.

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