The year-long 50th-birthday party for this pioneering suburb on Long Island is winding down. The parade drew 5,000 marchers. Crowds came for candlelight church services, an antique-car show, exhibits, seminars and tours of the fabled Levitt houses that started it all.
There were even Potato Day festivities honoring the flat farmland here where Levitt & Sons began mass-producing single-family tract homes in 1947, heralding the wave of migration from cities that lasted for decades.
But not everyone touched by the Levittown experience has been celebrating.
''The anniversary leaves me cold,'' said Eugene Burnett, who was among thousands of military veterans who lined up for their green patch of the American dream here after World War II. But he was turned away because he is black. ''It's symbolic of segregation in America,'' he said. ''That's the legacy of Levittown.
''When I hear 'Levittown,' what rings in my mind is when the salesman said: 'It's not me, you see, but the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether they're going to sell these homes to Negroes,' '' Mr. Burnett, now a retired Suffolk County police sergeant, recalled. He said he still stings from ''the feeling of rejection on that long ride back to Harlem.''
The salesman was not honest with Mr. Burnett. Blacks and other minorities had no chance of getting in, because Levitt had decided from the start to admit only whites.
Delano Stewart, editor of The Point of View, a Long Island biweekly on black affairs, said of Levittown: ''It's something we'd like to forget rather than celebrate. It's a black mark on the Island, or maybe I should say a white mark.''
The whites-only policy was not some unspoken gentlemen's agreement. It was cast in bold capital letters in clause 25 of the standard lease for the first Levitt houses, which included an option to buy.
It stated that the home could not ''be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.''
That clause was dropped in 1948 after the United States Supreme Court, ruling on another case, declared such restrictions to be ''unenforceable as law and contrary to public policy.''
Ignoring the law of the land, however, Levitt continued adhering to its racial bar. Levittown quickly filled up with young white families. Minority residents trickled in during the 1950's, but the pattern was set.
Today Levittown has changed, but only a little. While the community has more minority residents than ever, it remains overwhelmingly white -- 97.37 percent in the 1990 census.
''It's certainly not a melting pot, but it is a community in transition,'' said James A. Edmondson, the chief executive of the Yours, Ours, Mine Community Center in Levittown, who is black. ''Ethnically it's changing every day, and in 25 years it won't look like it does today.''
Although blacks account for 8 percent of Long Island's population, they are scarce here. Of Levittown's 53,286 residents in 1990, there were 51,883 whites, 2,184 Hispanic people, 950 Asians and Pacific Islanders, 137 blacks (0.26 percent), 31 American Indians and Aleuts and 285 ''other.''
Most blacks intent on moving to Long Island ended up in the few ''open housing'' communities, which became predominantly minority pockets. ''We didn't have many other choices,'' said Mr. Burnett, who lives in Wyandanch, in Suffolk County.
As a result, ''Nassau County is the most segregated suburban county in the United States,'' said Dr. Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College. He based that view on a computer study of national census data, in which he calculated what portion of the population of each county would have to move to achieve racial integration.
Living by Rules They Did Not Make
Whenever historians, planners and sociologists plumb the lessons of Levittown, race always looms. The debate is not simple or comfortable, especially for people here. Early Levittowners moved here under rules favoring them that they did not make. Later arrivals inherited a history that they did not create.
''There is a sensitivity to it, because the community has for many years tried to overcome that image,'' said Louise Cassano, a co-chairwoman of the Levittown 50th-Anniversary Committee and a resident since 1951. ''There was that lingering prejudice,'' she said, ''but I think we've come a long way.''
At the outset, some whites here fought racism, forming the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown. There were protests and a leaflet against ''Jim Crowism,'' Mrs. Cassano said. ''Some people moved in very unaware of the Caucasian clause and were disturbed when they found out,'' she said.
In the second Levittown, near Philadelphia, angry white mobs threw rocks in 1957 to protest the prospect of blacks moving in. In the response back here, the Levittown Democratic Club, Jewish War Veterans and a Protestant minister all spoke up for open housing.
But this Levittown has had its share of bigots. The Levittown Historical Society's president, Polly Dwyer, recalled one incident: ''An Asian family moved in, and some people moved out because of them. It's so silly. They were good, quiet, decent people.''
A Hofstra University political science professor, Dr. Herbert D. Rosenbaum, who lived here from 1953 to 1965, said: ''In those years, even liberal people like ourselves tended to take residential segregation for granted, without approving it. None of us went out into the street to change it.''
Levittown's history seems especially jarring, experts say, because the community was founded as segregation was beginning to crumble. While the first Levitt houses were being built, Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier in baseball. A year later, President Harry S. Truman integrated the military.
Hopes Dissipated For Black Americans
Another paradox was that although Levittown was built for World War II veterans, who had fought tyranny and racism, its doors were opened to at least one former German U-boat sailor, while black American soldiers were turned away.
''Because Levittown promised affordable housing, with no down payment, it offered hope to the African-American working class when no other community did -- but that hope was quashed,'' said Dr. Barbara M. Kelly, Hofstra University's director of Long Island Studies. ''After the war, blacks thought things had changed, but they hadn't, and Levittown became a microcosm of that frustration.''
The role of the developer, the late William J. Levitt, is debated. He defended his actions as following the social customs of the era.
''The Negroes in America are trying to do in 400 years what the Jews in the world have not wholly accomplished in 600 years,'' he once wrote. ''As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. This is their attitude, not ours. 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.''
Indeed, the official Federal Housing Administration policy back then called for ''suitable restrictive covenants'' to avoid ''inharmonious racial or nationality groups'' in housing.
''To paint Levitt as a villain would be unfair: the whole system was villainous,'' said Dr. Herbert Gans, a Columbia University sociology professor who lived in Levittown, N.J., and wrote ''The Levittowners.'' ''Levitt strictly reflected the times,'' he said.
Dr. Kelly said, ''To single Levittown out on racial covenants, as if it weren't going on everywhere else, is unfair.''
But critics say Mr. Levitt was no passive bystander. His company branded integrationists as Communist rabble-rousers and barred them from meeting on Levittown property. It also evicted two residents who had invited black children from a neighboring community to their homes.
Building the third Levittown in New Jersey, the company openly defied that state's antibias laws and opposed a lawsuit from two blacks seeking to buy homes. Levitt capitulated to integration there in 1960, though by then much of the development was sold out.
As late as the mid-1960's, Mr. Levitt was still defending segregated housing, at that time in Maryland. And blacks were not the only targets. Although he was the grandson of a rabbi, Mr. Levitt also built housing on Long Island that excluded Jews.
The Basic Idea Was Innovative
No one disputes William Levitt's visionary talent in applying assembly-line methods on a grand scale. Called the Henry Ford of housing, he spurned unions to organize an army of 15,000 workers into dozens of specialized crews, including one to apply red paint and another, white. His company made its own nails and bought forests to supply lumber.
At its peak, Levitt built 36 houses a day, each on a 60-foot-by-100-foot plot. The original Cape Cods had two bedrooms and an unfinished attic. Some models had a 12-inch Admiral television set built into the staircase. Drawn by prices of about $7,000, or monthly payments of around $60, hundreds of buyers flocked here. When the last nail was driven in 1951, Levitt had created 17,447 homes.
But critics say that Levittown could also have been integrated, endowing suburbia and the nation with a social vision as innovative as Levitt's construction technology and marketing.
''Levittown was an opportunity tragically lost,'' said Dr. Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia. ''There was such a demand for houses -- they had people waiting on lines -- that even if they had said there will be some blacks living there, white people would still have moved in.''
Whatever the past concerns or prejudices, there is scant evidence of problems involving the minority residents who finally trickled in.
''First there's fear, then there's somebody who makes friends with the new family and says they're very human, they keep nice houses,'' said John A. Juliano, a real estate agent here for 32 years.
He chuckled about finding a rental for a black woman whose absent landlord did not learn her race till three years later. When the landlord found out, Mr. Juliano recalled: ''He said, 'John, she's black.' I said, 'Yeah?' He said, 'She's a terrific tenant.' If I had mentioned it at first, there might have been a problem.''
Few blacks in Levittown are eager to talk publicly. A couple who lived here for 20 years agreed to comment if their names were not printed. ''We had a problem getting in,'' said the husband. But his wife added, ''After we moved in, we didn't actually have any trouble. I never felt excluded.'' Since retiring, they have left the state, but return every year to visit their Levittown friends.
George Nager, a lawyer and longtime local activist, welcomes the growing mix of black, Hispanic and Asian Americans. ''These are mostly upward-bound, entrepreneurial people,'' he said. ''They're absolutely great neighbors. There are no rednecks here and never any cross burnings, I can tell you that, and I go back almost to the Year One here.''
The Levittown Tribune's new editor, David Mock, is black. He said that although race may lurk as an issue, he has been accepted as a professional. ''They opened up to me,'' he said of the residents. ''I don't have any problem at all; it's been an absolute pleasure.''
Mr. Edmondson, the black community center official, stood out when he started working here 28 years ago.
''I can't tell you the bad words that were scrawled on the walls,'' he recalled, and the police sometimes stopped him to ask why he was in the neighborhood. Although he never moved to Levittown, living instead in Hempstead, he became a respected community leader here.
''The black families I know here have not had a bad experience,'' he said. ''The thing is, I've watched the children. They really get along in a most fantastic way.''Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping