I was born in a small town call “Trevose” when racial discourse was at an all time high for African Americans and Whites in the United States. Morris Milgram, who made reality of his ideals by building and fostering interracial private housing from coast to coast.
Born into poverty as the youngest of six children of an immigrant Russian peddler on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Milgram grew up on Socialist principles, was expelled from City College in 1934 for opposing a reception for young Italian Fascists, battled the corrupt politics and repression of Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City and eventually devoted his life to constructing and opening housing to blacks and his fellow whites.
”If we don’t learn to live together, soon the world is going to come apart,” he said in a 1969 interview.
Until he entered Attleboro in 1990, Mr. Milgram lived for many years in Greenbelt Knoll, one of his developments, in northeast Philadelphia, or in Brookside, another of his developments, in Newtown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.
”He believed in living what you preach,” his son said when his father passed away at the age of 81 years old. ”He hated phonies.”
Mr. Milgram build integrated housing for some 20,000 people, not only in the Philadelphia area but also in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., Chicago, Princeton, N.J., and Washington, and in California, Maryland, New York, Texas and Virginia.
He obtained $200 each in deposits from seven white and five black families. But then, as his debts piled up, his capital dwindled after a promise of $1 million in financing fell through and hope was all but lost, he found backing from the American Friends Service Society and a Quaker builder.
By the late 1950′s, he was able to construct more than 100 homes in Greenbelt Knoll and Concord Park in Trevose, Pa., near Philadelphia. Concord Park, his first community, opened in 1954 with 139 detached homes. In Greenbelt Knoll, the homes sold originally for an average of $19,000 to $22,500.
Mr. Milgram was the first recipient, in 1968, of the National Human Rights Award of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Philadelphia, the city and its suburbs comprised one of the most racially segregated regions in the United States. Housing in Pennsylvania was racially separate and unequal because of persistent housing discrimination, beginning in the 1920s, when realtors put racial restrictions on new housing, continuing in the 1930s, when massive federal home ownership programs excluded nearly all African Americans, and accelerating in the 1940s and 1950s, when whites engaged in a mass exodus to the suburbs. The statistics were grim, especially during the great post–World War II building boom. In metropolitan Philadelphia, between 1946 and 1953, only 347 of 120,000 new homes built were open to blacks. Concord Park, Open Housing, and the Lost Promise of Civil Rights in the North. A thesis was written by Piggot William Benjamin about “The Geography of Inclusion: Race and Suburbanization in Postwar Philadelphia”.
A 27-minute documentary called “Glen Acres: A Story in Black and White,” written, directed and narrated by first-time filmmaker Diane Ciccone. On Feb. 27 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the West Windsor Arts Center, 925 Alexander Road, the film will get its first public showing. Residents who live in Glen Acres, some of them the originals, will be available to answer audience questions.
Bob Duncan, now 81, will be one of them.
Duncan was looking to move closer to his job at RCA Research when he and his wife, Helen, bought the Glen Acres house they still live in on July 1, 1959.
“We didn’t move there because of the racially mixed concept,” he explains. “We liked the location and the price.
“But living there profoundly influenced our lives. It turned me into an activist of sorts. I’m not a wild-eyed liberal, but it changed me,” says the man who raised his four children on Glenview Road.
The original houses sold for $18,000 to $24,000. Now many are in the $300,000 range.
There were no fences. And a central, open area behind some of the homes was designed as a play area where children congregated and had fun. Many of them formed lifelong friendships in which race was never an issue.
In the beginning, some Halloween night vandalism involving a car that was driven diagonally across a front yard downing two saplings so the driver could throw red paint on a garage door drew a prompt reaction from the men of Glen Acres. In pairs, they would patrol the neighborhood in two-hour shifts, Duncan recalls.
“We would wander with flashlights and notepads looking at cars that were driving through. It was one of those bonding experiences.”
Don and Ruth Moore, two more original residents of Glenview Road, are still there.
“I’m originally from West Virginia and I was told New Jersey was different from the South, that I could go anywhere I wanted,” Ruth Moore recalls. “But I quickly found out that wasn’t the case. I wanted to look at a house, and when the realtor saw I was black, he wouldn’t show it to me.”
When the Moores learned about Glen Acres, buying became a “no-brainer.”
“There were good schools for the kids and the houses were nice. We had friendly neighbors.”
Her husband was a salesman working in New Brunswick when the Moores made the move to West Windsor. Now a retired social worker, Ruth Moore describes her neighborhood as a place where there “is freedom of movement, no fences, where you can borrow a cup of sugar, where people valued our privacy, where children grow up.”
Glen Acres’ sister community, Maplecrest, sitting on a 10-acre tract stretching from Mount Lucas Road to Ewing Street in Princeton, is still racially integrated but no longer called by its original name. Only Glen Acres’ cohesiveness survived.
The thinking among Glen Acres residents is that they all bought into the idea of a racially integrated neighborhood in which everyone got to know one another.
Original resident Cecilia Hodges, now widowed, still has fond memories of the neighborhood where a white kid could look at a black kid and see only one difference — one of them was wearing glasses.
Sandie Rabinowitz moved to the neighborhood in 1960, buying the last house built. She and her late husband, Irving, raised two daughters, the second adopted.
“She was East Indian,” Rabinowitz says. “And I knew she would be welcomed here with open arms.”
Ciccone has already shown her film to Glen Acres residents. Now she’s hoping the Feb. 27 screening will spur enough interest for her to secure a grant. If she gets one, she will hire an experienced cameraman, film editor and audio technician and expand both the length of the film and its audience.
“I really want to tell their story,” Ciccone says of the Glen Acres residents who, to this day hold mass reunion picnics commemorating their lasting connection.
“It’s an important story because you really need to know where you came from if you want to know where you’re going. They were a group of people living together because they believed in a world where a person is not judged by the color of his skin.” Story
I am thankful for good folks like Mr. Morris Milgram. A lot of my family members whom I am related to were able to reside in Trevose, PA and some still live there to this very day. I will never forget Milgram’s legacy nor his efforts for racial integration.