“Housing Is Everybody’s Problem”

The Forgotten Crusade of Morris Milgram

Morris Milgram, ca. 1972. Concord Park brochure, 1954.
Morris Milgram, ca. 1972. Concord Park brochure, 1954. [Morris Milgram Papers, Pennsylvania Historical Society]

On a Saturday evening in November 1964, nattily dressed couples filed into the Marriott Motor Lodge in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, for a dinner dance. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of their civic association, and the birthday of the small crescent-shaped subdivision they called home, built like so many others in the postwar housing boom of the 1950s. Over London broil and green beans almondine, the couples listened to a soloist sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and clapped as the association president gave out awards. Then it was time for the after-dinner speech. To introduce the featured speaker, the builder of the subdivision came forward, an intense, dark-haired 48-year-old named Morris Milgram, familiar to most of the homeowners gathered in the room.

As Milgram began his introduction, guests scanned the biography in the dinner program listing the speaker’s accomplishments: the first field secretary of the Congress of Racial Equality. A participant in the first Freedom Ride. Deputy director of the March on Washington, held in August a year earlier. When Milgram finished, Bayard Rustin took the stage, to ringing applause. 1

The very fact of his presence is startling. Why was Bayard Rustin, a national leader of the civil rights movement, addressing a homeowners’ association in suburban Philadelphia?

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A quick scan of the motor lodge banquet room that night would have yielded another surprise. The guests were a mix of blacks and whites, sitting at the same tables, chatting and laughing. Such easy sociability between people of different races was, to put it mildly, anomalous in suburbia — or anywhere in America — at the time. But these fellow homeowners were then living side by side in Concord Park, one of the first private, integrated housing developments in the country, established years before the 1968 Fair Housing Act would make racial discrimination in housing against the law.

Milgram wanted to prove that multiracial suburbs were not only practical but also superior to segregated developments.

Concord Park was Morris Milgram’s initial venture as a professional homebuilder. His motivations were idealistic: Milgram wanted to prove that multiracial suburbs were not only practical but also superior to segregated developments. From its groundbreaking in 1954 and well into the 1960s, Concord Park’s fortunes were closely tracked by progressive activists, scholars, and journalists (most friendly, but not all). Milgram would devote the rest of his career to building, promoting, and managing integrated housing. Although he is largely forgotten today, he counted among his supporters Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as other humanitarian leaders of the era. By the time of his death, in 1997, he could rightly claim to have provided some 20,000 units of housing across the nation while adhering to staunch anti-discrimination — and actively pro-integration — policies.

In retrospect his projects seem prescient — ongoing experiments, at once mundane and brave, for how to knit together a divided America house by house, street by street.

To be sure, Milgram modulated his approach as public sentiment and housing law evolved. Today some of his tactics seem dubious (and are, in fact, illegal); some of his initiatives were successes, others abject failures. But in retrospect his projects seem prescient — ongoing experiments, at once mundane and brave, for how to knit together a divided America house by house, street by street. Milgram saw housing segregation as a stubborn, complex, and pernicious problem that America could not — must not — ignore; that is the essential lesson of his pioneering career. Six decades on from the founding of Concord Park, we still haven’t solved the problem, and Milgram’s experiences and insights remain vital.

Photo from "An Example of Open Housing," Ebony, February 1957.
Photo from “An Example of Open Housing,” Ebony, February 1957. [Morris Milgram Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania]

“The perfect community for careful buyers”

“EASY TO OWN … DELIGHTFUL TO LIVE IN,” proclaimed a sales sheet for “THE ARIZONA,” a low-slung ranch house fringed by trees and shrubs, shown in a black-and-white sketch. “You’ll find CONCORD PARK the perfect community for careful buyers,” the sales copy continued, “providing the freedom of country life … the privacy of a ¼ acre lot … the facilities of a large city, only minutes away.”

In late 1954 and early ’55, prospective homebuyers could drive north from Philadelphia on Roosevelt Boulevard, a quarter-mile past the city line, then fork left at the drive-in movie theater to reach the muddy field that was becoming Concord Park. There stood the development’s first phase — 29 houses newly finished or under construction. Stepping into the model home, visitors would have found an ambience of soothing, middle-class domesticity — Milgram understood that the unconventional development would need to look reassuringly familiar. The 19-foot-long living room, looking out on the back yard, had a framed picture of Lake Shore Drive, plant stands, a coffee table bearing ceramic ashtrays. The boy’s bedroom had books and gadgets; the girl’s, an easel and a rocker. Sales agents pointed out modern features like a garbage disposal and pre-tuned TV antenna, and conveniences like a built-in laundry hamper; they talked up the clever floor plan, which allowed kids to troop from their bedrooms into the kitchen and outside without crossing (and dirtying) the living room.

Concord Park may have been a speculative tract, but Milgram and his partners hadn’t skimped on the design. The house plans were drawn up by William H. Roberts, soon to become a prominent landscape architect and founding partner of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd. The model home décor was overseen by a respected New York stylist, Beatrice West. That decision reflected Milgram’s belief in the power of merchandising; but at Concord Park it reflected also his instinct that attractive design and good amenities could overcome any negative associations — “the possibilities of identification as ‘that integrated community,’” as he later wrote — which might hurt sales. 2

Several miles east of Concord Park, Levittown was famously, or notoriously, all white.

The hiring of West had a political edge as well. A few years earlier, as Milgram knew, she had styled the six model homes at Levittown, Pennsylvania. Several miles east of Concord Park, this was the second Levittown built by William Levitt. (His flagship development was on Long Island, outside New York City.) Levittown was famously, or notoriously, all white — a policy reinforced by housing covenants. When an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People tried to persuade the builder to open his developments to blacks, Levitt’s response was brutally pragmatic: he wouldn’t “take a chance on admitting Negroes and then not being able to sell his houses.” 3

Levitt’s stance was then typical of the development community. In 1948, in Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court had ruled that racially restrictive covenants, such as those at Levitt’s mega-development on Long Island, could not be enforced by the courts. But the decision did little to change real estate practices and prejudices. As the historian Thomas Sugrue writes, covenants “were more often than not honored in the breach,” and they did not stop white neighborhoods from “turning over” once a black family or two had moved in. 4 More significantly, the federal government and the courts treated as sacrosanct the right of homebuilders to choose the occupants of their communities; major public agencies including the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration, via their mortgage and loan practices, effectively reinforced racial segregation in housing. In the early ’50s, the NAACP vigorously lobbied U.S. Steel, which operated a plant near the Levittown in Pennsylvania, to pressure Levitt to change his policy. NAACP officials even raised the issue in a meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower, in early 1954; but to no avail. 5

It was in this charged context that Milgram — an active member of Philadelphia civil rights groups — decided to do what the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and William Levitt, whose phenomenal success had already landed him on the cover of Time, would not do. Milgram would build similar houses with similar decors in the same new development and sell these houses to buyers who were white and black; what’s more, he’d sell his houses at slightly higher prices than the Levittown houses were going for. Morris Milgram was going to beat Bill Levitt at his own game.

Greenbelt Knoll, featured in the New York Times, September 5, 1969.
Greenbelt Knoll, featured in the New York Times, September 5, 1969.

“A fiend for work and answers all letters”

Milgram was an unlikely builder: he fell into the business by accident and then harnessed it to the fulfillment of political and social ideals. Like a lot of people bent on changing the world, he was single-minded and irrepressible, always on the hunt for converts to his cause. “This man Milgrim [sic] is a fiend for work and answers all letters,” wrote P.L. Prattis, a journalist for the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, in 1959. “He was a nut,” his former secretary, Peggy Lewis, said. “He worked us to death. He broke promises. He was in such a hurry all the time he once drove over my husband’s feet. But you stuck with him because he was a remarkable man.” 6

Milgram was born in New York City in 1916, one of six children of Russian Jewish parents who worked in the garment industry. Growing up on the Lower East Side among Eastern European immigrants, he imbibed left-wing politics. “At six, I was carried on my sisters’ boyfriends’ shoulders to Socialist picnics,” he told a writer for the New York Post. At 17, Milgram joined the Socialist Party and enrolled in City College of New York, where he became a campus activist. CCNY had been derisively dubbed “the little red school house” by the Hearst press for the radicalism of its students, and in October 1934, Milgram was among those who protested when the college hosted a reception for delegates from Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Milgram was expelled (along with 20 other students), upon which he transferred to Dana College in New Jersey (now part of Rutgers University) and finished his degree in economics. At 21, he married Grace Smelo, a young woman from suburban Philadelphia who had graduated from Antioch College in Ohio; they had met while campaigning for Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas. Morris and Grace joined the staff of the Workers Defense League.

‘He worked us to death. He broke promises. But you stuck with him because he was a remarkable man.’

The WDL had been founded in 1936. The labor rights organization advocated mainly on behalf of sharecroppers in the South, black and white; the group was socialist in outlook and aimed to prevent hardline communists from monopolizing the civil rights battle in America. Milgram became the WDL’s executive secretary and then national secretary, holding that position from 1941 to 1947. During that time he became deeply involved in the case of Odell Waller, a black Virginia sharecropper who had been convicted and sentenced to death for killing his white landlord. Waller maintained that the shooting was self-defense, and that the jury that convicted him had been limited to whites who had paid a poll tax (which was then required for jury service). The WDL partnered with the NAACP to seek a reprieve for Waller, and the case became a cause célèbre, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervening on Waller’s behalf. Despite the lengthy campaign and national publicity, Waller was executed by electric chair on July 2, 1942. Milgram was the only white person at his funeral.

In his advocacy for Waller, Milgram worked closely with a WDL board member who traveled to Virginia to organize and fundraise. Pauli Murray was a brilliant, restless polymath, and a major career as a civil rights lawyer, professor, writer, poet, and Episcopalian priest (the first African American woman ordained by that church) lay ahead of her. Milgram and Murray cemented a close friendship that lasted until Murray’s death in 1985. Milgram often cited Murray’s “Dark Testament” as one of his inspirations in pursuing the goal of integrated housing. First published in 1943, the long poem so enthralled Milgram that he often read it aloud to audiences around the country. 7 In Good Neighborhood, published in 1977, Milgram wrote that after one of those readings:

I finally realized that the following lines about the sons of slave traders told us that the ghetto’s purpose is to preserve the unfreedom blacks suffered under slavery:

Traders still trade in double-talk
Though they’ve swapped the selling block
For ghetto and gun!

It was then that I resolved to do all I could to end the unwritten law that virtually all new and decent housing was for whites only. 8

Beyond the electric effect of Murray’s verse, there were more prosaic factors propelling Milgram’s career change from political organizer to property developer. In 1946, Morris and Grace had their first child, Gene, and were looking to shore up their finances. “[W]e had decided that ten years service with the WDL was as much sacrifice as the growing family could afford at this time,” Milgram noted in the family’s 1947 holiday letter. Grace’s father, William Smelo, was a homebuilder, and he asked his son-in-law to join his firm. Initially reluctant, Milgram finally agreed, on the condition that the firm “would back me financially in my efforts to develop integrated housing, if I would learn the business.” Milgram started in the summer of 1947. “For four and a half years I thus built houses for whites only while my conscience hurt,” he wrote. 9

‘I told the group I would rather be a laborer and live in a slum than build housing for whites only.’

In 1952, after becoming company president upon the death of his father-in-law, Milgram was ready to break decisively with the old business, announcing his intentions rather dramatically at a meeting of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations. As he wrote: “I … told the group I would rather be a laborer and live in a slum than build housing for whites only.” 10 For many months, Milgram struggled to find backers for his visionary, still nebulous project. Then, finally, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist group, introduced him to George Otto. Otto was a conventional, successful builder who was nonetheless sympathetic to Milgram’s thinking. They formed a stock corporation and sold shares to their friends and associates.

Without Otto, Concord Park might never have been built. As two historians of integrated housing wrote, “Otto brought to the Concord Park project an established reputation for ‘sound business thinking’ and probity, as well as a highly respected Quaker name … thus lending an aura of respectability to an otherwise radical idea.” 11 The new corporation carefully selected a board of directors, six white and three black men; two of the latter were physicians, the other a former president of Florida A&M College. It then bought two tracts with the funds they’d raised: 50 acres in Trevose, just over the Philadelphia line, for $100,000, and nine acres in Northeast Philadelphia for $22,200. By August 1954, when sales for Concord Park opened, the total stock offering of $150,000 had been subscribed by 65 investors. (Quakers and socialists were the easiest to convince, Milgram said.) Mortgage loans, however, proved difficult to secure. Only after more than 20 banks refused to lend to the new enterprise did a New York bank with experience in lending to blacks agree to finance some of the mortgages.

Some 25,000 people toured the Concord Park model home in the first four months. Ninety-five percent were white. Milgram’s company had advertised in the local papers, not indicating the open-occupancy principle of the development. It had also mailed 20,000 pieces of direct marketing to members of liberal groups, urging them to put their money where their beliefs were. The builders left promotion in the black community to word-of-mouth, which resulted in only a few thousand prospective black buyers — far fewer than the white prospects. But the early sales belied these numbers. By Christmas 1954, Milgram had about 50 deposits from black families — and only 10 from whites.

Back then new communities like Levittown beckoned white buyers. Black would-be suburbanites had relatively little choice.

This was not actually surprising. Back then the disparity in housing choice for whites and blacks was stark. All around Concord Park, new communities like Levittown beckoned white buyers; they could comparison shop (which is why Milgram did not stint on those extras like built-in laundry hampers). Black would-be suburbanites, however, had relatively little choice. Between 1946 and 1953 there were 140,000 new homes built in greater Philadelphia; just 1,044 of these — less than one percent — were available to blacks, most of them apartments. 12 Concord Park was one of the very few options for blacks with the means and desire to buy a new house.

When white customers learned about the “open occupancy” policy, a few turned on their heels and left; though most didn’t. But they did ask what the ultimate racial balance would be. The sales team told them Concord Park would be about 80 percent white and 20 percent black, reflecting area demographics. Whites were skeptical. “This explanation failed to satisfy many whites,” Milgram later admitted, “especially those who recognized the tremendous pressure of the 550,000 blacks in the nine-county Greater Philadelphia area who could not buy … at any of the hundreds of new developments then being built.” 13 Fearful of moving into a majority black neighborhood — and of the lesser home values that would follow — they went elsewhere.

This was, of course, exactly what Milgram had feared. His shining beacon of housing integration was off to a rocky start. “One night, I woke up sweating,” he recounted to the Catholic magazine Sign in the late ’60s. “‘Morris, you idiot,’ I told myself, ‘you’re building another Negro ghetto as sure as Bilbo.’” (He was referring to Theodore Bilbo, the stridently racist Mississippi politician who once called for the deportation of black Americans.) So something had to be done. At a board meeting in early 1955, Jane Reinheimer, a white AFSC housing activist, broached a controversial idea: Concord Park needed a quota. Several members immediately bristled (one black board member later said he found quotas “undemocratic”). But others argued that such a drastic measure was necessary. The housing market was so rigged that they had to employ aggressive tactics toward its dismantling. Or as one historian has put it, “Milgram and Otto found it necessary to employ their own microscopic version of the federal government’s illiberal market controls to fight the very effects of the government’s policies in the first place.” 14

By a narrow margin, the board agreed to the quota plan. According to Milgram, he had suggested a 50/50 split, but William Gray, the former Florida A&M president, adjusted it “to prevent formation of a black majority” and therefore, presumably, to ease whites’ fears. 15 The ratio of white to black buyers was set at 55 to 45 percent. Milgram hung a map of Concord Park in his office, inserting red and blue pins in it to represent black and white buyers. By 1958, all 139 houses had been sold and the target ratio had been met.

Concord Park’s residents included several interracial couples, a few communists, and many nonconformists.

The first two couples to move into Concord Park were George and Eunice Grier, a research psychologist and publicist for a Quaker organization, both white, and Charles and Virginia Henry, a machine operator and bookkeeper, both black. Never one to miss a public relations opportunity, Milgram organized an open house in November 1954 that was more press conference than coffee klatch, with government officials, activists, and reporters in attendance. An “afternoon tea” at the Griers’ home a few months later served as the basis of an enthusiastic article in House & Home.

Concord Park’s early residents included several interracial couples, a few communists, and many nonconformists. The black households had higher incomes than their white counterparts — a feature of many early integrated housing developments, likely due to the difficulty blacks faced in getting mortgages even with good incomes and credit. 16 The subdivision’s many children played together, while their parents formed a babysitting co-op and bowling, photography, and sewing clubs — just like the residents of any other cookie-cutter suburb. 17 In 1957, when William and Daisy Myers became the first black residents of Levittown, and their arrival provoked angry mobs, Concord Park dispatched an interracial group to stand watch over their house. 18

In 1957 William and Daisy Myers became the first blacks to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania.
In 1957 William and Daisy Myers became the first blacks to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania. [AP Photo/Sam Myers]

“SUBURB BREAKS RACIAL BARRIER,” ran the headline in the New York Times on March 10, 1957. “New Private Housing Project at Philadelphia Integrates Negroes and Whites – NO INCIDENTS OCCUR – Not a Family Has Moved From Colony That Ideals and Tenacity Built.” Against the odds, Morris Milgram had done it.

In 1956, the Milgram family, which now included a daughter named Elizabeth, moved into a new house a few miles away from Concord Park. Greenbelt Knoll was a much smaller development — only 19 homes — which Milgram and Otto built concurrently with Concord Park, on the little tract they had purchased near the northeast border of Philadelphia. Yet it differed from Concord Park in ways that are telling.

Here Milgram sought avant-garde architecture, engaging the local firm Montgomery & Bishop. Robert Bishop was a Quaker and had co-founded Bryn Gweled, an intentional, interracial community in Bucks County; it is easy to imagine him meeting Milgram or Otto socially. He also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and that affiliation may have been what brought Louis Kahn into the project. Bishop led the design of Greenbelt Knoll, with Kahn as consultant (although the extent of his involvement is hazy). 19 The houses that Bishop (and Kahn and another consultant, Harry Duncan) designed were long, low volumes that burrowed into the site’s terrain. Clad in wood siding, they had 27-foot-long windows and flat roofs. The designers, with landscape architect Margaret Lancaster Duncan, made great efforts to accommodate existing trees, cutting a hole in the roof of a breezeway in one case. 20 Greenbelt Knoll’s homes were significantly more expensive than those at Concord Park, priced at $22,500 and up for three- and five-bedroom homes. Of the 19 houses, eight were sold to black buyers.

Invitation to reception for Greenbelt Knoll.
Invitation to reception for Greenbelt Knoll, 1955. [Morris Milgram Papers, Pennsylvania Historical Society]

Top: Sales brochure for Greenbelt Knoll (front) Bottom: Sales brochure for Greenbelt Knoll (back).
Top: Sales brochure for Greenbelt Knoll (front) Bottom: Sales brochure for Greenbelt Knoll (back). [Pennsylvania Historical Society]

Greenbelt Knoll verged on an intentional community — it was a speculative development, but so small that Milgram could almost fill it by calling the numbers in his address book. Its marketing leaflets looked arty, and the project received design awards, including one from the American Institute of Architects. This was an urban enclave for progressive members of the upper middle class, skewing intellectual: one resident was Charles Fuller, a playwright who later won a Pulitzer Prize; another was the pastor, civil rights leader, and anti-apartheid activist Leon Sullivan.

The comparison makes it clear just how remarkable, how radical, Concord Park actually was; unlike Greenbelt Knoll, and similar upscale communities like Hollins Hills, in northern Virginia, or the Eichler developments in the Bay Area, Concord Park was a mass-market demonstration of integrated housing — a virtuous doppelgänger to Levittown. But its thoroughgoing suburban character may have been one reason why it began to diverge from Milgram’s vision, around the same time as the festive 10th anniversary dinner dance.

“But not next door”

The success of Concord Park prompted Milgram to widen his horizons. In the late 1950s, he developed two integrated subdivisions near Princeton, New Jersey. The Princeton Housing Group, a coalition of integrated Presbyterian congregations, sought him out, hoping to increase the supply of housing available to local blacks. (Even black PhDs struggled to find places to live. 21) One of the developments, Maple Crest, in Princeton, had 25 homes; another, Glen Acres, in nearby West Windsor, had 15. Both sold quickly and settled on a ratio of three-quarters white to one-quarter black. To Milgram’s relief, no quotas were used this time.

Milgram was becoming a national figure, thanks in part to the publicity he’d seeded about Concord Park. In 1958, he founded Modern Community Developers, which would both develop its own interracial housing and offer guidance and support to like-minded builders across the country. MCD’s roster of board members and advisors reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century progressive politics: Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women), Senator Jacob Javits, Kivie Kaplan (head of the NAACP), Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph (president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Eleanor Roosevelt. Ned Eichler, who had offered Milgram advice on his projects, was a supporter, as was the pioneering developer of the shopping mall (and socialist) Victor Gruen.

Despite this coalition and Milgram’s early success, MCD ran into difficulties almost immediately. In 1959, Progress Development Corporation, a subsidiary of MCD, bought two plots in Deerfield, Illinois, a sleepy farm town north of Chicago, and prepared to build a new development of 51 houses. Sewer and plumbing lines were installed; model homes were framed up. The architects hired for the job were the acclaimed modernists Fred and William Keck, and the houses would be the most expensive Milgram had ever sold, starting at $30,000.

Despite Milgram’s early success, his later effort to build integrated suburban housing, near Chicago, ran into difficulties almost immediately.

Then, on November 15, 1959, residents of Deerfield opened up their Sunday newspapers and read the headline: INTERRACIAL SUBDIVISION PLANNED INSIDE DEERFIELD LIMITS. Panic ensued. Realtors started calling Deerfield residents with offers to buy their houses for half their value. 22 The priest of the Episcopalian church down the street from the development sites said he condemned racial discrimination, but chided the builders for their “secrecy.” (MCD, keeping mum on its integrationist plan, had had no trouble securing approvals from Deerfield’s village board.) The priest asked Milgram to set up a fund to cover potential losses in home values for existing white residents; Milgram flatly refused to do so.

A clergyman who stood up and pleaded that Deerfield citizens accept racial integration as “mature, adult people” was jeered.

Events moved fast. On November 18, residents packed the monthly meeting of the village board of trustees, some shouting for the board to stop the development. A clergyman who stood up and pleaded that Deerfield citizens accept racial integration as “mature, adult people” was jeered. Milgram, whose reputation as the “Johnny Appleseed of integrated housing” had followed him to the Midwest, became the target of the villagers’ animus. His outsider status and association with the socialist Workers Defense League — and his Jewishness — did little to endear him to Republican Deerfield. “The familiar cry of ‘Red!’ would be heard when Milgram’s name was mentioned,” wrote Harry and David Rosen in their sympathetic 1962 account of the controversy, But Not Next Door. “More than one loyal ‘integrationist’ expressed the private view that their row would be much easier to hoe if Milgram had been less politically controversial.” 23 (Milgram, incidentally, had drifted from socialism toward mainstream Democratic politics after his stint at the WDL, weary, like many others, of the vicious infighting on the left during the 1930s and ’40s.)

People quickly took sides. On November 23, a special meeting drew an overflow crowd at the village hall. Reporters and TV cameramen from around the country joined them. Leading the opposition to the projects was a local resident named Harold Lewis. He maintained that the problem was not integration itself, but having it forced upon the community from the outside rather than from the “natural expansion” of blacks. Lewis became president of the newly formed North Shore Residents Association, devoted to fighting the “improper approach” of MCD. A smaller group that supported the integrated project dubbed themselves the Deerfield Citizens for Human Rights.

In the following weeks, a nasty anonymous campaign was waged against supporters of the housing development. A press release purporting to be from CORE, the civil rights group, “exposed” one integrationist as a Soviet. Someone mass-mailed to townspeople a fake, grossly racist “membership application” for the NAACP:

NAME __________ (use all names you has gone by)
ADDRESS ________ (if living in automobile, give make, model & tag number)
NAME OF MOTHER ____________
NAME OF FATHER _____________ (if known)
LIST WHITE SCHOOLS YOU WOULD LIKE TO ATTEND: (Use back if more space needed) ___________________________________________________

A poll conducted by opponents in early December registered 3,507 against and 460 for the development, a ratio of eight to one. Meanwhile, work on the model homes had stopped. 24 On December 10, the local paper carried a legal notice from the parks board; it proposed to acquire six new parcels for parkland, including the two MCD sites. A referendum was called for December 21. Although two previous bond issues for parks had failed at the ballot box, Deerfield voters passed this one by a resounding two-to-one majority.

The battle moved to the courts. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt chaired a fund to support the case, and Progress and MCD were represented by Adlai Stevenson’s law firm. By this point it hardly mattered. The county court found that the park board had lawfully exercised the right of eminent domain, and on appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to consider any ulterior motives (which Deerfield officials denied) behind the condemnation of the land. Another suit in federal court, contending that the builders’ civil rights had been violated, was torpedoed by the judge, who in his decision lambasted Milgram’s “controlled occupancy” as “illegal” and a step toward “forced integration.” This ruling was, Thomas Sugrue notes, “the first judicial challenge to the use of ‘benign quotas,’” and therefore ominous to civil rights groups.” 25

Why did Deerfield fail, when the previous three projects had enjoyed smooth sailing? One partial explanation is that Milgram and his colleagues were outsiders in Deerfield (with the exception of one Progress board member who lived in the village), and they hadn’t been invited by locals, as they had been in Princeton. That no doubt raised the hackles of some residents. But even more significant were the spatial differences between the Deerfield sites and those in metropolitan Philadelphia.

Concord Park, aerial view, ca. 1958.
Concord Park, ca. 1958. [USDA Farm Service Agency]

The Deerfield sites were prominent, a quick jog west on Deerfield Road from the village center. In contrast, Concord Park and Greenbelt Knoll were both built on leftover parcels that were cut off and isolated from other neighborhoods. Concord Park was bordered by a cemetery and an existing, informal black suburb, Linconia. 26 Greenbelt Knoll was surrounded on three sides by Pennypack Park. This was all the result of a deliberate strategy of geographic buffering on the part of Milgram and Otto; indeed, they installed a pool at Greenbelt Knoll to avoid the furor that might have erupted had black residents tried to swim at city pools. Glen Acres, near Princeton, had no immediate neighbors. “It literally was in the middle of a pasture,” says Diane Ciccone, a lawyer and West Windsor resident who made a short film about the community’s genesis in 2011. Eventually the areas on either side were developed, “but across Alexander Road is still open fields.” 27

It’s not exactly clear why Milgram dropped this cautious approach when he sought to build in Deerfield. Perhaps he thought acceptance of racial integration was growing so fast that such strategies would no longer be necessary. Alas, he was sadly proven wrong.

Milgram emerged from the battle of Deerfield tired and poorer, but not defeated. “He wasn’t crushed,” remembers his son, Gene, now a retired urban planner. “He was pissed.” 28 Soon, a new opportunity opened up.

The Kennedy administration had a problem: nonwhite diplomats couldn’t find decent housing in Washington. Could Milgram buy some residential buildings and integrate them?

In 1962, Milgram was contacted by Angier Biddle Duke, protocol chief for President John F. Kennedy.  The administration had a problem: nonwhite diplomats couldn’t find decent housing in Washington. Could Milgram buy some residential buildings and integrate them? It would take Milgram a couple of years to deliver results (by which time Kennedy had been assassinated), but in early 1964, MCD purchased the Highlands, an early 20th-century apartment house on Connecticut Avenue near Embassy Row. (It is now the Churchill Hotel.) Although the Highlands remained majority white, it accommodated diplomats from African countries as well as India, Vietnam, and Korea. And, his son Gene recalls, Milgram made a useful discovery: “Instead of tying money up into building houses, which takes a long time, you could simply buy an apartment building and change the rental policy instantly.” 29

Rosemary Park, Silver Spring, featured in the Washington Post.
Rosemary Park, Silver Spring, featured in the Washington Post, March 25, 1970.

Over the next three decades, Milgram acquired a host of apartment buildings. In 1964, MCD bought Rosemary Village, an all-white apartment complex in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, and started welcoming black tenants. It was, Milgram claimed, “the first apartment house to be deliberately integrated south of the Mason-Dixon Line.” In 1965, he set up a real estate investment trust called M-REIT that focused on buying apartment buildings in white suburbs and using “affirmative marketing to establish and maintain ethnically diverse communities.” Other partnerships to buy low- and moderate-income apartments and integrate them long-term followed. With the Fair Housing Act now the law of the land (albeit poorly enforced; discrimination remained rife) and “benign quotas” out of the question, Milgram and his partners aimed to steadily integrate complexes as apartments turned over, luring nonwhite tenants while preventing a white exodus. In 1968 Milgram became the first recipient of the National Human Rights Award of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In later life, Milgram’s activities as an investor and partner were so prolific, and the subsidiaries and spin-offs of his companies so manifold, that at one point Gene Milgram, a member of the board of one entity, Choice Communities, demanded a matrix to understand how they all related to one another. (He got one, eventually.) 30 Morris and Grace divorced in 1969 and Milgram married three more times. He died in 1997 in an assisted living facility in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, at 81. Obituaries ran in the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer.

March on Washington, 1963.
March on Washington, 1963; Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, is at left, and A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is at center. [U.S. National Archives]

“Housing is everybody’s problem”

To assess Milgram’s legacy, it’s crucial to view his career in the context of the Open Housing Movement, in which he was a leading figure. Today the Open Housing Movement is most closely identified with MLK and the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1965 to 1967; but it can be traced back to the early 1940s, when the NAACP first challenged restrictive covenants, and it was national in scope. Activists who sought to “open up” the booming suburbs believed that residential integration would not occur naturally ­— that they needed to appeal to the conscience of whites and eliminate white prejudice, using arguments and methods from the toolbox of social science. (The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal used the term “social engineering” unflinchingly in his landmark book on race relations, An American Dilemma, which laid out the principles of the movement.) Religious anti-discrimination groups (Christian and Jewish), civil rights activists, and social scientists aligned in an effort to wipe out racism and integrate middle-class neighborhoods. As Thomas Sugrue explains, their strategy was two-pronged:

First was to persuade a critical mass of whites to stay. Second was to recruit blacks who were like whites in every respect other than their skin color. When whites saw that black home owners kept up their houses, maintained their yards, and lived quiet, bourgeois lives, they would see the irrationality of their own prejudice. And they would have little reason to flee. Slowly, incrementally, racial integration would ripple outward from these model communities and eventually reshape American society. 31

In retrospect, both the methods and goals of the movement invite criticism. Racial steering and discrimination (including the “positive” sort, like the quotas at Concord Park) were rendered illegal by the Fair Housing Act; but even before then advocates like Milgram were torn about such tactics, never quite convincing themselves that the ends justified the means. Quotas gave easy ammunition to segregationists, allowing them to dismiss the open-housing project as “totalitarian,” on the one hand, or capricious, on the other — one Deerfield opponent of Milgram’s sneeringly referred to his “little game of racial chess.” No doubt accusations of social engineering were often a useful cover for racism; but the heavy-handed methods of the integrationists made many people, white and black, uneasy.

Milgram’s communities — photogenic idylls of bourgeois racial harmony — did nothing for poor blacks.

The movement’s emphasis on squeaky-clean communities — photogenic idylls of bourgeois racial harmony — is also problematic. Milgram’s communities did nothing for poor blacks; he had made his peace with capitalism and its uneven rewards. And Concord Park, notably, provided significantly fewer homes to middle-class blacks than it would have had the houses been sold to the first would-be purchasers, who were almost all black. (George Otto had in fact proposed this course, but Milgram and other board members of both races dissuaded him.) Striking an “ideal” racial balance meant turning away qualified black buyers, a contradictory tack for civil rights activists. And because black homeowners at these developments often earned more money than their white neighbors (due to the intense black demand for housing and builders’ insistence on finding exemplary black residents), it can be argued that living in these communities allowed whites to pride themselves on consorting with blacks of a higher social status than their own, thereby distracting them from American class and power inequities writ large. The open-housing theory of change was in essence about the assuaging of white fears and prejudice. Social progress depended upon white people coming around — an idea that now seems naïve and white-centered, too accepting of institutionalized racism as a fact of life.

But these retrospective criticisms do not undercut the value of the open-housing movement, or of Morris Milgram’s crusade. Decades on, the crucial tenets of the social science research embraced by Milgram and his fellow activists have been borne out: housing is central to the achievement of equality in America; put differently, it is central to the persistence of inequality. Where we live does indeed shape our destinies. The homeownership rate for nonwhite Americans continues to lag that of whites, and the wealth accrued from homeownership by whites over generations is a major factor in the stark and persistent racial wealth gap. 32 In identifying housing as a concern — as  the key concern — open-housing advocates were ahead of their time. “Housing is everybody’s problem,” Milgram wrote. 33

Housing is central to the achievement of equality in America; put differently, it is central to the persistence of inequality.

More than half a century after Concord Park, the integrated neighborhoods that Milgram envisioned as footholds on the ladder of progress are more common, but far from widespread. Systemic racism endures (witness, for example, the predatory mortgage practices implicated in the crash of 2008). White prejudice has proved extremely stubborn. When a racial minority in a neighborhood reaches a certain threshold, whites are still likely to decamp. 34 Racial and economic segregation in public schools is actually worsening. 35 Although suburbia has diversified considerably, whites still drive the real-estate market due to their overall majority and disproportionate housing wealth. For this reason majority-minority suburbs, being less attractive to whites, tend to have lower property values, which only deepens structural inequity. 36 Plans to locate affordable housing or homeless shelters in affluent (usually majority white) neighborhoods often meet opposition as fierce as Milgram met in Deerfield in 1959, with eerily similar objections to “the process” and disingenuous disavowals of any bias.

More than half a century after Concord Park, integrated neighborhoods are more common, but far from widespread.

Milgram was an optimist by nature, but he was clear-eyed about the difficulty of countering white prejudice. He recognized that white liberals were often illiberal in the decisions they made about where to live, and he took a hard line. If people wanted a better world, they needed to vote with their feet — and their checkbooks. In Good Neighborhood, he posited “Milgram’s law”: “that the consumer who fails to state his or her determination to seek housing in such a way as to end segregation will nearly always find housing that perpetuates racial separation.” 37 In plainer language, it’s that old truth: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

At various points during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Milgram called on Americans to make personal pledges of commitment to integration. In 1970, along with Bayard Rustin and a Minneapolis congressman named Donald Fraser (under the auspices of a group called Sponsors of Open Housing Investment, or SOHI), he placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, under the heading, “Your heart may be in the right place, but are you?”

Take a look down your block. Is it all white? All black? Take a look at your school. Is it all white? All black? The chances are that, just by living where you’re living, you’re perpetuating segregation…

SOHI urged blacks to move out of black neighborhoods and whites to leave their white enclaves. Even for the time, that seems misjudged — the greater responsibility was clearly on whites, who held the overwhelming advantage in the housing market. Nevertheless, the role of personal decision-making in larger patterns of neighborhood diversity and prosperity remains a live, fraught issue for Americans of all backgrounds. 38

Greenbelt Knoll, 2017
Left: Greenbelt Knoll Historical Marker, erected 2007 by the Pennsylvania Historical Society. [via Plan Philly] Right: Greenbelt Knoll, 2017. [Amanda Kolson Hurley]

Today it is clearer than ever that the only effective way to redress the structural inequities in housing wealth — which is most Americans’ wealth — would be through muscular policy. Milgram did make a move in that direction: with civil rights leader James Farmer, he set up the Fund for an Open Society, which offered mortgage incentives for people buying homes in interracial neighborhoods. In Good Neighborhood, he argued that developers of integrated housing and individual buyers on integrated blocks ought to get special FHA financing. Interestingly, as a 21st-century corollary, a law professor recently proposed restricting the mortgage-interest tax deduction to those who own homes in neighborhoods that are at least 10 percent black. 39 No such federal policy change will happen under the current administration. In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt if more white Americans followed Milgram’s law.

Milgram wanted Concord Park to remain integrated. To that end, he asked homeowners to sign agreements giving his company the right to resell the property to the buyer of its choosing (a mechanism to ensure black-white equilibrium). After an early round of such resales, cultural and market dynamics shifted. Black housing demand was still strong. But in the ’60s and ’70s, Levittown-style suburbs and ranch houses lost their appeal for many liberal and prosperous whites. The protests that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination accelerated white flight from cities. Concord Park became majority black. In 2000, the last of its original white inhabitants, Warren and Betsy Swartzbeck, moved out, an event covered by the national press and seen as signaling the death of Morris Milgram’s dream.

Left: Larry W. Turner in front of his house in Concord Park, 2017. Right: Concord Park
Left: Larry W. Turner in front of his house in Concord Park, 2017. Right: Turner’s street in Concord Park. [Amanda Kolson Hurley]

Milgram’s idealistic vision of housing integration may be dated, but nothing about Concord Park suggests failure. Drive around the community and you’ll see houses that are occupied and well-tended, many with additions. Ironically, as a predominantly black subdivision, Concord Park has ended up solving the “housing problem” for more black people than it did when it opened. Walking up Concord Drive one day this spring, I met Larry W. Turner, a former housing inspector for the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Turner has lived in the neighborhood 16 years, and knows some of the original residents; he thought the houses had been built by the Levitts (understandably, since they were designed to look like Levittown’s). When I said I was interested in the area’s history, he hopped in my car for a short drive around both Concord Park and nearby Linconia, pointing out some of the houses that had replaced old cottages there, and a newer subdivision of single-family homes. Turner wasn’t sure if any white families lived in Concord Park, but Asian and Eastern European families are moving into Linconia, he said.

Those who grew up in Milgram’s neighborhoods, when integration was rare, say the experience was formative. “It affected me for my whole life,” Gene Milgram says. He remembers a particular interaction that took place in Greenbelt Knoll when he was young boy.

We were living in Number 5. The man who moved into Number 3 was the highest-ranking black firefighter in Philly, Roosevelt Barlow. I remember having a conversation with him one day: “So why’d you move here?” He proceeded to explain that he was living somewhere else in Philly and that he couldn’t buy a house, that builders wouldn’t sell a house to a black person. He said to me, “They wouldn’t take my money.” My reaction was, “But that’s crazy!”

David Fuller, one of the children of playwright Charles Fuller, still lives in the family home in Greenbelt Knoll. “We were a tight-knit block,” he says. “The neighbors knew the children, the children knew the neighbors. Everybody’s eyes on everybody.” Now, Longford Street is more mixed than Milgram could have imagined, with Asian and gay families. Fuller says he wouldn’t live anywhere else:

I’m a youth detention counselor in West Philadelphia. When I leave that job and come home, it’s like I’m stepping out of my work skin into peace and quiet. In the wintertime, when it snows, it looks like Narnia out here … I love the peacefulness; I love the fact that my two children and my wife will be able to see what I saw as a child. 40

Milgram influenced the next generation of progressive housing developers, like James Rouse, who implemented his own “open occupancy” policy in the New Town of Columbia in the late ’60s. But in the years since Milgram’s death, his name has fallen into obscurity. His legacy in the fight for fair housing, for all its contradictions, deserves to be remembered. William Levitt tried to justify his whites-only Levittown: “We can solve a housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.” Morris Milgram knew the problems were inextricable.

Editors' Note

This article was made possible by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

  1. The 1964 anniversary dinner dance program is in the Morris Milgram papers, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and a key source for this article. I am grateful to the society’s staff for their help.
  2. Morris Milgram, Good Neighborhood: The Challenge of Open Housing. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979), 84.
  3.  Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), 211.
  4. Sugrue, 209.
  5. See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright, 2017).
  6. Quoted in Rick Hampson, “Milgram built houses to tear down walls,” USA Today, August 4, 1997.
  7. Murray’s book Dark Testament and Other Poems was not published until 1970. Milgram wrote the introduction and raised more than $2,000 toward the initial printing costs, unbeknownst to Murray. (“I HOPE YOU remember that all these loans are confidential, not to be discussed with Pauli, who would almost certainly have refused to go along with this,” he wrote in a letter to publisher Bill Atkin.)
  8.  Good Neighborhood, 11.
  9. Ibid., 54.
  10. Ibid., 55
  11. Eunice S. and George W. Grier, Privately Developed Interracial Housing: An Analysis of Experience. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960), 46.
  12. W. Benjamin Piggot, “The ‘Problem’ of the Black Middle Class: Morris Milgram’s Concord Park and Residential Integration in Philadelphia’s Postwar Suburbs,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 132, No. 2 (April 2008), 176.
  13. Good Neighborhood, 56.
  14. Piggot, 183.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Higher average black incomes were also found in surveys of the 1960s New Town of Columbia, Maryland. Ann Forsyth, Reforming Suburbia: The Planned Communities of Irvine, Columbia, and The Woodlands. (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2005), 147.
  17. A former Concord Park resident named Natalie Thomas is preparing a book about life in the community, in collaboration with other former and current residents.
  18. Matthew P. Blanchard, “A Vision of Suburban Racial Utopia Blurs: Neighbors Who Lived in Harmony Feel a Loss: The Last Original White Homeowners Have Left,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 9, 2000.
  19. Greenbelt Knoll’s nomination to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, prepared by Charles Fuller, mentions a surviving photograph of Kahn presenting a large rendering of one of the houses to Otto and Milgram, with an inscription in Kahn’s hand: “This is wishing a marvelous success. Louis I. Kahn.” (The photograph is in the Montgomery & Bishop archive at the University of Pennsylvania.)
  20. This deference to nature suggests the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on Robert Bishop, who had been a Taliesen fellow.
  21. Joyce J. Persico, “Film Eyes Princeton Pioneers of Integration,” nj.com, Sept. 21, 2012.
  22. Much of the material about Deerfield is drawn from Harry and David Rosen, But Not Next Door (New York: Avon, 1962).
  23. Rosen and Rosen, 45.
  24. Work had actually stopped before the newspaper headline on November 15 sparked the protest. Five days earlier, Progress Development had let Deerfield ministers know their full intentions, thinking the ministers would be the best messengers to the community. Word got out. On November 13, building inspectors suddenly issued a stop-work order, citing violations of Deerfield’s building code. Builders were already working on the partitions of the model homes; they had to chop through the sheeting to the two-by-fours to expose allegedly flawed bracing. (Later, in court, one building inspector testified that he was biased against blacks and did not want any blacks to move to Deerfield.)
  25. Sugrue, 241.
  26. For an interesting account of Linconia’s history vis-à-vis Concord Park, see David Dante Troutt, The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America (New York: NYU Press, 2014), Chapter 2.
  27. Interview with Diane Ciccone, Aug. 1, 2017.
  28. Interview with Gene Milgram, July 24, 2017.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Sugrue, 220. Also in this chapter of Sweet Land of Liberty, Sugrue also details how psychological concepts of prejudice and internalized oppression influenced foundations, civil rights organizations, and liberal religious groups, and were disseminated to the general public through the press.
  32. Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro, “The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap,” Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy/Brandeis University (2017).
  33. Good Neighborhood, 54.
  34. On tipping points, see Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce, “America’s Racially Diverse Suburbs: Opportunities and Challenges,” Housing Policy Debates 23 (2013), http://doi.org/cd37, and David Card, Alexandre Mas, and Jesse Rothstein, “Are Mixed Neighborhoods Always Unstable? Two-Sided and One-Sided Tipping,” Working Paper 14470, National Bureau of Economic Research (November 2008), http://doi.org/frhbmx. For an overview of opinion as to whether residential segregation is growing or decreasing, see Thomas B. Edsall, “Whose Neighborhood Is It?” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2015. A more skeptical view of tipping points is in Daniel Kay Hertz, “Are racial ‘tipping points’ overblown?,” City Observatory, Aug. 24, 2015.
  35. “K-12 Education: Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 17, 2016.
  36. For evidence of lower rates of home-value appreciation in majority nonwhite neighborhoods, see Richard Moye, “Neighborhood racial-ethnic change and home value appreciation: evidence from Philadelphia,” Urban Geography, Vol. 35, Issue 2 (2014), http://doi.org/cd38. See also Michael Fletcher, “A Shattered Foundation: African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s have watched their wealth vanish,” The Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2015.
  37. Good Neighborhood, 21.
  38. See, for example, Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” The New York Times Magazine, June 9, 2016.
  39. Emily Badger, “A radical idea to compensate black homeowners harmed by racial bias,” Washington Post, June 21, 2016. In contrast to Farmer and Milgram, the originator of the mortgage-interest tax deduction idea, an Emory University professor named Dorothy Brown, said she had no desire to advance integration per se, but wanted to compensate black homeowners for the market penalty incurred by living in a black neighborhood.
  40. Interview with David Fuller, July 25, 2017.
Amanda Kolson Hurley, ““Housing Is Everybody’s Problem”,” Places Journal, October 2017. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/171010

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