All interviews were taped and documented.  They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library.  The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.

NARRATOR: Rose Levitt
INTERVIEWER: Helen Klein
DATE OF INTERVIEW:    March 13, 1985
TRANSCRIBER: Jackie Kinney (7/1985)

This is Helen Klein and I'm interviewing Rose Levitt of 313 Rutland Avenue.

(I) Mrs. Levitt, when did you first come to Teaneck?

(N) In 1948 .

(I) And how did you find Teaneck at that time? 

(N) Well, it was very soon after the war and it wasn't very populated. We lived on the other side of town. We bought a very small house because my husband was a veteran and he got the house without a down payment so we had a little attached house and it was a lovely community. We came here because a friend of his sister lived here and he used to come out here, this was the country as far as he was concerned coming from Brooklyn. 

{I) In other words, there were no farms left in Teaneck when you came.

(N) Well, there were one or two. I remember there was one on Teaneck Road where the phone company is right now. It was a sheep farm.  That' s the only one that was really in the area. There were some down closer to River Road, there was a farm down there and it was bought up when the town was going to go for Green Acres but then nothing ever happened. I think there is a shooting range there now.

(I) I don't think that is there anymore but there is a park there. In other words, you had no children when you first moved here or did you?

(N) Oh no. No, we didn't have children. We lived here for seven years before we had children.

(I) And how did you first get involved in town affairs?

(N) Well we lived on the borderline with Englewood and the first black family moved in and there was is terrible uproar and people running around, what are we going to do, what are we going to do? And that made me very unhappy because it never occurred to me that blacks would do anything terrible to me, particularly people that would come out here and buy their own home. I mean they were no different from us. And after a few black families did move in and it looked as though the neighborhood was going to change drastically, a lot of blockbusting, realtors, real estate agents would come around and there was a woman named Thelma Slappy who had belonged to a Fair Housing Committee I think somewhere in Brooklyn and she was living on the street parallel to us, I don't even know the name of it, a very short street. We were on Nelby Road and she was on the street that was coming around this way and she came around and told us that it would be very good if we joined together to stop the blockbusting and stand up to the realtors and so we formed a Fair Housing Committee and many, many whites joined.

There weren't that many blacks living in Teaneck at the time but as more and more blacks came in, it really escalated and we formed a testing committee. We looked for ads in the paper and a white couple, two white people would go and ask to see the house and naturally were always shown the house. They never even qualified us or anything. And then another team would come, a black team would come, and if they were denied entry, they wouldn't show them the houses, and then we would go to the Real Estate Board and got a lot of people houses at the time and then later the Fair Housing Committee which was just Teaneck became the Bergen County Fair Housing Committee and it is still in existence and it is doing very, very well and they've helped many, many people to get houses. And I'm really not very active in it any more. However, I am still a member and pay my dues but I feel that there are so many younger people now, others can go ahead and do it. We were in on the ground floor. It was a terrible time but it was an exciting time because there were a lot of good people that came together and worked very hard to try and make Teaneck what it is today. I think a truly integrated, cosmopolitan town. We have a few black families living on this block and they move out and whites move in. I mean it is very normal, very natural now and it is incredible to me that there are still people who would be afraid to live next door to blacks. 

(I) I did want to ask one thing. What about the blockbusting. How did people, how did the realtors try to blockbust?

(N) They would come to your house and say, do you know what is happening to your neighborhood? And of course I would always play dumb and I would say, No, what is happening to my neighborhood? And they would say, blacks are moving in.  And we would try to be very quiet and then work, after they were gone, take their names and everything and report the realtors themselves or the real estate commission, I think, worked very hard against the Fair House Law because if they could blockbust, if they could get an area where they could bring blacks, they would make a lot of money.  So it was to their advantage to frighten people.  You know, their property value would go down, you have children, do you want your children to marry a black? I mean all the terrible cliches, the stupid, unbelievable things that they would say.  They weren't even careful.  They didn't know how we felt.  And yet they would come to the door and just assume because you were white that you  would not want a person of another race to live next door to you.

(I) There is some indication from time to time that there is still steering whites away from Teaneck to other places. Do you know anything about that?

(N) Absolutely. Not first hand but I hear this because I still have friends, I mean this is a terrible thing to say, some of my friends are black.. I don't mean it that way but we still have people that are good friends over the years and they still live over there and they say that only blacks are brought to the northeast section to be shown homes because they feel that they have a place to bring 'blacks' to. And a lot of other towns, very covertly I am sure, are not encouraging blacks to move in. We had a neighbor next door, black, and very, very lovely people but they outgrew their house and they bought another much better house and they moved to Mahwah and whites have moved in and they bought this gorgeous house in Mahwah and I am sure that Mahwah was a little upset except that he was a slight celebrity.

(1) Tell me, when you moved into Teaneck in 1948 was there any indication to you that there was any anti-semitism?

(N) Well, yes. There was. Because when we went to buy this house, people who lived here asked us how we happened, they knew that we lived on the other side of town and our name is Levitt which is obviously a Jewish name except if you are from New England then it is not a Jewish name. But they said how did you happen to come over to this side of town and we said well friends of ours live on Warwick and they said Warwick. Well what's your friends' name and we said Cohen. They said Cohen lives on Warwick and then I was so innocent and then I realized they were worried about me. What kind of a Jew am I. Am I going to be a good neighbor for the Murphy's on this side and for the Mall's on that side but they called and they found out that the Cohen's were very nice neighbors so we were acceptable and they gave us a break and sold us their house. And for many years after we lived here, people still refer to this house as the Keiffer house and not the Levitt house. It was so funny.

(I) But when you moved into the neighborhood, you didn't find any specific nastiness or anything, did you?

(N) No, no, no because there was one Jewish family across the street, Martha and Alexander, who came right over and welcomed us and then the Murphys on this side and Mrs. Mall and Mr. Mallon the other side were just, they couldn't have been nicer. We had children at that time, that's why we moved.

(I) What year was that? 

(N) Let's see. Peter was born in 1954 so that must have been 1956 because he was not quite two years old and they were just like, the people next door were just like grandparents to our children. They were lovely so we had a lovely experience living here but I do remember that. That was very funny. We had to be checked out to make sure that we were the right kind of Jews. However, I heard the principal of our school, and this upset me terribly, say when all this integration business was going on, this was at Whittier School at a PTA meeting. I think I was vice president of the PTA at that time and she was talking about what a wonderful woman she was and she was. She was a fantastic principal and she ran a marvelous school. Our kids had a wonderful education. But this was something she probably didn't even realize that she was saying that she integrated the school many, many years ago and we all looked at her. And she said, when the Jews moved in. So she integrated her school without any problems, you know.

(I) And then when your children started going to school, that's when you got interested in the PTA and that must have been about 1958 . .

(N) Let's see. Susie was born in 1952. Yes, 1958, 57/58, just after the junior high was built down here.

(I) Ben Franklin?

(N) Yes.

(I) So you weren't involved with any of the ruckus about building new schools in Teaneck. You were after that.

(N) No. Because I went to business. I went to work and I wasn't ever home you know. But when Peter was in sixth grade, I think that's when they made the school over at Bryant School, and all the children, sixth grade school that's what it was, that was the beginning of integration and he was in that first class but. .

(I) Had you been active in any of this before that?

(N) Well, I'd been, when the talks started about integrating the schools, I mean I was all for it but I had grown up in a totally integrated area and I thought it would be very nice if my own children, our children, could become raised in an integrated area with all kinds of people. I think it is terrible to live in a ghetto that isn't even a bad ghetto, any kind of a ghetto, so we became very active immediately. We went to board meetings every month.

(I) How did it come about? How did it start? Through the PTAs or . .

(N) No, Dr. Scribner was the superintendent of schools at the time and they were trying very hard to do it without being forced to do it because Teaneck I think was the first town in the whole country to integrate its schools without an order. it was de facto segregation because the school, Bryant School, had really turned into practically an all black school because with the northeast section having turned, having so many black families and the black families were very upset and I am sure that some black families got together originally, I am sure, people like the Laceys, Theodora, do you-know them?

(I) I know who they are. And Lamar Jones by any choice?

(N) Lamar was on the board. I don't know how active, I mean how active he was but he did run for the board. He didn't have any children at that time. I am trying to think who was so terribly active. Later Tom Boyd came into it and Isaac McNatt and Gladys, they were very, very active in Fair Housing too as was Tom Boyd. The Slappys didn't have children but they were active all the time, active in everything. So many people were active, I hate to call names because at this point, what is it, twenty years ago, and you really forget but we were having an election of the board. That's what really started it. A Board of Education election and that became the whole big issue. There was a Dr. Warner who was opposed to the integration of the schools and this was his platform and he really caused a lot, I don't, know whether he personally because I didn't have too much, after I'd exchanged one or two words with him, I never even talked to him but possibly the people around him, maybe the people who were around in his campaign, thought this would be a good way to get in. Whether he was bigoted himself or not or if this was just kind of an expedient way to, an issue to be grabbed hold of, I don't know. I would never call anybody a bigot without knowing. But this was his platform and it was put more positively than that. He was for neighborhood schools. You want your children to come home for a hot lunch. I mean most of the mothers in Teaneck never gave, I mean this became this big thing, they all sat up and screamed, my kids have to have a hot lunch. It was so ridiculous. The feelings ran so deeply that people who were friends, I mean I had a very nice friend who lived just a block and a half away, and we never talked after that because she was from Germany and she was a refugee and there was a man who was very, very active. His name was Itsy, oh I can't remember his last name, so he said he would go with me to her to ask her please to vote for the integration and it was very bitter. It was just awful. We never talked, we never spoke after that. He as a man who had come out of Germany and alive and she probably as a very small child, couldn't understand that she would not want to give someone else the right, Americans, I mean, to go to school in the place they chose. It was awful, so strange and so bitter and there were people who just never talked after that for years and years and years.

(I) How did you campaign for it? Did you. .

{N) We went door to door. I'll never forget. In January, my friend Ruth Kessler and I, she still lives over here on Ogden Avenue, it was bitter cold, it was horrible and our husbands thought we were insane but we were given an area to cover and we went door to door and we explained that we had children in the schools and we loved our children and we want our children to have a good education and we couldn't understand by exposing them to other children, just because their skins were different, how this was going to harm them. It was probably going to be better for them. And some people were very nice to us, some people slammed the door in our face and called us names and a Jew is a nigger turned inside out and oh awful things. When I think about it, I can't believe it. But Ruth and I, we went, we had this whole area in West Englewood from here down to River Road and we had this list of homes and we just knocked on doors and we went to board meetings and talked to people. We wrote letters to the editor. It was exciting but it was a horrible time and it was an exhausting time and it really opened my eyes. I don't know how I could have been all that naive. But we saw things that you wouldn't believe, that people could behave the way they did over nothing.

(I) How did the Parents Association show up in these things?

(N) Well, the PTA didn't take a stand as a whole. 

(I) At all?

(N) I don't remember them taking. .

(I) In other words, it was individuals going to the board of education and speaking about it.

(N) Oh yes. We would go and we would get up and talk and Dr. Scribner's life was threatened. He had guards. He had a coke bottle thrown at him and it just missed his head by I don't know. It was awful. It was really terrible. Just a terrible time.

(I) About how long did this go on?

(N) It seemed like forever but it was really when that election, that one election that was so bitter and then after that, I am not sure when Lamar, you can probably check, when he ran and when he was elected and then after that, a few years later, quite a few blacks, Mrs. Meisereau, Ann Meisereau, and Loretta Thom, I don't think it is such a big issue any more. Another big issue was, of course, trying to get the blacks to come out to vote.

(I) You mean in the School Board election? 

(N) Yes. Of course at the very, very beginning, there weren't that many blacks but nevertheless, we needed all the votes we could get.

(I) Well now the sixth grade in Bryant School changed after a while.

(N) Yes. It is now kindergarten and first and second and maybe even third. I think it has just changed now.

(I) And that's when the big fuss came because there was busing and the children went from one place to another.

(N) Well the children were bused, there was a central kindergarten, two central kindergartens, Washington Irving was one I think. Well people were saying, people who were busing their children to camp, would bus little three year olds you know, get them out of the house in the summertime so they could go play tennis or whatever, were suddenly screaming, put my baby on a bus and not give them hot lunch. You know, all this made up terrible stuff. And of course other schools weren't equipped with lunchrooms and this was always a big thing. I don't know why the food was always such a big thing but it was absolutely ridiculous. But some people were truly concerned about putting their children on buses but I don't know what it was, whether it was fear of the unknown or whether they just wanted their kids to walk, but it was completely out of all proportions. The anger, the craziness that went on.

(I) But you did win in the end? 

(N) Yeah, we won.

(I) So you must have had a great deal of support all the time. 

(N) Well Teaneck has always been a wonderful town and I think it is close enough to the city, when I say the city, New York City, that people, most people had always known all kinds of people but I think they had a stake in their home and they were told the property values would go down and nobody would ever come to Teaneck again. It would turn to an all black community. And it was just preying on people's fears was what it was. And a lot of people bought it. They may have had these latent feelings, I don't know, and they were supported in their fears. I mean it wasn't all smooth, there were a lot of problems. People had chips on their shoulder, people didn't trust each other. A lot of blacks wondered why the whites were fighting for them. What was in it for them,. you know we are all human and we all wonder about self-interest and why are we doing this and, has the name Orra Davage come up?

(I) Yeah, I know who she is. Was she involved in this?

(N) She was involved, yes. In fact, we had had, before our children's school, we started a cooperative nursery school here in Teaneck. Evelyn Span, Vivien Graboff, myself,. Marion Pearlman and one other person, Irene Goldman, isn't that terrible, my dear, sweet friend.. Three of those women are dead now. Vivien is dead, Irene is dead and Marion is dead. And we started a coop nursery school and after the first year, Orra and her husband Bob, came to observe and their oldest son. . and so we became quite friendly through that and she was very involved in the integration. But she came to town much, much, much later. In the 50s.

(I) This all went on, when did you finally get the School Board in the one that voted for the busing?

(N) That must have been, wait I'll think, about 1963.

(I) And everything did work out and calm down. (inaudible) 

(N) Now? No, people accept it. I mean it is, you know, 

(I) A matter of course.

(N) It is just a matter of course. And then the town itself is true integrated now because there are blacks, there are Japanese, there are Indians right down the block. This block is fantastic. We have right on this block, this is the best block in Teaneck. Just wonderful.

(I) Tell me, there was also another little situation that came up about the town pool, a town pool.

(N) Well that's why we don't have one. That's true. 

(I) But we have a private pool on public land.

(N) And I never joined it because of that. I refused to. 

(I) Were you involved in any of that?

(N) No. By that time, I was disgusted. I just couldn't face people, ugly people like that anymore. I didn't need it anymore really. And there were other people that were fighting a good fight so . .

(I) In the 60s, up here in 63, do you know anything about what went on in town during the Viet Nam War? Was there any. . or did you have anything to do with the Women's Fight For Peace or any of those groups?

(N) Well, there was a woman named Franklin, what was her first name, and I marched in Englewood. Ruth Glick and I we marched with Mothers for Peace or Women Against the War but not, I mean, I wrote letters, I am a great letter writer. I write letters a lot. And that's what I was doing. I was busy working and going to school and I mean it sounds like an excuse, but I was going to college full time during the day, taking care of the house and the kids and working so I really didn't have too much time but at college, William Patterson, because I was there during Kent State and we had a strike. In fact, we graduated and we all painted peace signs, all the twenty year olds and my friend Muriel and me, we painted peace signs on mortarboards so that when we stood up and put our heads down, there were all these peace signs. So I did that. But I was vocal, I talked to people but no, I wasn't helping. .

(I) Can we talk about the Teaneck Citizens for Public Schools?

(N) Sure. Ruth and Harold Glick were really the ones who started that. Ruth was very, very anxious to give support to Dr. Scribner and he really needed all the help he could get on the board and everything. So this was not a political group. It was political but it was issue oriented and since the members who had been running for the Board of Ed would come to us just as they would go to the League of Women Voters and explain what their platform was and we would try to encourage people to run for the board who had similar interests as we did to continue integration of the schools and to make the schools better and to, just whatever we felt would be better for the children, for the students, for the town of Teaneck actually.

(I) Were there any other particular accomplishments aside from the integration that you feel are owed to the Teaneck Citizens for Public Schools?

(N) No but I think that they went, they were kind of watchdogs almost. We would go to all the board meetings and we would always speak up on the agenda and we would try to know, to be informed so that when we got up, we wouldn't sound like fools although occasionally our motions would get the better of us, you know, and we would act all silly. But I am just trying to think, I wish I could come up with something concrete but I just felt that it was just a good group that kind of kept people on the board and the superintendent, not that he needed to be kept on his toes, but made him aware that we were behind him. I guess we encouraged, whenever we heard that things were going on in the school, perhaps some rifts between children or something, and that happened naturally, we always tried to get in there and find out what it was and tried to help in any way we could. There was a time when there was a strike at the schools, did you know about that, about the chemistry of Mr. Nash, he was the chemistry teacher. And he felt that the lab was unsafe and he got his students to take over something and they stayed in the school all night.

(I) When was this?

(N) Good question. It must have been in the late 60s, early 70s. My daughter could probably tell you more about that but she is nowhere around. So the kids stayed in school overnight and Mr. Nash also said that the kids were being tracked so that no blacks were in honors courses. There was a whole lot of that going on. He was arrested and brought out and they had a trial for him and oh it was really a big todo. He was fired or he resigned or I don't know what happened to the poor man but a lot of people said that he wasn't, you know, but I think he had a really good, how can I put it, he had a good point because the labs were probably not as good as they might have been. I think they needed better flushing water in case they had an accident and I THINK as a result of his staging this strike, things were made better at the high school and the labs and he, I think, was let go or he resigned because it was very unpleasant but it was very, oh the talk of the town that Teaneck would have something like this happen.

(I) Do you know anything about the open classrooms? Oh, let's talk about the honors courses first because it is different now, isn't it, the honors courses.

(N) You mean the alternative school.

(I) Well I was going into that but let's finish up with the honors courses because you said they felt they were tracking blacks away from the honors course.

(N) Yes, absolutely. A lot of black parents felt that the guidance counselors were counseling their children to not take academic courses but to take either business or trade or something and when you looked at the honors courses, they were really all white mostly at the beginning anyhow. I guess black parents went to the school and protested and little by little, they allowed kids to take academic courses. It wasn't over but it was, in the way. that they, the youngsters were counseled and the blacks had this idea, had this feeling that they weren't being allowed to take them but of course that's not so now.

(END OF TAPE)

 

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