The recent hullabaloo over whether Obama’s critics are racists reminded of a true story I almost sold to NPR about a year ago. The commentary editor for “All Things Considered” was really high on it. I know that she argued for it. But, in the end, someone she answers to turned thumbs down. I was never told why. I suspect it was deemed too controversial. I still think it needs to be told—as a reminder of how far we’ve come or, perhaps, how far we have yet to go. I also owe it to the main character of the story, the bravest person I have ever known. I am using her real name. I don’t think she would mind, and I know she deserves the recognition.
The classic American novelist Thomas Wolfe is widely remembered, among other things, for proclaiming that “you can’t go home again.“ Wolfe was right. The working-class New Castle neighborhood of Collins Park is still there, but the Collins Park in which I grew up in the late fifties and early sixties no longer exists. And that’s a very good thing.
Most people living in Delaware today have either forgotten or never heard of what happened in Collins Park in 1959. But I know I’ll never forget it. The late fifties were the days of “block-busting,” as it was then called--the first attempts on the part of black families to move in to all-white neighborhoods. My family moved to Collins Park in 1958, just a year after the first black family had tried to move in. They didn’t last long. They were driven out by shotgun blasts through their front windows.
I wish I could say that that event played no role in the decision of my working-class family to move there, but I would be lying. We had been part of the “white flight” from our previous neighborhood, Rose Hill Gardens, when “colored families,” as we called them then, began to move in. As the old saying goes, my mother and stepfather could run, but they couldn’t hide from the way the country was changing. We had only been in Collins Park for about a year when another black family--the family of George and Lucille Rayfield--had the temerity to move into a house on Collins Park’s Bellanca Lane. That was on February 24th, 1959.
Collins Park, it should be noted, had had a proud beginning. Located just north of New Castle and overlooking the Delaware River, it was the first of the post-war tract developments to be established in northern Delaware. And it was pricey by the standards of the late forties. The original buyers had been mostly upper-middle-class and even professional people. By the late fifties, however, most of the original families had moved on to more fashionable suburbs north and west of Wilmington. The Collins Park we moved to in 1958 was largely working-class and was fast becoming a redneck haven. I would like to believe that this element was largely responsible for how the neighborhood erupted when the Rayfields moved in, but otherwise “nice” people turned ugly as well.
There were frequent demonstrations, some organized and others spontaneous. Insults and rocks were hurled. A state trooper was seriously injured in a melee that erupted one day. On March 22, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the house. It did little damage but greatly heightened the tension. The entire street was cordoned off for a time, with the police allowing only residents to enter. I was strictly forbidden to go anywhere near Bellanca Lane, even though a good friend and classmate lived there.
But the most painful part for me personally was that my own mother emerged as one of the leading segregationists. She picketed. She went to and organized meetings. She even led a delegation to the house of the “block-busting” realtor who had brought the Rayfields to Collins Park. After all these years, I can still see my mother on a local television news report--red-faced and shaking her finger at the reporter’s nose. She was unabashedly declaring that “the colored don’t take care of their property; they turn everywhere they live into a slum!”
Not to defend my mother, but this was how the working-class people I knew thought back then. Segregation had kept us from learning that black people were as various in their attitudes and values as we were. There was, however, one exception, the mother of that friend who also happened to live on Bellanca Lane, Mrs. Verda Zdeb.
Looking back on it now, I can see that the Zdebs always did have the courage to be different. The late fifties, even for the working class, were a time of affluence and conspicuous consumption. But Verda and her family didn’t seem to care about keeping up with the Joneses. A World War II veteran and a college graduate, Verda’s husband John contented himself with a low-level accounting job at DuPont. He drove a stripped down, economy model Chevy with a standard transmission—a rarity in that age of status symbols and affordable convenience. If, as Emerson at the dawn of the modern age complained, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” it didn’t apply to the Zdebs. They were church people, devout Catholics who lived simply and frugally.
For that reason, everyone, it seemed, looked down on them—especially my mother. Mother, sadly, always seemed to equate happiness with owning things, and I suppose that deriding people like the Zdebs was a mark of her own insecurity, a quest for confirmation that she indeed had climbed higher in the social pecking order.
My mother, therefore, dismissed it as contemptible when Verda, one day in the middle of the mayhem, walked past her jeering neighbors, knocked on the Rayfields’ door; and, within earshot of the crowd, welcomed the Rayfields to the neighborhood. She, of course, was labeled a “n….. lover.” She was told as much in a series of anonymous late-night phone calls and unsigned letters. Some of these correspondents strongly suggested that the Zdebs too should move out.
The story does not have a happy ending. On April 7th, someone dynamited the house. Fortunately, the Rayfields were not at home. But the house was damaged beyond repair and had to be torn down.
My mother died of lung cancer in 1978. She was 56. I don’t know if she came to regret the role she played in the events of the spring of 1959. We never talked about it. Mrs. Zdeb, however, puts the lie to the old saw about only the good dying young. She is alive and well and will soon be 95. She still swims every day and has even won some medals in the Senior Olympics.
Collins Park today is a peacefully integrated community of people who, contrary to my mother’s fears, seem to be taking good care of the neighborhood. (I understand that black families began to move in during the early eighties--without fanfare or special notice.) Where the Rayfields once dared to live there is now a little park. The neighbors on both sides bought the property. They put in a bench and planted some flowers. Still, passersby must wonder why on a street of evenly spaced two-story houses there is such a singular space between two of them.
Despite how so many of my friends and neighbors behaved during that spring of 1959, I’d like to believe that most of them, including my mother, were not really bad people. I’ll leave that to others to judge. But this much I know: I knew only one good person living in Collins Park at the time--the bravest person I’ve ever known, Mrs. Verda Zdeb.
--EFP (The first photo is Mrs. Verda Zdeb. The second is of Mrs. Zdeb and her son Fred. I took both in December, 2005.)