July 1967. Northern New Jersey, 12 miles outside of New York City. My older brother, Tom, then a high school student, had a summer job in Newark, New Jersey at Lafayette Radio. The city erupted in race-related riots to the extent that my brother was instructed to miss work and stay home for a few days. A white face could have been a target.
The New Jersey neighborhood where we lived had been mostly populated since the early twentieth century by Dutch and German immigrants, and then the children of Dutch and German immigrants. If you crossed over one major avenue in one direction, it was the Jewish neighborhood. If you were to walk past our elementary school, you had the Italian neighborhood to the right, and the Polish neighborhood to the left. So, I grew up with a fair amount of diversity, although everyone was of European ancestry.
So, I think it was the same summer, that the old couple, the Muldners, in the house next door finally passed away. Their house went on the market. The for-sale sign went up, and people started looking at the house on Clinton Avenue. One couple shopping for a home who looked at the Muldner’s former house was African-American. I thought it was kind of neat. I just hoped there would be kids to play with.
So, maybe a few days later, I was at home with Dad, and the doorbell rang. Dad got there first, but I was nosy and stepped out onto the window-lined porch behind him. A man I had never seen before stood there, a clipboard in his hand. He began explaining that he’d started a petition to prevent anyone Black from buying that house next door to us. And, the man conjectured, we’d probably want to sign it, as these would be our neighbors. After all, having one Black family move in would invite others, and then the property values would go down, and who would want that?
What happened next had a profound influence on the rest of my life. My father said “NO.” He said it strongly. Then he gave the man a lecture about how that house next door could be purchased by anyone who had the money. And that he, or any petition, had no say in the matter. The petitioner was quite surprised. He tried to argue. Dad would have none of it, and shut the front door on him. I was so proud of my Dad that day.
It also made me wonder. I went to a large school, which had only white kids. Tom went to the new high school with over 3,000 kids, and they were all white. Why was that? Dad taught in a high school in an adjacent community, and there were students of color there. Later it came to light that the realtors in the area had gotten together and formed an agreement, that they would show no houses in our city to any people of color. I felt embarrassed.
A few times in my life, I have had to stand up for something, something not everyone agreed with. Adults, not just kids exert peer pressure sometimes. I remember he also became president of his teacher’s union – twice. I remember he stood up for worker’s rights in a labor strike as a young carpenter.
The image of my father on the porch always comes to me. It calls up strength. It calls up legacy. I am reminded that I am my father’s daughter.