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Housing Desegregation in a Small Town

In the summer of 1958, Swarthmore, Pa., a small Pennsylvania town west of Philadelphia, was challenged to its core.

North Princeton Avenue residents Clarence (Mike) Yarrow and his wife Margaret offered their house for sale on the open market, assertively seeking an African-American family to buy it. Their action became controversial.

Mike Yarrow, who worked for American Friends Service Committee, was being transferred to the Des Moines office. He was also president of Friends Suburban Housing, a unique real estate firm that accepted only listings that could be shown on a nondiscriminatory basis. Both he and his wife strongly supported ending housing segregation, not fostering its continuation. At the time, black families in Swarthmore lived only in the section that was unofficially designated for people of color.

Unthinkable Friends letter

A July 1958 letter written to Mike Yarrow and signed by 39 Swarthmore Quakers was recently discovered in papers of the Earle and Marjorie Edwards family. The letter expresses ideas that now seem unthinkable among Quakers, especially given our reputation, much deserved, for being a mainstay of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.

The Yarrows were members of Swarthmore Friends Meeting. The letter from their fellow Quakers says, in part:

Regardless of the principles underlying the problem of integration, it is a cold, hard, economic fact that property decreases in value when negroes [sic] move into a neighborhood. We feel that you are deliberately depreciating the value of your neighbors’ real estate when you sell your home to colored people. . . . This move that you are contemplating will cause unrest, anger and distress in the community that has been your home, and that you are leaving. Also, it will probably again place the Society of Friends in an unfavorable and unfair position in the eyes of the public. [We] beg you to reconsider your plan . . . and to withdraw from your apparent position of discrimination against white buyers.

Numbers of Quakers oppose integrated housing at first

At the July meeting for business at Swarthmore Friends Meeting, most of those who spoke were opposed to integrating housing in Swarthmore. What then took place in Swarthmore Friends Meeting, in the face of this significant opposition, is a lesson in social change.

The meeting minutes, letters, and documents in the archives of Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College provide a glimpse into this contentious time. In the early months of 1958, the meeting’s Race Relations Committee held weekly gatherings for discussion, singing, and speakers, seeking to bring about more openness about race relations. These steps were spurred on by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Race Relations Committee, which oversaw work on the issue for the whole Philadelphia area.

In the months following the Yarrows’ decision to put their house on the open market, the business of the meeting was virtually put on hold. Instead, discussion after discussion of the controversy took place, with the members trying to seek “a basis of mutual understanding and respect.”

Special forum begins to change opinion

In November 1958, a panel discussion, planned by the meeting’s Race Relations Committee and attended by more than 100 people, turned out to be memorable. The presenters included Arthur Binns, a real estate developer; Anna Harvey Jones, a representative of Friends Suburban Housing; Jean Fairfax, director of AFSC’s southern civil rights work; and Charles Seymour, a real restate appraiser. Several other real estate professionals also attended.

Anna Harvey Jones reported that where Friends Suburban Housing was involved, housing values had not declined. While some speakers promoted compromising by allowing time for gradual education about the issue, Jones noted that Quakers who opposed slavery had not been deterred by arguments about financial losses of slave owners but had sought a rapid end to the institution.

In addition, Jean Fairfax evidently swayed many with her conviction that, even apart from the moral issues, experience of diversity is a crucial part of children’s education. She also noted that housing segregation created dishonesty. By this time, an African American family that had moved into a house in the traditionally white part of town had been well received, and another African American family was moving in the next month. Despite people’s fears, Fairfax said, housing values had not declined.

Remembering scary times

The Yarrow family in 1958

Doug Yarrow, the Yarrows’ middle son, who was 15 during the summer of 1958, remembers Swarthmore’s usual tranquility was shaken after his parents put their house up for sale. The borderline hysteria ranged from refined to crude. Groups of women visited his mother during the day, hoping to change her mind. During the evening, groups of men sat in the living room with his father trying to dissuade him from selling to a black family. Later at night there was yelling from the street, and cans were thrown onto the front stoop of his house. Several times there were calls past midnight: “I am going to burn your house down,” said one caller; other times there was just breathing and hang-ups.

Doug’s father, Mike Yarrow, spent one night in nearby Rutledge in a house, listed with Friends Suburban Housing, to make sure it wasn’t burned. (This may have been the home that later was gutted by fire the night before the Raymonds, an African American family, were to have moved in.)

At one point that summer, Margaret Yarrow took Doug and his brother Burr, who was eight years old, for a few days of respite from the stress. Doug remembers his relief when they returned and found their house still intact. It was a scary summer for the family, he recalls. He felt like an outcast in his formerly friendly community.

Just before the Yarrows moved, a group of Doug’s school chums gave him a warm and much appreciated send-off. Unable to find a black buyer, the Yarrows ended up selling their house to a white family.

Statement of principle against segregation doesn’t win consensus for three years

Beginning in the spring of 1959, Swarthmore Quakers tried for the next two years to reach agreement on a statement opposing segregation. Led by the meeting’s Race Relations Committee (later called the Human Relations Committee), the following statement of principle was proposed: “We recognize our moral obligation as a Community of Friends to welcome newcomers as neighbors without regard to their religion, race, or national origin.” The principle was presented to the meeting in March 1961. A decision to have it approved as an official minute was held over for a month, and then another month, while forums were held in an effort to reach consensus among all members.

Racist ad in Swarthmorean

Then in April 1961, an ad was placed in the Swarthmorean (the town’s weekly paper) by the Swarthmore Property Owners’ Association. Its stated objective was “to promote the best interest of the owners of real estate and to assist in maintaining Swarthmore as a desirable residential community,” adding that “we feel . . . that membership in the Association is insurance that your interests as property owners are the concern of other owners like yourselves.” (It didn’t take much savvy to read between the lines and grasp what “desirable” and “owners like yourselves” meant.)

Two young Quaker couples write anti-discrimination ad

In May 1961, as the Friends Meeting was getting close to approving its statement supporting integration, two young couples who attended meeting, Anne and Ken Rawson and Esther and Alburt Rosenberg, sent the following statement to the Swarthmorean:

As individuals concerned with the community of Swarthmore, our country, and our world, we declare our conviction that neither the color of a man’s skin, his nationality, nor his professed creed, are in any way related to his basic worth as an individual. We therefore believe that these characteristics should in no way prejudice the community’s response to individuals who desire to enter our boundaries, visit our residents, work in our homes or businesses, eat, play, or live among us.

The statement, which appeared in a paid ad, was published in the Swarthmorean three times with an invitation to the public to sign on. Within two weeks, 291 supporters’ names were published. (While my mother signed this statement, my father did not. One of my sisters remembers that our father had been admonished by his employer for not opposing the Yarrows’ action.)

Why the Rawsons and Rosenbergs made their stand

Now a resident of Harwich, Mass., on Cape Cod, Al Rosenberg, who taught biology and physics at Swarthmore College from 1959 to the mid-’80s, said that “placing that open-letter ad [in the Swarthmorean] was a way to refute realtors’ stated assumptions and change the practice of prejudice.” Furthermore, Al wrote: “I had understood that the effort to have a meeting statement right then arose from an incident that year in which a local realtor was caught not showing a black family all the available housing stock. When challenged by a Friend, [the realtor] said he was only following the wishes of the community, to which the Friend replied that such was not completely the case because Quakers thought otherwise. The story goes that the realtor then said that he particularly had some Friends in mind who agreed with his actions.”

Citing a recent conversation with his former wife, Esther Darlington of Ithaca, N.Y., Al said she referred to writing the statement as “just the right thing to do.” He also said that when the ad was written, he believed that Swarthmore Friends Meeting “was probably not going to come out with a statement, and as it had gone thus far, the language was heading to a watered-down version.”

The Rawsons, who met as Swarthmore College students and worked at the college, are still living in the borough. They recently described Swarthmore of 50 or so years ago, as “socially, a conservative community.” Was it surprising to them that there would be a faction in the community of Friends that was not supportive of fair housing? “It surprised us at the time,” they said.

Swarthmore’s village center in the 1950s
Swarthmore Historical Society

After the ad was published, a member of Swarthmore Meeting wrote a letter to the Rawsons thanking them for their public stand:

I want to congratulate both of you couples on the statement. I know it’s a disappointment to many in the meeting that the monthly meeting wouldn’t make a minute, . . . but Swarthmore has always been unwilling to make statements: I can’t recall a single one. Personally I don’t want the meeting split; I would rather accept the situation and have leadership come from elsewhere, and I think you two couples have provided it, and I, among others I’m sure, am very grateful to you.

We might infer that members of the meeting came to consensus shortly after the last ad because they were prodded by those 291 townspeople (many of whom were not Quakers) who signed the Rawson/Rosenberg appeal. But we may never know for sure.

Consensus at last for integrated housing, though Quakers not ready to make it public

To the credit of the Swarthmore Friends Meeting, people of very divergent viewpoints were finally able to reach consensus as the result of a long and thoughtful process of discussion and education. The statement of principle was made an official minute of the meeting on June 20, 1961. Although the Race Relations Committee originally intended the statement to be delivered to local realtors and made public, it appears that there was not sufficient unity to do more than make the statement part of the meeting’s records.

What lessons might be drawn from this history?

One lesson is that taking a courageous, values-based stand that is at odds with the norms of the times may bring wrath down on one’s head (as well as one’s family), but it forces others to make decisions they might rather have avoided. In other words, courageous stands catalyze change.

Another lesson is that publicly standing up and being counted is an important action to be taken by members of a community.

A third at an organization (such as Friends Suburban Housing) can play a vital part in both providing evidence of what is possible and in preparing and supporting individuals who want to take a stand.

A fourth lesson is that initial opposition can be overcome by a process of dialogue and education.

If we look at Swarthmore today, there are many more people of color than there were in the 1960s. Both the once black and white sections have been integrated. We can be proud of those neighbors 50 years ago who took a risk for what they thought was right, and we can also recognize that many of those who initially opposed the change nevertheless came to accept it.

Why review these unpleasant memories?

We must know our history to know who we were then, to help us know who we are now, and perhaps to help us toward a better tomorrow. The process of learning and change that was going on in Swarthmore at that time was mirrored in changes occurring throughout the nation. But without one Quaker family standing up to be counted, who knows how much longer it would have taken to see these changes come to Swarthmore?

As Doug Yarrow, Margaret and Mike’s son, said recently:

Our family’s decision to put our house on the open market in Swarthmore was courageous and remarkable for that time and place, but for a family that believed that you should love your neighbor as yourself, that all people are created equal and should be treated as equals, that segregation is abhorrent, that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, and that there is that of God in everyone, the decision to encourage a black family to move to Swarthmore was the obvious thing to do.


This article contains contributions from Jan Edwards Alexander, Barb Edwards Banet, Stephen Lehmann, Mary Lee Coe Fowler, Doug Yarrow.

Sue Carroll Edwards grew up in Swarthmore, Pa., as a member of Swarthmore Friends Meeting. She returned to Swarthmore with her husband and two sons in 1989 and rejoined the meeting. A former drill press operator and then preschool teacher, she has more recently worked with adults with disabilities at Horizon House in Philadelphia. Now retired, she is an activist for peace and reducing climate change.

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