Edward F. Palm: The Way We Were — Collins Park, 1959 | Columnists

Edward F. Palm

In 2012, The New York Times reported that racially segregated communities were all but a thing of the past in America. February being Black History Month, I thought I would remind readers that desegregated neighborhoods were hard won. There’s a vacant lot at 107 Bellanca Lane in Collins Park, the working-class housing estate in New Castle, Delaware, where I grew up. What happened there in 1959 has been largely forgotten by most Delawares. But I know I will never forget it. It was the era of “blockbusting” – the first attempts by black families to move into all-white neighborhoods. We moved to Collins Park in 1958, just a year after the first black family tried to settle there. They were quickly chased away by shotgun blasts through their front windows. I wish I could say that this event played no role in my working-class family’s decision to move there. We had left our previous neighborhood as part of the “white flight” exodus, as it was then called, when black families started moving in. My mother and stepfather were therefore horrified when in February 1959 a second black family crossed the Collins Park Color Line. George and Lucille Rayfield’s family moved into the house at 107 Bellanca Lane. The Rayfields were the kind of African-American racists called “uppity” and hated with a passion at the time. The Rayfields had a thriving garbage collection business. Most of the people in Collins Park were their customers. But that earned the Rayfields no points toward acceptance. They soon found themselves under siege. There were constant protests. Insults and stones were thrown. Police cordoned off the street, allowing only residents to enter. I was strictly forbidden to go anywhere near Bellanca Lane, even though my best friend lived there. But the most painful part for me personally was that my mother became one of the leading segregationists and even spokesperson for the racist Collins Park Civic Association. Her 15 minutes of infamy came when she was shown on local TV waving a finger in a reporter’s face and deeming “people of color are turning into slums everywhere”. Not to defend my mother, but that’s how most people we knew in Delaware thought at the time. Segregation had prevented us from learning that African Americans were just as different as we were in their attitudes and values. I wish I could say the story had a happy ending. On April 7, the house was heavily damaged by a bomb. With the help of local civil rights leaders, the Rayfields repaired the damage and returned. Then, in the early morning hours of August 3, someone detonated an even bigger bomb. Fortunately, the Rayfields were absent and unhurt during the two bombardments. But this second bomb damaged the house beyond repair. It had to be demolished. The scar of that attack, the wasteland, is still there. But Collins Park today is a peacefully integrated working-class community. As for my mother, she died of lung cancer in 1978. She was 56 years old. I don’t know if she came to regret her role in the events of the spring of 1959. We never talked about it.

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In 2012, The New York Times reported that racially segregated communities were all but a thing of the past in America. February being Black History Month, I thought I would remind readers that desegregated neighborhoods were hard won.

There’s a vacant lot at 107 Bellanca Lane in Collins Park, the working-class housing estate in New Castle, Delaware, where I grew up. What happened there in 1959 has been largely forgotten by most Delawares. But I know I will never forget it.

It was the era of “blockbusting” – the first attempts by black families to move into all-white neighborhoods. We moved to Collins Park in 1958, just a year after the first black family tried to settle there. They were quickly chased away by shotgun blasts through their front windows.

I wish I could say that this event played no role in my working-class family’s decision to move there. We had left our previous neighborhood as part of the “white flight” exodus, as it was then called, when black families started moving in. My mother and stepfather were therefore horrified when in February 1959 a second black family crossed the Collins Park Color Line. George and Lucille Rayfield’s family moved into the house at 107 Bellanca Lane.

The Rayfields were the kind of African-American racists called “uppity” and hated with a passion at the time. The Rayfields had a thriving garbage collection business. Most of the people in Collins Park were their customers. But that earned the Rayfields no points toward acceptance. They soon found themselves under siege.

There were constant protests. Insults and stones were thrown. Police cordoned off the street, allowing only residents to enter. I was strictly forbidden to go anywhere near Bellanca Lane, even though my best friend lived there. But the most painful part for me personally was that my mother became one of the leading segregationists and even spokesperson for the racist Collins Park Civic Association. Her 15 minutes of infamy came when she was shown on local TV waving a finger in a reporter’s face and deeming “people of color are turning into slums everywhere”.

Not to defend my mother, but that’s how most people we knew in Delaware thought at the time. Segregation had prevented us from learning that African Americans were just as different as we were in their attitudes and values.

I wish I could say the story had a happy ending. On April 7, the house was heavily damaged by a bomb. With the help of local civil rights leaders, the Rayfields repaired the damage and returned. Then, in the early morning hours of August 3, someone detonated an even bigger bomb. Fortunately, the Rayfields were absent and unhurt during the two bombardments. But this second bomb damaged the house beyond repair. It had to be demolished.

The scar of that attack, the wasteland, is still there. But Collins Park today is a peacefully integrated working-class community. As for my mother, she died of lung cancer in 1978. She was 56 years old. I don’t know if she came to regret her role in the events of the spring of 1959. We never talked about it.

A former enlisted sailor and Vietnam veteran, Palm retired from the Marine Corps as a major and pursued an academic career. He lives in Forest and can be contacted at [email protected]

A former enlisted sailor and Vietnam veteran, Palm retired from the Marine Corps as a major and pursued an academic career. He lives in Forest and can be contacted at [email protected]

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