PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Growing up in Mount Airy, Alex Baker never knew why his family had moved from the narrow, two-story brick row house on Heather Road in Folcroft, where he was born.
Then, when he was in eighth grade, Baker stumbled across a box in his basement filled with newspaper clippings from 1963, the year before his birth, when the Bakers became the first black family to move into an all-white, working-class development in Folcroft called Delmar Village.
He read for the first time about the angry mob that swelled to 1,500 while his parents, Horace and Sarah Baker, tried to enter their new home, how the rioters chanted "Two, four, six, eight - we don't want to integrate!" and hurled eggs, rocks, and a Molotov cocktail before the state police beat them back. He learned about the words painted on their front wall: "GO HOME N-S."
But what really got to Baker was a photo that ran on the front pages of newspapers nationally capturing the rage of three white youths, one leaning forward and screaming with his button-down shirt untucked, another jeering as he brandishes the buckle of his coiled-up belt.
"They were my age," recalled Baker, now a 48-year-old married father of two and school transportation specialist in Anne Arundel County, Md., south of Washington. "It made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You were looking at it and you were balling up your fist."
Today, the black-and-white images from the Delaware County town are a reminder that 50 years ago was a time of civil rights dreams, but also of uncomfortable jolts along the road to racial equality. This summer, busloads of Americans descended on the National Mall for the golden anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s unforgettable plea to a racially divided nation.
Those words from Aug. 28, 1963, were still echoing when the mob began gathering in Folcroft. The difficult days that followed brought outbursts of unvarnished hatred. But there were also acts of kindness and courage from ministers and activists, both black and white, who stood up to the rabble.
One of those people, Phyllis Taylor, thinks she knows why Sarah Baker never told her children the story of Folcroft.
"How do you tell your children you're hated solely because you're a child of color?" said Taylor, who lives in Germantown. "How do you tell your children that because you wanted the best for them and moved into that neighborhood, it resulted in a riot, it resulted in psychiatric problems, it resulted in divorce?"
Horace and Sarah Baker weren't looking to make a political statement when they decided to move from the city. They just wanted a safe and comfortable neighborhood to raise a family, including their 2-year-old daughter, Terri Lynn. They were both 26 with good jobs; Horace was a laboratory technician, while Sarah was a nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital.
But it was a very different time. Just six years earlier, a black family seeking to move into Levittown in Bucks County had sparked a riot. "White flight" to the suburbs was in full throttle, while Realtors and homesellers worked hard to keep blacks out of many areas. The Bakers found the house on Heather Road for $11,200 through the Veterans Administration after a foreclosure, and they went to the Fair Housing Council of Delaware Valley for help with the move.
They would need it.
The Bakers' were scheduled to move in on Thursday, Aug. 29, 1963 - the day after King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But the home had already been painted with the racial slur, and a crowd of locals began to fill the street. Those who talked to news reporters said they'd moved to Delaware County to escape crowded integrated city neighborhoods and - as one told the magazine Black Digest - complained that blacks would "ruin the value of our property."
As they tried to enter the home that day, the Bakers and some allies were driven back twice by the mob. Rioters shattered all the windows, bashed in doors, even ripped out electrical and plumbing fixtures.
Early Friday someone hurled the Molotov cocktail into the second floor, starting a small fire.
The violence stunned supporters, including the NAACP and activists like Richard Taylor of the Fair Housing Council and his wife, Phyllis, of Mount Airy, who had participated in the "Freedom Rides" to integrate buses in the Deep South. Learning that the small local police force was overwhelmed, Dick Taylor drove to Gov. Scranton's mansion in Harrisburg to plead for intervention. A large contingent of state troopers arrived.
At 4 p.m. Friday, the Bakers finally moved in, even as hundreds hurled tomatoes, rocks, and sticks at the house. By nightfall, the mob was pushed back by riot cops who swung nightsticks and had called in mounted police. Horace and Sarah Baker — who had left their daughter at a relative's house — spent their first night in Folcroft huddled in the cellar.
Phyllis Taylor, who had participated in the March on Washington two days earlier, recalled her shock after entering the house. "There was phenomenal destruction," she recalled. "All the windows were gone. I remember trying to get the kitchen together with Sarah - those who vandalized must have (thrown) rocks so that the brand-new cabinets all had holes in them."
Judy Meisel — then Judy Cohen — learned of the Bakers' plight while watching the TV coverage in her West Mount Airy home. A mother of three who ran a preschool, Meisel was also a Holocaust survivor.
"When I saw a mob of people hunting a family that moved into a neighborhood that was all white, written on the house, 'N- go home,' that to me was repeating the Holocaust all over," said Meisel, now 84 and living in Santa Barbara, Calif. She baked her favorite cookies — meringues — and drove them to Folcroft, while people were throwing things at the house and calling her names. "I said: 'Mrs. Baker, I'm a Holocaust survivor. I lost 46 members of my family, what can I do for you?' "
A few white neighbors were quietly supportive. Arlene Crecco Gray, who lived one block over on Carter Road and now resides in North Carolina, said she was stunned when neighbors threatened to cut the hose if firefighters put out the fire. Later she got into a fight with her then-husband because she let a black reporter into their home for a cool drink.
The riot was put down, but the harassment never stopped. Charles Toogood, who was Folcroft's plumbing inspector, ended up in a row with the state Human Rights Commission because he interfered with a plumber who tried to fix the Bakers' vandalized hot-water heater.
Police ticketed the Bakers' car, and vandals poured sugar in the gas tank. Some white residents met at a swim club to form the Folcroft Citizens Commission, which vowed to boycott any local merchants or vendors who did business with the black family, and raised money to defend 15 people accused of harassment.
That November, police found Horace Baker wandering incoherently near the Philadelphia International Airport a few miles away, telling officers he was unable to protect his family.
He was hospitalized - in what family members say was the first major bout with mental illness that has plagued him ever since. By 1966, the family — which now included 17-month-old Alex — was ready to leave Folcroft.
The Bakers found a lifeline in the Mount Airy families that had aided them in the darkest days of 1963.
The Taylors took them in until they could find their own place, and Alex Baker became friends with their son Danny. Sometimes, Judy Meisel said, she would watch the Baker kids when their mother needed help.
Her friends and children say it was Sarah Baker's determination to move past the hatred they encountered in Delaware County, to never become bitter, and to raise her kids in a peaceful integrated community and send them to good schools, that pulled the family through.
"She would say to me, 'Judy, I don't want my kids ever to know about Folcroft,' " Meisel recalled. "I want to move into a neighborhood, not a black neighborhood, a mixed neighborhood, that my children should appreciate all kinds of people.' "
Baker's daughter, Terri Frelix, now 52, an assistant pastor living in Nashville, said her mother rarely mentioned the incident. "She wouldn't say a lot, not really... not till I was old enough to understand and not be angry and hateful," Frelix recalled.
Instead, the memories remained in that box in the basement. Alex Baker recalled seeing letters of support from around the world — even one from Dr. King — but the priceless material vanished at some point over the years.
As his father's mental health deteriorated — he began hearing voices and suffered from paranoia — Baker's mother refused to blame the Folcroft incident. "That would have been a way of us growing up having a chip on our shoulder, or having a reason why we failed, or growing up with some hostility," he said. Ultimately his parents divorced and Horace Baker moved back to his native Florida.
Alex Baker's memories of growing up in Mount Airy in the 1970s are mostly happy, and he gives a lot of credit to the surrounding families - black and white - who acted as surrogate parents while his mother was often working. Neighbors took him to their softball games, invited him to their homes to watch the Eagles, and a phys-ed teacher, Mitchell Kline, got him enrolled in then-mostly white Frankford High School and drove him there every morning.
Another family, the Kings, promised to raise the children if anything happened to their mother. She eventually remarried, moved to Dover, and died of cancer in 2000.
The times did change ... slowly. Five decades later, Delmar Village is roughly half African American, according to Folcroft Mayor Bob Frey.
On a recent Sunday, little white girls rode bicycles with pink streamers past faded awnings and the wire fencing of postage-stamp front yards, some with American flags firmly planted. A block away, two black teens played basketball and a young interracial couple walked arm-in-arm.
The Taylors never stopped fighting for social justice. Today, Dick Taylor is a chaplain in the Philadelphia prison system. But the couple, along with Judy Meisel, who said the incident inspired her to speak in schools about the Holocaust, lost touch with the Baker family — until a flurry of phone calls in recent weeks.
A SURPRISE CALL
While watching a documentary about the Levittown race riots, Alex Baker casually mentioned to his wife that the same thing had happened to his family. He then decided to track down the Taylors.
After several attempts, Phyllis Taylor answered the phone.
"I said, 'It's Alex Baker.' It kind of went over her head. 'I'm the son of Horace and Sarah Baker.' Oh my God, she was hollering for Mr. Taylor and he got on the phone. We talked for over an hour," Baker said.
On Friday, he brought his wife, Valeria, and son Kyle to the Taylors' apartment in Germantown for a reunion with many of the neighbors who once welcomed his battered family with open arms.
Baker said his son was shocked to see the photos of rioters. "He said there's not just men out there - it was men, women, and children," Baker said.
But the meeting of old neighbors also helped fill in missing information, such as the impact of those tumultuous years on his father's mental health.
Their fellowship and camaraderie proved a reminder that some good did come out of one of the ugliest racial incidents in Philadelphia history.
"If there was no Folcroft, there would have been no Mount Airy," Baker said, adding: "I had a great childhood."
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com