Creative Nonfiction: The Way We Were: Collins Park, 1959
Originally from New Castle, Delaware, Edward F. Palm is a former enlisted Marine, a Vietnam veteran and retired U.S. Marine officer turned academic (Ph.D., Pennsylvania). He has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy and Glenville State College and has held dean appointments at Maryville University of St. Louis and Olympic College, in Bremerton, Washington. Palm is also a lifelong serious amateur photographer and an occasional freelance writer who considers photojournalism to be his “road not taken.” He lives in Bremerton, Washington.
The Way We Were: Collins Park, 1959
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 northern Delaware neighborhood in which I grew up in the late fifties and early sixties, Collins Park, is still there. But it is a very different place today. And that’s a very good thing.
Collins Park, it should be noted, had had a proud beginning. It was the first of the post-war tract developments to be established in northern Delaware. The original buyers had been mostly upper-middle-class and even professional people. But most of the original families had moved on to more fashionable suburbs north and west of Wilmington by the late fifties. By the time my family moved there, Collins Park was largely working-class and redneck. One section in particular was rapidly becoming a haven for the underclass. It consisted of small wooden-frame ranch houses built on concrete slabs. By comparison, I thought that my family was rich. We lived in one of the two-story stucco colonial houses with brick facades. They feature damp basements, two decent-sized bedrooms, a miniscule third one, and only one bathroom—which was the norm in that time and place.
We moved to Collins Park in March of 1958, in the midst of an usually late and heavy snowfall. We perhaps should have held that as a portent—that and the fact that, when I was finally able to venture out, a kid about my age, whom I had never even laid eyes on before, caught up with me and asked me if I wanted “to fight.”
Most people living in Delaware today, including those now living in Collins Park, have either forgotten or never heard of what happened there just about a year after we moved in. 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 into 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 family to move there, but I would be lying. We had been part of the “white flight” from our previous neighborhood when “colored families,” as we called them then, began to move in. My mother and stepfather, therefore, were horrified 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.
In purely economic terms, the Rayfields were the kind of middle-class, if not upper-middle-class, people who had originally bought into Collins Park. They owned the largest trash removal business in the area. Most people in Collins Park were their customers. But that won them no points toward acceptance. Almost immediately, the Rayfields began to live under a state of siege.
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 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 realtor who had brought the Rayfields to Collins Park. After all these years, I can still see her, on a local television news report–red-faced and shaking her finger at the reporter’s nose, while 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. Verda’s husband, John Zdeb, was a Marine veteran of World War II and a college graduate who had studied for the priesthood. He contented himself with a low-level accounting job at DuPont. He drove a stripped down, economy model Chevy with a “three-on-the-column” standard transmission—a rarity in an age of status symbols and affordable convenience.
Verda Zdeb in 1959 was a distinctively plain woman. Her clothes were always out of style. The Zdeb house was sparsely and plainly furnished. The Zdebs were church people, devout Catholics who lived simply and frugally. And for that reason, everyone, it seemed, looked down on them—especially on Verda. Mother used to call her a “hillbilly.” Many of our neighbors at that time did have West Virginia roots, and mother just assumed that Verda was one of them. Actually, Verda had grown up in Philadelphia.
My mother, therefore, dismissed it as contemptible when, one day in the middle of the mayhem, Verda walked past her jeering neighbors; knocked on the Rayfields’ door; and, within earshot of the crowd, welcomed the Rayfields to the neighborhood.
The story does not have a happy ending. On April 7th, the house was heavily damaged by a bomb. With the encouragement and help of local civil rights leaders, the Rayfields rebuilt. But then, in the early morning hours of August 3, someone planted and set off an even bigger bomb. Fortunately, the Rayfields had been away and were not injured in the course of either attempt. But, with that second attempt, the house had been damaged beyond repair and had to be torn down.
I remember that my mother and stepfather couldn’t resist driving by on the morning after. Much to my surprise, they allowed me to come along. The image of the left stucco sidewall bowed out, like a giant abscess, with a jagged crack running from the ground to the roof, haunts me still. Even mother seemed to be taken aback by the sight. I’m sure she never expected things to go that far. My stepfather seemed relieved that it was finally over. He, too, was a racist, but he and my mother had had bitter arguments over her activism. He had mother’s number. He knew she was enjoying the attention, and he feared that she was needlessly putting all three of us at risk.
A local contractor, who just happened to live in Collins Park, and who had access to dynamite, was soon arrested and later convicted. He went to prison. His wife went door-to-door trying to collect money for her husband’s legal expenses. I still remember when she came to our door. My mother refused to contribute. She claimed to have been broke and behind in her bills, neither of which was true.
To this day, there is a vacant lot where the Rayfield house once stood. The neighbors on both sides have turned it into a little park, complete with a bench and some shrubs and flowers.
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, put the lie to the old saw about only the good dying young. The last time we met, in December of 2005, she was still swimming every day and had even won some medals in the Senior Olympics. She passed away five years later, on December 30, 2010. She was 96. Lucid and ambulatory to the end, she was visiting relatives in North Carolina when, at the end of a good day, she suddenly collapsed. One of the things Catholics are told to pray for is a “good death.” Verda Zdeb’s prayers must have been answered.
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 opposition, fanfare, or special notice.
The late Edward Said used to maintain that no one completely transcends the cultural and social constructions of his or her time. I’d like to believe that I have–in this case at least. I always knew that my mother and her neighbors were wrong and that Collins Park did not resemble the America we were being told about in school. But I also knew that the opinions and judgments of 12-year-olds were unwelcome among adults in those days, especially in my household.
I would also like to believe that, despite how so many of my friends and neighbors behaved during that spring of 1959, most of them, including my mother, were not really bad people. I’ll leave that to others to judge. But this much I am sure of: I knew only one good person living in Collins Park at the time–the best and the bravest person I’ve ever known, Mrs. Verda Zdeb.