by Carole Verona
It’s safe to say that it took 33-year-old Abigail Perkiss 33 years to write “Making Good Neighbors,” her book about the planned integration of West Mt. Airy during the post World War II era.
What Perkiss calls the myth and lore of West Mt. Airy was instilled in her memory as a very young child and stayed with her, even though she moved away from the neighborhood to Elkins Park at the age of 6. She returned to West Mt. Airy as a graduate student in 2005 and lives there today with husband Brett Freedland, a teacher at Germantown Academy, and their daughter Zoe.
When Perkiss began studying for joint degrees in law and history at Temple University and was preparing for her doctoral dissertation, she focused on the integration in West Mt. Airy because “it met at the intersection of law and social justice.” The project also lent itself to her other interests in historical memory and oral history.
Perkiss begins the introduction of her book with a story about a birthday party in the neighborhood in 1986. A news crew came to cover the event because the birthday boy’s mother was white, and his father was black. Looking back, Perkiss said the story seemed to validate the fact that West Mt. Airy was nationally recognized as a model of an integrated community.
“That was a critical moment for me,” she said. “Even as a 5-year old, I recognized that race matters in our society and in our world and that it was treated differently in our community than in other places. I remember having conversations with my parents about that. I knew that people treated Mt. Airy with white gloves in a very laudatory way. It was a precious place for a lot of people. As a child, I couldn’t put my finger on why it was precious. I just knew it had that mythos to it.”
She added, “Socio-economically, Mt. Airy was pretty comfortable. The neighborhood had all of these unique amenities to it: the Wissahickon, a broad array of housing stock and good schools. The people in it were professional and liberally inclined.”
In the early 1950s, as blacks starting moving in and whites starting fleeing the neighborhood, a group of community leaders decided to take action and developed a strategy to maintain the neighborhood. They asked, “What if we do something different? What if we create and manage integration in a way that allows us to maintain the viability of our community and its cultural vibrancy?”
Their plan was solidified in 1954 when clergy from four religious institutions — the Germantown Jewish Centre, the Epiphany Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Church of Germantown and Summit Presbyterian Church — came together to spread the gospel of Mt. Airy. Their goal was to remind people, “This is your moral duty. This is what we as a community can stand for in the world.”
But, according to Perkiss, there were limitations to that. So in 1958-59, George Schermer, director of the Commission on Human Relations for the City of Philadelphia and also a resident of Mt. Airy, saw a need to formalize the structure by establishing a stronger liaison with city government. “The systems and models he created are what helped to make Mt. Airy sustainable and to promote integration here, something that we’re still talking about today,” Perkiss said.
When asked about the most compelling aspect of her research, Perkiss alluded to the campaign that was developed to market the integration of Mt. Airy to the rest of the world. In the early 1960s, community leaders began to use “Cold War” language to describe Mt. Airy as a democratic ideal. “There’s been other research that points to people using the Cold War as a way to rationalize civil rights progress, or using civil rights progress as a way to gain American credibility around the world,” Perkiss explained.
Mt. Airy’s community leaders created brochures and solicited articles in national and local publications. In 1962, they hosted a United Nations Delegates Weekend that was attended by 200 individuals from 31 countries.
Between the 1970s and the 1990s, there was a shift from an emphasis on black and white integration to what we now refer to as “diversity.” Mt. Airy began attracting gay and lesbian couples, families with adopted children and multi-racial families — people who were looking for a family-oriented neighborhood where they could settle and create lives for themselves. Mt. Airy was still very much an “intentional” community, a destination place for people who wanted a progressive community.
As she researched and wrote the book, Perkiss says her perception of Mt. Airy changed a lot. “I grew up here, and this was the mythology I grew up with. I knew there was more to it.” In other words, Mt. Airy as we know it today didn’t just happen.
“The book ended up looking more critically at Mt. Airy than I expected it to. It’s not this utopian vision of the community, and I think a lot of people have a lot of pride and a lot at stake in that utopian vision. This is a strategic and historical process that took place at a particular moment in time with a particular set of racial and economic ideologies taking place in the city and in the country. I learned a lot about the process, and seeing integration as a strategy rather than an ideology was the thing that evolved the most for me,” she concluded.
Perkiss has a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and creative writing from Bryn Mawr College (2003), a Juris Doctor degree (2007) and a Ph.D. in U.S. history (2010) from Temple University. She is an associate professor of history at Kean University and a regular contributor to Constitution Daily, the official blog of the National Constitution Center. She is currently directing an oral history project, “Staring out to Sea: The Story of Superstorm Sandy in Three Bayshore Communities.”
For more information, contact Abigail Perkiss at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Making Good Neighbors” was published by Cornell University Press and is available at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy and on amazon.com, among other places. Perkiss will also give a talk on “The Fight to Integrate West Mt. Airy” on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 7 p.m., at Cliveden, 6401 Germantown Ave. Free to the public. More information at 215-848-1777.