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HomeCassandra Harris-LockwoodFrom the Editors DeskMy Father’s Battle with Housing Discrimination in the early 1950’s

My Father’s Battle with Housing Discrimination in the early 1950’s

By Cassandra Harris Lockwood                                   Photo by Vernon J. Harris, Jr.

Washington Courts Easter morning 1955, Left to right: Jennifer A. Mitchell, Elliott F. J. Harris, Cassandra Y. Harris, photo by VJH

Vernon J. Harris, Jr. graduated from Catholic University in Washington, DC in 1952 with a degree in Electrical Engineering at the age of 26. General Electric hired him right out of college as one of their test Engineers and he was assigned to work in Schenectady, NY. There he moved into an apartment with his wife Georgetta, their two small children, and one on the way.

As a young Engineer, Mr. Harris was put to work in various test programs in different divisions. While working in Large Motors and Generators in GE Schenectady, Mr. Harris heard about a new electronics plant opening in Utica. (GE was on track to establish major manufacturing plants on Bleecker St., Broad St., Plant St., and French Road by the end of the decade.)

Harris, a native of Richmond, VA, asked, “Where’s Utica?” About 90 miles down the road he was told. He decided he wanted to get an assignment there so he picked a day and drove to the Utica plant. “It was Electronics I wanted and all I had was Large Motor and Generators and the Hermes project in Schenectady, which I worked as a Test Engineer 3 months and 6 months as a sign up in charge of the Electrical test area,” he recalls.

Bill O’Hara was a manager in the personnel area and offered him a position in Quality Control. Harris stated that he wanted a position in design engineering, so Bill arranged for some interviews. Harris did land an Engineering assignment and immediately began looking for a home for his growing family.

Mr. Harris had heard about the new Sunset Manor housing development coming online in Whitesboro near the Hidden Valley Golf Course. It was then owned by Wm. Morris, Sr. father of Wm. Morris, Jr. present owner of the New Hartford Shopping Center. Mr. Harris put down a $100 deposit and was assigned a lot in the first row of houses.

Meanwhile, Harris was commuting back and forth between Schenectady and Utica on the weekends by train. He would leave the car in Schenectady for his wife to have while he was away. While in Utica he lived in the boarding house of a Mrs. Partello, known as Mrs. P, on the corner of Sunset Ave and Melrose in South Utica.

Harris recalls he would walk to work to the French Road plant from Melrose to Seward to French Road. He remembers walking to work one time in -10 below zero F. Having grown up in Richmond, Va. Harris was unaccustomed to cold above and below zero.  By the time he got to French Road his knees were creaking and his ears were about to fall off. It was this incident that resulted in his yearly wearing of earmuffs during most of his adult life.

Monday nights in Utica the shops were open. Harris would stroll downtown to be amongst the people and buy little trinkets to take home to his children the following Friday when he would return to Schenectady.

At Mrs. P’s there were three other GE employees there and mostly Mohawk Valley Technical Institute students there as well. MVTI was the predecessor of MVCC and was located where Utica National Insurance headquarters is located in New Hartford where State Routes 5, and 12 connect. And at that time Route 8 was routed through that intersection there as well.

Mr. Harris recalls, “Sunset Manor was a large development of lookalike houses. There were 4 or 5 streets going in and my lot was on the first street. There were about 30 houses per street and the houses were going for $10,500. They were the National Homes brand, two-bedroom, Cape Cod models.”

There were also numerous other GE employees who had bought lots and put down payments at Sunset Manor. When word of the building being underway was in the air, Mr. Harris drove by the location and found that the developer had built up to his lot, skipped over it, and continued construction all around his plot.

Mr. Harris then made an appointment to see Mr. Morris and asked about the building of his house.

Morris then showed him a clause in the contract near the bottom of the page which stated that if for any reason either party wished to back out of the deal they simply had to pay the other party $5.

Harris said, “I complained and told him I don’t want the $5. I want my house.”

Mr. Morris explained that he was getting complaints from Whites about a Black family moving in and threats to pull out of numerous deals.

Recently, when Wm. Morris, Jr. was asked about this incident he said, “It would have meant my father losing his shirt.”

The senior Morris sent Harris a check for $105, his deposit, and the $5 fee for withdrawing from the contract.

New York State had an anti-segregation law on the books but the clause in the contract superseded it as it made no specific reference to race.

Years later Wm. Morris, Sr. came to know Vernon Harris as a man and a community activist. They served on a committee together. Morris acknowledged to his own son, Bill Jr., that his decision to deny the Harrises housing was one of the greatest regrets of his life. The senior Morris was also known to have made that pronouncement of regret to committee members as well.

Challenged with the need for housing for his family and getting to work on a daily basis, Harris appealed to the leading Black minister in the community for assistance, Rev. Alphonso Whitfield, pastor of Hope Chapel AME Zion.

Rev. Whitfield was what was called, connected. Rev. Whitfield got in touch with one Denny O’Dowd, head of the City of Utica Water Board. O’Dowd was a powerful figure in Utica politics, under Democratic strongman, Rufus P. Elefante.

The solution was placement for the family in Washington Courts. Demolished in 2007, Washington Courts was built in the early 1940s and was originally constructed by the WPA, Works Progress Administration as Department of Defense housing but, by the late ’40s, Washington Courts was used for low-income housing. Mr. Harris’s actual income was above the income levels for low-income housing but, arrangements were made and the family moved in although he was constantly encouraged to find another place to live. Any time Harris got a raise the MHA would raise his rent.

He continued to seek other housing in the area but was met with repeated discrimination. One reoccurring instance was Mr. Harris, who is light-skinned, previewing an available apartment then returning with his brown-skinned wife for final approval to find the apartment was no longer available.

“One time I remember very vividly was on Kemble St. directly across from the UFA high school building. I had brought my wife by to show her the apartment I had already viewed. It was a convenient location, near the downtown shopping area and near Genesee St. and the bus route.

“It would have been an ideal apartment for a starting location. When Georgie and I got there, the place was no longer available. This happened more than a few times,” he said.

The young family did eventually find other housing on the Westside of town on Court Street. The landlady, for whatever reason became annoyed with the pitter-patter of little feet overhead. She lived on the first floor, the Harrises on the second floor. The landlady just shut off the heat and drove them out of the place. This occurred in a particularly cold March of 1954. The Harrises were forced to place their children with other families until they could return to Washington Courts.

One Sunday morning after church Mr. Harris and his wife Georgetta were looking at the Sunday paper and saw another land development offer of lots and houses. They drove to North Utica and went to look at Spec’s Development just off of Trenton Road in Deerfield. One of Harris’s White technicians from GE already lived there.

When the couple toured the model house they liked what they saw and said, “We’d like to buy one.”

The cost of these Deerfield houses was considerably more than the Whitesboro houses at $13,500.

The builder’s on-site representative said, “If you’d like to buy this one, I’d like to show you another one and see if you’d like it.”

Mr. Harris recalls “I’m pretty sure this was their planned diversion to prevent a similar revolt by White buyers who would object to Black neighbors.

“The house he showed us was on Morgan Road in Marcy and was arguably on track to be more house than all of the others we had seen. As yet under construction, it had a concrete block garage at the basement level and the basement was also concrete block construction. The house was on ¾ of an acre of land. The other houses we had seen were built on slabs and were the size of city lots. Atop the garage was a large contained sundeck with a railing around it. It was a great place to raise our kids.

“The Morgan Road lot had several mature trees, was bordered by streams and creeks, a fantastic view over the valley, and across the road instead of other houses, there was beautiful pasture and farmland.

“The builder said he’d sell it at the same price; which was an incredible deal. We made a down payment and took the deal.”

“During the time to complete the construction, Marcy neighbors caught wind of the fact that it would be a Black family moving in, and a petition was put forth and circulated. No one at this end knows how many signatures were gathered to keep the Blacks out. But one White family, the Carpenters, who lived nearby knew the Harrises as members of St. Joseph Church. They let it be known that they would rather live next door to the Harrises than some other residents of Marcy.”

So Vernon, Georgetta, and their three little ones moved into 9949 Morgan Road on a cold, blustery night in the middle of a snowstorm.

Mr. Harris recalls, “It was December 7, 1954. Jerry Williams and the late Andy Frank helped us move in that cold winter night and 66 years later we still own the property.”

Editor’s Note: Writing this story has been a revealing process for me. I lived through this story as a child and in my mind conflated much of the information over the years. I remember living in both apartments in Washington Courts. I remember moving into Morgan Road on that dark, cold, and snowy night. What I didn’t recall was that there were actually two separate houses we were shut out from buying. And on top of that, I was not clear on the location of the developments we were shut out of. In the end, it was my father’s persistence and financial ability that ended up providing me and my brothers and sisters a house in the country to grow up in. And to think, he was only 28 years old when we moved in. Thanks, Dad

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Guest contributors are community members who have generously shared their time, talent, and thoughts with The Utica Phoenix/Phoenix Media. The staff would like to thank our valued guest writer for this content.

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