A Plucky Couple Fights for Their New Home as Racism Stirs Their Philadelphia Neighborhood

updated 12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1985 01:00AM

The Gerald Fox home on Philadelphia's Buist Avenue has been close to a state of siege. The curtains are drawn tight to protect the occupants from people known to be hostile and armed with pellet guns. In the small living room, only a single dim lamp is lighted, and the smell of kerosene from an overworked space heater permeates the chill air. Three weeks ago, after the Foxes completed their move into their new home, they discovered that vandals had broken in with an ax, smashed the regular oil furnace, shattered lamps and a clock radio and laid another splintering ax blow through a kitchen cabinet. Now, on the street outside, plainclothes agents of Philadelphia's Civil Disobedience Squad sit in unmarked cars to make sure that the crowds do not gather as they did on Nov. 21 to scream, "Move! Move! Move!" and "Nigger get out!"

Inside her home, Carol Fox, 30 and white, appeals to the one comfortable object in sight. She looks over at a slim artificial Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel and tiny silver ropes and balls by herself, her husband, Gerald, 32, who is black, and their children, Emma, 10, and Geramiah, 5. "We would like the neighbors to know," Carol says quietly, "that we're just like them, if only they'd give us a chance."

In its raw racism, the harassment of the Foxes seems like a throwback to another time: the pre-Selma '60s. Or another place: "Hey, neighbor! Is this Philly or Johannesburg?" reads one handbill being distributed by an anti-racist group on the Foxes' street. Yet this is happening in 1985, in a northeastern city, run by its first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode.

Last October, Carol, an Englishwoman, and Gerald, a receiving clerk for an electronics firm, bid successfully on the house, owned by the Veterans' Administration, in largely white southwest Philadelphia. The Foxes and a black couple, whom they don't know, moved into houses seven blocks apart just before Thanksgiving. Carol expected that her family might encounter some friction, but, she says, "I thought if they didn't like me they just wouldn't talk to me."

Instead, as they moved in, they were taunted by teenagers screaming, "Nigger! You've got it coming! You'd better move!" That night they discovered that the marauders who had invaded their home left behind a peculiarly ominous threat: On the basement floor was a gasoline-soaked rag. Four nights later a mob of some 200 whites appeared in front of their house chanting epithets.

Since then the "neighbors" have become less visible. Under an emergency decree imposed by Mayor Goode, no more than four people may congregate near the Foxes' home. The controversy has attracted out-of-town groups, including the International Committee Against Racism, which supports the Foxes. Klansmen left cards on autos, and Richard Barrett, a self-proclaimed congressional candidate from Jackson, Miss., dropped by to offer his epigram on segregation. "Redbirds don't mix with bluebirds," he said, "and some birds have more sense than some people."

To such insults, Gerald Fox responds with humor. "One lady on a local TV newscast said that blacks and whites can't live together. Well, look at us," he says, "we've lived together for years." The couple met in Aviano, Italy in 1973, where Fox, then an Air Force staff sergeant, was stationed and Carol, raised in Oxfordshire, was working at a local pizzeria. After marriage they lived first in Aviano, then England, but eventually Philadelphia because, Gerald explains with some irony, "I'd been telling my kids how great America was. I'm embarrassed." When they learned about the VA properties, Gerald liked the potential of the house. It bore scars from its previous occupiers—a white motorcycle gang—but, says Gerald, "I knew I could fix it up."

Now, of course, the question is whether the $22,000 house is worth the strain. The black couple moved out after pellets were fired through their windows. But the Foxes have been encouraged to stay. Some neighbors paid welcoming visits, flowers and homemade cookies have arrived, and local craftsmen have offered to help repair the vandalism. Mainly there are letters—dozens of them—with a single message: "Please don't give up."

So far, the Foxes show no intention of doing so. "It's the house I bought," says Gerald. "It's our house, and we hope eventually we'll be accepted."

Carol recalls a recent heart-to-heart with daughter Emma: "We told her that we're going to be all right and we'd always be together as a family. What she said was, 'All these people ought to be keeping up with the times.' "

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