Willingboro is a township in Burlington County, New Jersey, United States and a suburb of Philadelphia. As of the 2010 United States Census, the township's population was 31,629 reflecting a decline of 1,379 (-4.2%) from the 33,008 counted in the 2000 Census, which had in turn declined by 3,283 (-9.0%) from the 36,291 counted in the 1990 Census.
Abraham Levitt and Sons purchased and developed Willingboro land in the 1950s and 1960s as a planned community in their Levittown model. With residential development, the 1950 population of 852 rapidly climbed to 11,861 in 1960; and 43,386 in 1970. The community was known as "Levittown, New Jersey" in 1958, and "Levittown Township" from 1959 to 1963.
Willingboro was one of the original nine divisions in the organization of Burlington County, West Jersey, and was originally formed as the "Constabulary of Wellingborrow" on November 6, 1688. At the time, it included present day Delanco Township, New Jersey. The original name of Wellingborough was after the community in England. This was the hometown of Thomas Ollive, who led the original settlers into what would become Willingboro Township. Other spellings were used at different times.
After the establishment of the United States and the State of New Jersey, the community was formally incorporated as "Willingborough Township", one of New Jersey's initial 104 townships, on February 21, 1798, by the New Jersey Legislature when it enacted "An Act incorporating the Inhabitants of Townships, designating their Powers, and regulating their Meetings", P.L. 1798, p. 289. This makes Willingboro one of the oldest townships in the State.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Willingboro was the location for a massive residential development by Levitt & Sons. The town was to be Levitt & Sons' third and largest Levittown development, following similar projects in New York and Pennsylvania. Levitt acquired the great majority of the land in Willingboro; the historic village of Rancocas, in the southeast portion of the township, was annexed to Westampton Township to keep it from being bulldozed, as Levitt wished to keep the development within the boundaries of a single municipality. The first Levittown homes were sold in June 1958, at which time the community was already known as Levittown, New Jersey.
The town's name was changed from the original Willingboro to "Levittown Township" by a referendum of township residents held on November 3, 1959. Willingboro was less than from Levittown, Pennsylvania and this occasionally caused confusion. A referendum held on the issue on November 5, 1963, changed the name back to Willingboro. The name change was passed by a narrow margin of 3,123 to 3,003. In retaliation, Levitt refused to donate any more schools to the fast growing community.
The sociologist Herbert J. Gans used Willingboro as the subject of his 1967 book, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. In his book, he discusses a community frozen in time as an ideal representation of past, present and future America. At the same time, he analyzes the perpetuating American tradition and capacity to changes. In The Levittowners, Gans studies three major aspects of the life in Willingboro. He first deals with the development and growth of this new suburban community, particularly involvement in community organizations. Later, he describes the qualities and the characteristics of such a life. Finally, Gans focuses on the effects that suburbia will have on its inhabitants. According to the author, the Levittowners are the archetypical American characters, sharing the same way of life, values, religion, beliefs, ethnicity and living standards. They represent the American Way of Life. However, Levittown isn’t homogenous in a sense that it still embodies a constructive individualism. Gans draws a positive portrait of those citizens who are there to cement a stable society. They are an epitome of the “traditional” values, but they are also capable of opening up to changing times. They represent modernity. Gans only portrays a certain “half” of the population. The “other half” is left apart and ignored, which shows that Levittown was in a sense an enclave and represents American exceptionalism. He did not examine racial discrimination, although he wrote that a racial disturbance broke out in Levittown, Pennsylvania when a white family sold their home to African Americans.
When homes for the new Levittown were first being sold in 1958, Levitt and Sons had a policy against sales to African Americans. W.R. James, an African-American officer in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, was stationed at nearby Fort Dix and applied to purchase a Levittown home. On June 29, 1958, an agent of Levitt and Sons told him that the new Levittown development would be an all-white community. James filed suit against the company challenging their policy. A friend of his, who worked at the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, said that it was illegal in New Jersey to discriminate in federally-subsidized housing. At the time, de facto racial segregation in housing existed in many areas in the United States. Levittown was receiving mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration. But as of 1958, the law had not been tested.
James sued Mr. Levitt. The case went as far as the New Jersey Supreme Court, which upheld lower court rulings in favor of James. James was not the first African American to move into Willingboro. Given James' success in his suit, Charles and Vera Williams purchased a house and moved into the community in 1960, the first African-American family in Willingboro. James eventually moved into Millbrook Park in 1960. He served as head of the local chapter of the NAACP and eventually became a minister. An elementary school in Willingboro was named in his honor.
Following the court case, Levitt developed a thorough integration program. The company set up an integration committee headed by Howard Lett, an African American. Lett created a five-point program, which included the announcement by community leaders of Levitt’s plan to desegregate housing, and a thorough briefing program for Levitt employees, government officials, the police and the press. Lett recommended an attempt to discourage anti-integration activities known as “Operation Hothead”. Lett created a Human Relations Council to oversee possible disputes in community. James served as a member of that committee. The committee tried to solve problems of juvenile delinquency in the township. It opposed a curfew passed by the Township Council in the early 1970s. The curfew was later dropped, but reintroduced later on. One area that the committee oversaw was the practice of blockbusting.
The African-American population of Willingboro increased throughout the 1960s; by 1964 there were 50 African-American families. By 1970, African Americans represented about 11% of the population. During the early 1970s, several homeowners said they were approached by local real estate agents and told that their neighborhood was becoming increasingly African-American and home values could decline if they did not sell quickly; a practice known as blockbusting. While the Human Relations Council could not prove these claims, it made recommendations to help foster better relations between ethnic communities in the township and calm concerns.
To maintain integration, the township in 1974 enacted an ordinance that prohibited the posting of "for sale" or "sold" signs on real estate. Many other communities had enacted similar laws in reaction to the practice of blockbusting in the 1960s and 1970s. The Supreme Court in the 1977 case of Linmark Associates, Inc. v. Willingboro ruled that the ordinance violated the First Amendment protections for free speech, which applied to commercial needs.