In 1973 and ’74 Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what Bible passages like “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with us. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a brief time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God.
“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,” Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my bad marriage.
And so I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey — answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”
Then one day a couple appeared when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.
I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.
The pro forma Owner arrived with a contract but doubted that he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him encumbered with cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.
A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the Owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discriminating against the black couple. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.
It never went to court. One day Adele brought me a news article that the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property. “See?” she said, “they were shills.”
Appraising this explanation, I thought, “Good for them.”