This iconic photo capturing the moment of the 1969 York race riots shows police seizing weapons from a North Newberry Street home. Newberry Street Boys were headquartered on their namesake street, which served as the site of shooting of Lillie Belle Allen on July 21, 1969. This photo originally appeared in The Gazette and Daily and now is part of York County Heritage Trust’s archives. Background posts: Images capture hope for racial harmony, York Charrette or charade? and First pitch could break link with York race riots.
In an earlier post in this York race riots series, I wrote about prepping to background a visiting journalist about those disturbing moments in the 1960s.
As part of those preparations, I wrote the following slogan, common around York in the 1860s: “The Union as it was, the Constitution as it is and the Negroes where they are.”
This was the majority view in York County. As I’ve written before, it was a border county in a border state in the Middle Atlantic region where North meets South.
The county developed the pragmatic view that slavery was not York County’s problem, and it was not an issue that merited splitting the Union and fracturing the Constitution. Many believed it would disrupt commerce with the South, and the freedman would take scarce jobs or demand financial support.
Abraham Lincoln represented disunion, so we voted against him in the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864… .
And when the Confederates came here in 1863, there was little appetite to resist their advance.
I call this view unprincipled pragmatism.
One hundred years later, race rioting in York resulted in the deaths of a visiting black woman Lillie Belle Allen and white police officer Henry C. Schaad.
The shooters were not brought to justice for another 30 years.
In 2001, then-York Mayor Charlie Robertson looked back at prevailing thought in those days when rioting rocked the city.
“Everyone knew who was involved,” the mayor told Time magazine. “But everyone thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white – even.”
Again, unprincipled pragmatism.
Of the most cynical type.
A quote from Abraham Lincoln in 1862 seems appropriate here: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.”
As we go forward and face local questions of courage, we must learn from the 1860s and 1960s not to lapse into pragmatism without principle that our descendants will long remember.
- Helping to sort it out in York, Part II: Equations explain causes of late 1960s race riots
- Helping to sort it out in York: Timeline of 1969 race riots, court cases