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York Cases Cast in Black or White

Crime: With trials for killings in the 1969 race riots looming, the Pa. city questions how far it's really progressed.

November 10, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORK, Pa. — Just a few blocks from where the Continental Congress gathered in 1777 to unite the states, Cathy Ash sits in a nondescript storefront office, wondering today how to unite the races.

Her vision has little to do with the rich history of this south-central Pennsylvania city, and everything to do with the pending trials of the city's white mayor and two black men for murders 32 years ago, when a black woman and a white policeman were ambushed by gunfire during race riots in 1969.

The resurrection of the murder cases has sparked varied reactions in this racially mixed city of 41,000, where blacks and whites now live side-by-side in turn-of-the-century row houses. Crossing ethnic lines, some applaud the belated arrests, others criticize the embarrassing reopening of the civic scab, and most complain that the murders should have been investigated three decades ago.

But the arrests prompt a larger question in the minds of many, including Ash, who is director of the city's human relations commission:

How far has York really progressed in racial tolerance since 1969?

On the surface, today's York--55% white, 25% black--exhibits few outward signs of racial tension. While hate crimes have been reported over the years in the wooded, rolling hills of York County, the city itself is considered a changed place.

"Even though there may be a few areas where we may not fit in, I've never personally experienced prejudice in this town," said Kisha Smallwood, 25, a niece of a black city councilman who has lived here her all life.

Another York native, Sarah Ramsay, 89, who is white, said: "This is a much better place than what it was years ago. Everyone has learned to live with people of color."

But those signs of harmony are a veneer to continuing and deep-seated, institutional racism here, some residents say. City councilman Lee Smallwood grouses that only 10% of the city's 112 police officers are black and that there are few blacks in middle and upper management in local business and industry.

Such alleged prejudice trickles down to the street, said Gilbert and Sandy McLean, an interracial couple. "I took my wife to breakfast the other day at a restaurant up the way, and everyone was getting served but us," McLean said. "When I complained, they said, 'If you don't like it, leave.' "

Ash would like to get to the bottom of these issues.

Already, her commission has sponsored youth parades promoting racial peace and her teams have gone into schools to talk about the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and other racial organizations.

She plans to launch her biggest challenge next month: imploring Yorkers to gather in racially mixed groups of 20 to 30 to learn about one another, discuss what social issues confront them, brainstorm what should be done to make York a better place to live and be asked to personally commit to achieve that goal.

While her plan may seem a little too touchy-feely in an industrial city where Harley-Davidson motorcycles are assembled, it is turning heads at the U.S. Justice Department.

The agency has promoted such "community dialogues" in neighborhoods around the country disrupted by racial strife. But Ben Lieu, a conciliation specialist in the department's civil rights office of community relations in Philadelphia, said he's never heard of an entire city being targeted.

The 1969 murders might have gone almost forgotten here. But after extensive local news coverage of the 30-year anniversary of the riots and the two unsolved murders, a younger generation of county prosecutors was provoked into action.

A grand jury in May indicted the city's popular white mayor, Charlie Robertson--a 35-year-old police officer during the riots--and eight other men for the murder of Lillie Belle Allen, 27, shot as she got out of a stalled car, her hands in the air.

Robertson's alleged role: handing out ammunition and admonishing white gang members in profane racist terms to kill blacks, just hours before the woman was slain. Robertson, now 67, admits participating in a rally where he proclaimed, "White power!" but has tearfully denied the criminal charges.

Last week, two local black men were indicted by the same grand jury for the death of 22-year-old police officer Henry Schaad, shot while patrolling the riot-torn streets in an armored vehicle.

Many people here--starting with the mayor himself--argue that York has long gotten past the days of pitched racial tension.

"It was absolutely hard to be black in York in the '50s and '60s," conceded Robertson, whose political career has now collapsed. The investigation into his alleged role was widely known before the primary election in May; Robertson barely defeated a black councilman for the city's mayoral job, then dropped his reelection campaign after his arrest.

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