Monthly Archives: February 2018

In Honor of MLK Day (2) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

In my January 16 post, I mentioned the danger of employment in the factories that I inspected. What were the hazards?

  • Dust. Most of the dirt was non-toxic, but I gained an appreciation for the concept of “while collar” work. Once in a while, I came home grimy.
  • Gases, vapors. Once I had to wear a mask. I was exhausted after a few hours. Once I exited a plant that made sticky labels with a definite buzz. What if I had worked there daily?
  • Hot metals. Foundries made me nervous. No two ways about it. I got a few burns in my clothing from sparks.
  • Equipment, including forklifts. OSHA style safety lines were in place, but I learned to stay close to my escorts.
  • Falls, overhead cables, ladders, tripping hazards. I wore a hard hat and developed a keen eye.
  • Noise and heat.

I learned that almost everyone likes to talk about his/her work, and most were willing to answer my questions, even outside the narrow focus of air pollution. I heard discussions about accidents. There were one or two fatalities in York during my time there. The first response always seemed to be to suggest that the victim had been drinking alcohol.

Once I was at an asphalt factory when there was an explosion. I went out with the manager, and watched an injured employee carefully evacuated by ambulance. He was in pain, but his life was not in danger.

Oddly, I had no contact with any OSHA inspectors, and didn’t know how to report the workplace hazards I observed. My estimate was that York County needed maybe three times as many OSHA inspectors as air pollution inspectors. Maybe 10 OSHA inspectors would have been enough to do the job right. Where were they?

I was also unable to report employees who looked too young for employment. I think the legal working age was 16. And I didn’t know how to report water pollution. It’s ALWAYS about communication.

How many people remember than Martin Luther King was in Memphis because of an occupational safety “incident” which led to a strike by sanitation workers? On February 1, 1968 two Memphis city employees collecting garbage had been crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment on the truck they drove. Safety features had been bypassed, the trucks improperly maintained. The workers died horribly, crushed and mangled. Even on a good day, a garbage collector’s working conditions and pay were abysmal. Rioting and confrontation in Memphis were inevitable.

What about the York riots? Were they similarly inevitable?

I refer you to the newspaper York Daily Record (www.ydr.com) which, on April 19, 2016, ran an article titled “Silent no more: The murder of Lillie Belle Allen”. See link with my earlier blog post. Ms. Allen is the African-American woman who died in the York Race Riots of 1969. She was 27 years old, just a little older than I was when I moved to York.

The cast of characters in this tragedy is extensive, and if you really want to follow it, you may need to sketch out a time line.

  • Lillie Belle Allen was visiting her sister when she drove into York.
  • Tom Kelley was a prosecutor who worked for the York County District Attorney, 30+ years later. He brought eleven men to trial.
  • Donnie Altman was part of the crowd that fired at Ms. Allen’s car. No one knows whose bullet killed her. Altman took his own life in 2000, when the murder case was reopened.

Why did York erupt in riots in 1968 and 1969? One trigger was a decision (several years previous) to adopt a very aggressive (punitive? military?) policing style. Beginning in 1962, barking police dogs patrolled York’s African-American neighborhoods night after night after night. Black leaders appealed for relief. It was denied. An officer fired on (or above) a group of Black teens who threw rocks at a police car. The officer faced no disciplinary action for his irresponsibility.

One thing that strikes me about these riots is that they were a form of “proxy” war. Not everyone was involved. Mostly, young men carried out the fighting, teenaged Black male youth against the White male police department. I’ve read the theory that war, in general, is a way that old men with power get rid of the young men who (inevitably) challenge their leadership over time. The subtlety is that two groups of old men oversee the destruction of EACH OTHER’S young challengers.

I can’t recount the whole history here. The York Daily Record article by Kim Strong provides a good summary and profiles a number of individuals, but I suspect there’s more to know. Wikipedia has an entry under “1969 York race riot”.

After the shooting of 22 year old Officer Henry Schaad (he died 2 weeks later), white police officers incited vigilantism on the part of white youths, telling them to “protect their neighborhoods” and raising the specter of Black militants (the Black Panthers) trying to “take over” York. Over time, a mob of armed white youths coalesced around the home of a white gang leader.

Lillie Bell Allen and her family unwittingly drove into this “ambush”. Many shots were fired in a short time.

York, a shocked and devastated city, somehow retreated into uneasy peace. There were no riots the next summer. No one was charged in either of the two riot deaths. Some people saw the outcome as a draw, one Black person and one white person dead. I don’t know if a comprehensive list of seriously injured people exists. Property damage, almost exclusively in African American neighborhoods, was extensive.

This was the city I moved to four years later.

What did I observe? I lived and worked in the City of York proper, not in a suburb. I saw de facto segregation in housing. (It seems to have been a feature of every place I lived until I reached Pomona, NJ.) I took an exercise class at the York YWCA. There was one black woman in a class of 30 or so women. There was noticeable poverty and considerable deteriorated housing. My church was located on the border of a dense urban neighborhood. All the attenders were white. Street crime seemed minimal. I heard ONE racial slur, from a blue collar, factory worker neighbor, but I also picked up less explicit white hostility. If there were gangs, they kept a low profile.

So whatever the racial situation was in York, I pretty much missed it. Two years is a short time to live in a community. I moved in a small orbit. It never occurred to me to go looking around outside of it.

Many years later, in 1999, the murder of Lillie Bell Allen attracted the attention of a young York County prosecutor. With very little information, the case was reopened (there is no statute of limitation on murder) and the murder was investigated. Many of the people involved were still living in York and the vicinity. Eleven men were charged, some with murder, others with lesser crimes There was one suicide. At least two men were sentenced to prison for second degree murder.

Additionally, two men were convicted of second degree murder in the death of Henry Schaad.

What did I learn by looking back on this? Hard to say. That the appearance of a community can be deceiving. That it takes a long time to understand what we now label as “white supremacy” and racism. That I still have a lot to learn.

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“Facing Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

The Napoleonic Wars seem to attract imaginative attention, being fictionalized by everyone from Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey and Maturin series, 20 volumes) to Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, see my blog entry of February 2, 2018). The site Goodreads offers a list of 135 novels set in that era, but the number of authors involved is much fewer. What makes the Napoleonic era so compelling? Anyone have a theory?

Mary Ann Trail’s recently published second book, Facing Enemies, is set in 1803. It begins in Dublin, but most of the action takes place in France.

And there’s plenty of action! This book is engaging and fast paced. The characters are well drawn, and the bad guys are REALLY bad. I had no trouble dashing through this book during a busy week. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. I hope there’s a sequel pending! Some of the characters are too good to leave behind.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Do you believe in magic? Do you like historical fiction? If you answer “yes” to either question, this book is for you. It falls into the oddball category of fantasy historical fiction.

The setting is England (mostly) during the Napoleonic Wars. A number of characters are historical figures, like the Duke of Wellington and members of the British royal family.

Despite the title, there are many more than two important characters in this book, and sometimes I had trouble keeping them straight. Some characters that seem minor become the focus of important plot twists.

The author has a “grand scale” imagination, creating a world in which the supernatural intersects with “ordinary” life. The plot is mostly an adventure story. The language is lively.

Unusual for a work of fiction, this book has footnotes! I skipped them because my e-reader is awkward, but you will enjoy the book more, I think, if you read them as you go along.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is long, but you couldn’t do better for a rainy weekend at the beach.