Tag Archives: racial justice

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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In honor of MLK Day (1) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

Silent No More

(The Murder of Lillie Belle Allen.)

First, the link above… an exceptional article.

What do I remember about York, PA? I lived there from 1973 to 1975, call it two years, my first two years after finishing college.

Why write about this? Because I just stumbled on a Facebook post pertaining to the “York race riots” of 1968 and 1969. I lived in York for TWO YEARS, only five years later, without know anything about this calamity. Without hearing a word about two people who died (Ms Allen, named above and a police officer named Henry Schaad) and the state of war that had existed between the police and government of York and its African American citizens. HOW DID I MISS THIS? And can I learn something from it now, almost 50 years later?

Why York, PA? What was I doing there? Why write about it now?

First I should explain that I “finished” college with two degrees, BS in Chemistry from Michigan State University in 1971 and MS in (Analytical) Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1973. I had graduated from high school in 1967, so you can tell I went through college in a straight line, four years for the BS and two more for the MS. But most of my summers were not devoted to study. I spent two summers working as a lifeguard (easy, but long hours), three summers traveling (8 glorious months, total!) and one summer on the Penn State campus, doing the laboratory work for my MS degree. I never returned to academe as a student.

Penn State was a great platform for job hunting, and 1973 was not a bad year for Chemistry graduates. I had numerous on campus interviews, traveled to visit some big name employers (like Dupont) and was invited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources to work in its Bureau of Air Quality at a district office in York. I accepted that offer.

For someone with my educational background, this was a career change, undertaken before I had a career. The first Earth Day, in 1970, while I was at Michigan State, had raised my conscious (or at least altered it) and I was less interested in the science of chemistry and more interested in its application to the problems of environmental pollution. Required, at Penn State, to choose among the traditional disciplines of Chemistry (organic, physical, analytical and inorganic), I focused on Analytical Chemistry, for two reasons.

  • I thought I could always count on getting a job in Quality Control, somewhere.
  • And I thought the Chemistry of pollutants would be interesting and relevant.

So, at Penn State, I learned that pollution was studied by engineers, and I took a few engineering courses. Very few. Two air pollution classes, and three or four single credit seminars in water pollution and solid waste management. This meager list qualified me as an “expert” in those early days of environmental regulation.

I’ve no idea why I was assigned by the Bureau of Air Quality to York. I didn’t look very closely at the City itself. The office was new, located in a shabby rental downtown, and very small. We peaked at one supervisor (very young), four air quality inspectors and two support staff.

The work had nothing at all to do with chemistry, and I was on a fast learning curve. We inspected factories, reviewed emissions inventories, investigated complaints of smoke and malodors and serviced a few simple air sampling devices. We kept records when the state sent its stack testing team to our area. We testified in court when we caught a polluter in the act. It was varied and interesting, and we felt we were fighting “the good fight”.

What about York? A friend of a friend was teaching at York Penn State. An apartment was available in the house where she lived. I moved in with my meager graduate student furnishings. Adult at last!

What did I think about York? Well, compared to what? Suburbia? The campus of a large public university? I was decisively an outsider in York. When I called about moving into the apartment in my friend’s house, the owner asked me to meet her at the mall. We had a cup of coffee, discussed the rent and my desire to paint the rooms, and made a deal. The landlady asked “Are you a teacher or a nurse?” I explained about being an air pollution inspector, but I don’t remember her reaction. I knew (but I can’t say how), that the meeting over coffee had been a color check. I was a “desirable” tenant.

Having watched the integration efforts in off campus housing at Michigan State, I was not surprised.

York was a shabby industrial city, with all kinds of manufacturing mixed into the neighborhoods of apartments, row houses and slightly nicer homes. A cement factory loomed over West York, slowly turning it to stone. (Not kidding.) An iron foundry operated on the east side of town. A national corporation produced sports equipment and 500 pound bombs just north of the city. (Again, not kidding.) A smelly old factory turned out asphalt roofing. What else? Potato chips, and (!) York Mints. Yes, you can still buy them. Where are they made today? In all, about 1000 industrial sources operated in my working territory. A few dozen qualified as major pollutors.

For me, every day was an adventure. I drove around York, Adams and Franklin counties, occasionally striking fear into polluters, who didn’t take their air pollution issues very seriously, and who hated being challenged by a young, female college graduate. I was ignored until the first “certified nastygram” arrived in a corporate office, threatening legal action. At most, fines of around $100 were levied, but business owners HATED to pay up.

If there was an obvious piece of the American social agenda unfolding around me, it pertained, not to race, but to workplace health and safety. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) had been enacted two years earlier (1971) and the first enforcement “pass” through York had been fierce. So when I walked in to enforce air pollution regulations, the reception was frosty. However, the experience of being inspected and judged (and occasionally dragged into court) by a young woman was so novel that most business managers, entirely perplexed, treated me with reasonable politeness. My male colleagues were hassled a bit more than me, but none of us was harmed. (I had one close call.)

The federal government was in the process of taking over or at least regulating occupational health and safety, and environmental protection. These were big, important changes with significant consequences. I observed that the factories I inspected were rather dangerous places.

To be continued…

Women’s March in Trenton (2)

If you read my previous post, you know why I passed on the big marches in DC and Philadelphia… Another reason to go to Trenton was to help out a friend who is currently “mobility impaired”. We decided to attend the rally in front of the State House.

When we arrived, I missed most of what the speaker was saying, due to the quirks of the microphone in the open air. We moved forward a little before the next speaker, an African American woman, began. I wish I could tell you her name. I’ll take the liberty of calling her Elder Sister. I believe she was 90+ years old. Elder Sister spoke about her experiences in Trenton as a young teenager. She integrated two businesses by refusing to cooperate with segregated arrangements. One was a hotdog stand, the other a movie theater. It was good to hear her recount her successes. She offered encouragement to continue the struggle for equality and justice. I wish the setting had offered a chance for us to learn more about her life.

I was reminded of another account by a young woman fighting against racism. This account comes from the writings of Maya Angelou, probably from her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’m giving you this from memory, having read the book within a few years of its publication in 1969. Maya Angelou went to live with her Grandmother in the deep South, and resented how meanly the white women in that town treated their hired housekeepers. One day she spoke up, told a woman she was unfair and that she wouldn’t work at that house any more. She returned home and, perhaps with pride (?), recounted the incident. Maya Angelou’s Grandmother took her immediately, before dark, to the train station and sent her away, back up north, for her safety.

Elder Sister and Maya Angelou were born around the same time. Their accounts differ, but I strongly suspect Trenton also resisted integration and other social changes. Maybe not as harshly as the rural South, but change can’t always have been as easy as Elder Sister’s brief discussion made it sound.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if these two women could have met, shared their experiences, poured out more advice for the younger generations! Maya Angelou, sadly, died in 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem NC. Wikipedia, in a LONG article, describes her as “…poet, memoirist and civil rights activist”. She recited poetry at the Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, received numerous prizes and was commemorated by the US Postal Service on a stamp.

What about Elder Sister? I don’t know! An account of her life story would be such a treasure. I expect she deserves awards and honors. All I can do is say THANK YOU here.

What a blessing to us all when wise women share their stories!

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.