Tag Archives: segregation

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…

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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!

“Home: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

This book covers the same time period and follows the same characters as the author’s Gilead, which I wrote about on May 16, 2016. Same story, different perspective, but Robinson managed, once again, to surprise me.

The Boughton family has eight children. The sons receive the names of family and friends, but the daughters are named for theological concepts – Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory. Big message right there – men and women fill very different roles in life. Seven of the Boughton children fulfill their loving parents’ expectations and grow into responsible, productive and apparently happy adults.

But then there’s Jack… He never “fits in”, always defies expectations. He fathers a child out of wedlock, and leaves, abandoning the child, the mother (still almost a child herself), his family and the community of Gilead. His father is grieved, angry and guilt stricken. He focuses intensely on Jack, who has almost no contact with the family.

At the start of the book, Jack comes home. Home is told from the perspective of Glory, the youngest daughter, who returns to Gilead in the early 1950s at age 38, to care for her aging father, just before Jack finally returns. Glory had worked as a high school teacher. Her personal life included a long, long engagement to a man she lately learned was married. At 38, she is a sad, thoughtful woman.

The question posed by this book is whether any redemption is possible for Jack. At the end of the book, Jack is still suffering. It’s less clear whether he still causes others to suffer.

Next I will read Lila; another perspective, I believe, on this Midwestern American version of the prodigal son. I’ve started to read Robinson’s essays. Stay tuned!

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I won’t review this book. That has already been done by practically everyone. Amazon lists 8,318 customer reviews!

The publication history of Watchman is interesting. Harper Lee (now almost 90 years old) had said she never intended to publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. For the record, I agree that Mockingbird is one of the best American novels ever written.

Watchman is described as a first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, and it does have a slightly choppy, anecdotal quality. But I was hooked from the first pages. The characters are so vivid and distinctive! Lee is a wonderful narrator. Some people advised Harper Lee not to publish Watchman because it would somehow detract from the stature of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t feel that it did.

Watchman has become a favorite of book clubs and discussion groups, at this time when national dialog on race is very intense. What happens when 2015 consciousness is applied to a novel written in the 1950s? If you have participated, please share!

Check my blog entry dated March 12, 2015 for a reminiscence about my first look at To Kill a Mockingbird.